Lieder among wo/men: Carolyn Sampson, Roderick Williams & Joseph Middleton in concert

At this year’s Leeds Lieder festival, I finally got to see – for the first time – a form of classical recital I’d been thinking, and even occasionally writing, about for some time: one that behaved like a rock concert. Fitting, then, that we were surprised, amused, shaken up and energised. But was it a glimpse into the future?

Actually, we have to rewind a little into the past to see where this started. Leeds Lieder 2020 should have a concert devised by baritone Roderick Williams, soprano Carolyn Sampson and pianist Joseph Middleton, called ‘He Sings, She Sings, They Sing, You Choose’. Its aim was to examine the gender divide in art song: why do certain art songs seem to ‘belong’ to men, or women – or do they? Does swapping gender in performance make any difference, and if so, should it? Additionally, the onstage trio would, for at least some of the concert, take ‘requests’ from the audience that would help explore this a little further.

Of course, it didn’t happen last year. But the artists involved have nonetheless managed to keep the theme current, alive. When Wigmore Hall staged some online-only concerts last summer, Williams and Middleton performed a programme called ‘Woman’s Hour’, clearly borne from the original concept but now without the ‘both sides’ element. Instead, Williams chose some repertoire that he’d wanted to perform but which clearly had a female ‘voice’ – examples being Schubert’s ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ and the R Schumann cycle ‘Frauenliebe und Leben’, the latter particularly controversial thanks to its ‘bloke’s eye view’ of womanhood.

Then, earlier this year, Sampson and Middleton released the superb ‘Album für die Frau’, a disc that cleverly dismantled and augmented ‘Frauenliebe und Leben’ by adding further material from both Schumanns. The effect was to release its protagonist from the sequence’s stranglehold and paint a speculative wider portrait of the musical match between Clara and Robert. It’s a fascinating, beautiful listen – you can read my write-up for ArtMuseLondon here.

Fortunately, the 2021 Leeds Lieder festival went ahead (in line with all the necessary safety measures) and the Concert That Would Not Die took pride of place as the closing event. As I said, there were some rock concert vibes surrounding this. Essentially, we had no idea what we were about to witness. We had received a note with a list of some 30 songs – these were the selections available on the ‘human jukebox’, so that when that part of the concert came round, we could put our hands up to ask for our favourite number. We also knew we would be hearing a new work, ‘Rosalind’, by Hannah Kendall. But apart from that, there was no information about what we would hear, when we would hear it, or who would sing it. There was a real sense of anticipation in the auditorium (venue: Leeds Town Hall), and I’m quietly confident that the highly selective information management beforehand contributed to this.

What we got was some kind of a tour-de-force, with exactly the right trio to carry the concept off at this point in time. Sampson and Williams, both so brightly communicative, compered naturally and humorously for each other, putting across their linking ideas and explanations to the audience, then moving in and out of character from song to song without ever making us doubt their sincerity and commitment. The frighteningly versatile Middleton seemed unruffled, even though his iPad must have been full to bursting with scores for the songs he may or may not have to play.

So fertile was the ground, however, that the concert started to stretch towards epic proportions. I’ll try to give an idea of the issues I felt were touched on (with apologies if I misremember or omit anything):

  • Challenging gender ‘ownership’ – should it matter if men and women sing each other’s ‘roles’ in art song? (Here Sampson sang excerpts from ‘Die schöne Müllerin’, and Williams reprised parts of the Schumann.)
  • Swapping gender roles (using a short selection of Brahms lieder as test cases) to shift the balance of power in romantic – or possibly threatening – situations.
  • Expressing ‘forbidden’ sexuality through art song.
  • Calibrating gender in real-world performance: is gender-blindness about anyone singing anything, or about redressing an imbalance – should men ‘take’ songs from women?
  • Examining gender fluidity, through Kendall’s arresting new song cycle, based on texts by Sabrina Mahfouz describing non-binary emotions and impulses with great power. The settings created by Kendall complemented the words by crossing other boundaries: taking the performers out of ‘song’ altogether and into wordless vocalising, sighing, audible breathing. Sounds largely alien to art song intruded: splashes of harmonica (Sampson’s blues debut!), along with customised music boxes punctuating the sparse piano.
  • Amplifying the female voice, through contemporary women composers’ settings of contemporary women poets: Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s ‘The Pros and Cons’, from poems by Sophie Hannah; Helen Grime’s ‘Council Offices’, from the collection ‘Bright Travellers’ by Fiona Benson. The first of these is a sharp, observational portrait of a woman tackling that nightmare decision: do I call him (again) yet… or not? While the second is an uncompromising examination of a remembered miscarriage. It’s hard to credit the contrasts and range of character and mood asked of Sampson here in such a short space of time, but she held the entire audience silent and spellbound.

At this point, the performers activated the ‘jukebox’ as an extended encore. Williams was asked to perform two absolute signature English songs, Britten’s ‘The foggy, foggy dew’ and Butterworth’s ‘Loveliest of trees’, while Sampson obliged with Schumann’s ‘Röselein, Röselein’ and – to my particular delight – one of the highlights of her ‘Verlaine Songbook’ CD with Middleton, Debussy’s ‘Green’.

Finally, we closed with some unabashed showbiz, as Sampson and Williams duelled in a special version of ‘Anything you can do…’ sending up both themselves, and in a wry way, the concept of the evening, which had made the forceful argument that anyone should feel free to sing or perform ‘outside’ their own personal biology or experience.

(Photo is copyright Justin Slee Photography, as shown on the Leeds Lieder website.)

I had an absolute blast at this concert. The rock fan in me was totally at home with the absence of a pre-announced programme, the unpredictability, the likelihood the gig over-ran, the lack of interval. Even if some of the hardcore classical audience were jolted by the random elements (and there’s no evidence they particularly were), compared to some of the rock gigs I’ve been to, this was a masterclass in precision and discipline.

For all that, I suspect that this will be a pilot, and that the trio will fine-tune and revive it. Each of the topics listed above could sustain a recital by itself, so why not a mini-season? I also think there’s a great radio series in this, taking advantage of Sampson and Williams as witty, erudite presenters as well as performers.

The jukebox element is also a winning format in itself. It appears to have started life as part of the gender-swap experiment, with the prospect of choosing your request without knowing which of the two might sing it – but clearly its potential is wider, with the audience understandably quite content just to ask for a favourite song and hear it live, straightaway.

But I’d also venture that even without the jukebox idea, I would support more classical concerts where the musicians have complete freedom, whether to construct an unorthodox programme, mix up the ‘set-list’ every evening, or focus on a specific corner of their repertoire.

I am at ease with the relationship between the artists and me being one of trust and anticipation, rather than expectation: I am a fan, and I want to see where they take me.

AA

Recorded livestreams of all the Leeds Lieder 2021 Festival events are available up to 18 July, through the Leeds Town Hall website page: https://www.leedstownhall.co.uk/whats-on/

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