Elaborate respect was paid to poets as well as composers in this opening concert of the Leeds Lieder Festival, which becomes more sumptuous every time it occurs, this time with the ferociously accomplished and ever-charming Roderick Williams as its Artistic Director. His first song was Sea Fever, John Masefield’s famous poem in the lento setting by John Ireland which the poet disliked, considering it to be dirge-like, but which Williams enlivened and dignified in a finely-nuanced, subtle performance, every word valued, diction crystal clear. It was a sign of what was to come, but the concert was opened with a poem - Robert Frost’s Neither Out Far Nor In Deep, with its appropriate opening lines “The people along the sand/ All turn and look one way./ They turn their back on the land./ They look at the sea all day.” performed by Rory Kinnear, who also values every carefully-enunciated word. I have met poets who hate the way actors deal with what they write (hopefully not preferring unprojected mumbling) because it sounds somehow insincere, too much like a drama school exercise. So how sincere were the brilliant practitioners in the concert, or how well could they fake sincerity? Difficult!

Roderick Williams © Benjamin Ealovega
Roderick Williams
© Benjamin Ealovega

One key to an answer could be in the extent to which the well-known is made appealingly new: Mark Padmore was certainly moving and of the moment with Shakespeare’s Full fathom five thy father lies in Michael Tippett’s setting, and his carefully calculated treatment of Brahms’s Meerfahrt (Lake Journey) was wholly convincing, from the early excitements to the agonized desolation of the ending, an ending which matched the melodrama of the preceding poem – Tennyson’s The Kraken: Kinnear built gradually to forte, giving the final line (“In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die”) tremendous force. Meerfahrt was followed fittingly by another Brahms, Die Meere (The Seas) – a barcarolle duet in a romantic section of the programme, a sign of the compiler’s intelligent positioning.

Williams was as remarkably versatile as ever, moving on swiftly from a deeply sensitive treatment of Elgar’s Sea slumber song, which is usually taken by a mezzo, to Schubert’s Der Schiffer (The Sailor), in which he was absolutely wide-awake. He became the sailor in a boat on a wild sea, and when he reached the concluding lines he was as bracing as the wind on the beach at Skegness: “o himmliche lust,/ Dem Sturme zu trotzen mit männliche Brust” (Oh heavenly joy,/ To defy the storm with manly courage.) Sometimes Kinnear’s dutiful attention to the meanings of the words and his searching for empathic moments in the poems was a little irritating, a little over-completed: an extract from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner was too laden with pauses for my taste. He was very good when itemizing, as in Elizabeth Bishop’s I caught a tremendous fish, impressive in Stevie Smith’s Not waving but drowning and he extracted every ounce of meaning and more from Emily Dickinson’s Wild nights, wild nights – no mean feat. His supreme moments came towards the end of the concert in an earnest and straight-faced rendering of Edward Lear’s The Jumblies, which I have heard several times read ineffectually, usually in a kind of sub-Ken Dodd voice. Here, the repeated line “And they went to sea in a Sieve” was funny every time. Williams followed this with Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s setting of The Owl and the Pussycat, which turned into a final duet. By this stage, I for one was convinced that all the performers were sincere enough for my liking, and I have never doubted Williams anyway.

It was not the end, though. To general surprise, Julius Drake, the stalwart pianist, stood to sing Shenandoah beautifully with the others in a quartet. It left the audience in a happy and buoyant mood for the rest of the festival over the weekend. Things are looking up for Leeds Lieder. What the visionary Jane Anthony founded now has the young and energetic Joseph Middleton as its Director, work with schools is increasing, there is increased funding from the Arts Council, and the next festival will begin in a year’s time, on 21 April 2017.