It was hard to choose from the fascinating menu for The Composer’s Echo (the title for this Leeds Lieder Festival), which is described as “a feast of song from the great Western European tradition which fuses poetry and music” by the festival’s director, Jane Anthony. The opening concert – “Eine Nacht in Venedig: A Serenade to Serenissima” – was an inspiring starter which celebrated the seductively mysterious aspects of Venice in a pot pourri of songs and ensembles by composers from Monteverdi and Vivaldi onwards. Having been seduced by the city very recently and become tuned in to the general concern that its mysteries might soon be swallowed by the rising waters of the Adriatic, I was particularly interested in finding what has been fixed forever in the canon.

Graham Johnson © Clive Barda
Graham Johnson
© Clive Barda

Graham Johnson, one of the world’s leading vocal accompanists and the festival’s artistic director, provided an introduction to the recital and the whole weekend’s events which was presented with such elegance that it could almost be put on a level with the concert itself. He spoke about how European ideas on the performance of songs – whether in a recital, or a complete cycle, or around a family piano – had changed in the last century or so, and described the Venetian programme he had created as “a highly planned pot pourri”, just in case anybody might think that he had dipped into the tub at random. His flowers were selected with great care from the chosen garden, all the songs fitting together perfectly in terms of tempo, key and allusions – he knows the pleasure that cross-referencing brings – and his quartet of young singers was matchless.

Shakespeare’s words from The Merchant of Venice “I am never merry when I hear sweet music” were the concert’s motto, featuring in a piece from Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, but the initial poetic fervour was provided beautifully by lyric tenor Benjamin Hulett, who gave us Monteverdi’s Ardo e scoprir (“I burn yet cannot reveal”). The quartet’s delivery of a few bars from Vivaldi’s Magnificat was pleasantly stimulating, like a shot of espresso, and the scene and barcarolle from the Rossini version of Otello which followed was enchanting, with soprano Martha Guth as Desdemona and mezzo Anna Huntley as her maid Emilia. The scene was continued after Schubert’s Gondelfahrer, to be followed by Schumann’s setting of a German translation of Venetian Air, a poem in two parts by the early 19th-century Irish singer and songwriter Thomas Moore. Johann Strauss was fitted in between the two parts with the title piece, taken from Eine Nacht in Venedig, and it was a high point, pure bubbly fun, like drinking the best local prosecco: “Alle maskiert, alle maskiert / Wo Spass und wo Tollheit und Lust regiert!” (“All masked... When jest, madness and desire hold sway!”). The role-playing abilities of the singers were impressive, used to the full in Rossini’s La regatta veneziana, in which the men made a dramatic exit, to return moments later as if tipsy, one wearing a gondolier’s boater. In fact the recital was rather like a play split into two acts, a play with lines which are sometimes famous, sometimes little-known.

There was no well-pronounced Hochdeutsch in the second half, in which the French language dominated. Graham Johnson relishes the language-learning opportunities provided by songs, mentioning in his introduction the benefits of plunging young pupils into new cultural dimensions, for example by getting them to sing Der Erlkönig in a first German lesson. Possibly the most famous piece was the barcarolle from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann – which had the entire audience smiling. Apparently, this was playing in the first-class saloon of the Titanic just as it struck the iceberg, but there were no intruding thoughts of impending tragedy on this occasion. Martha Guth used Gounod’s setting of Alfred de Musset’s Venise as an opportunity to display her considerable range of talents, and continued with the amorous breezes in a duet with the similarly gifted Anna Huntley in a setting by Massenet of de Musset’s Souvenir de Venise.

Two opera extracts – from Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress – were included because they had their premières in Venice at La Fenice. Noël Coward’s Last Wednesday on the Piazza was set to music by the young composer James Lark especially for the recital, and it was given a special place near the end, which turned out to be fully justified, notes serving wit precisely. The concert provided a fine start for the Leeds Lieder Festival.

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