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"The heart of the matter"

Elizabeth Llewellyn MBE on her Howard Assembly Room concert

Just days after the end of her celebrated run as Prima Donna/Ariadne in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, Elizabeth Llewellyn MBE will be back with us for a more intimate performance, ranging from songs by Strauss to lesser-known selections from the work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Her concert in the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, on Tuesday 28 March will celebrate our late benefactor, Dr Keith Howard OBE.

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“It’ll be really satisfying for me to revisit that kind of singing and music making”, says the soprano as she looks forward to returning to her partnership with “superstar” pianist Simon Lepper. “As an opera singer I guess part of my skill in this sort of recital is in learning how to choose from my toolbox to deliver a particular composer’s style, but in miniature – and truthfully; with my voice.

“If audience members have been to Ariadne, they’ll hear a very different Strauss in the songs here. That’s an interesting thing to hold in your mind: that they were written around the same time as the opera, but – apart from harmonically and in the beautiful long lines – I don’t recognise Ariadne in any of them. They show a different side to the way that he viewed the world, the thoughts or the poetry that captured his imagination: you gain something much more personal from the songs”.

Elizabeth Llewellyn as Prima Donna in Ariadne auf Naxos. Photo credit Richard H Smith

The evening will begin with a selection of songs by Coleridge-Taylor drawn from the 2021 album that she recorded with Lepper, Heart & Hereafter. Llewellyn hopes that the programme as a whole will give an idea of the context in which he was writing, his influences – and his artistry.

“It’s interesting how our history, like any country’s, tends to be a bit selective”, she says. “Coleridge-Taylor was slap-bang in the middle of a huge British renaissance of music and creativity at the turn of the century, he wasn’t on the edges. But we’ve only really rediscovered him over the last few years”.

He had been so neglected, in fact, that putting together the album involved digging through manuscripts in the British Library: “I discovered that he was a prolific song composer – and actually a really good one with a very distinctive voice. And I wanted to shine a light on his vocal output, which is huge, but apart from The Song of Hiawatha, which people of a certain vintage have sung at school and heard in choral societies, it doesn’t get heard.

“I’ve showcased 25 of his songs on the album, and I’ll be singing a handful at the Howard Assembly Room, which I hope will give people a taste of who he was. ‘Tears’, for example, tells the story of the breakdown of a relationship from the point of view of someone who’s been abandoned. It is so beautiful, so delicate, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and the way it’s been scored for piano and voice really does illuminate the text. It’s heartfelt and tender, and for the audience it’s almost as if a window has opened onto someone’s very private thoughts. That’s very special, and his skill in writing for this very specific medium gives you an idea of just how great a composer Coleridge-Taylor was.

“He felt that Brahms was something of a revolutionary, which to our 21st century ears sounds a bit absurd! But when we listen to the three Brahms Lieder that follow, there is so much going on underneath the surface in the way they’ve been crafted for the piano and its interaction with the voice. I think Coleridge-Taylor was very admiring of that daring to be simple: not gilding the lily, but stripping away all of the all of the dross and really getting to the heart of the matter.

“There are two Songs from Leinster by Charles Villiers Stanford, who taught Coleridge-Taylor composition at the Royal College of Music. They have a distinctively Irish flavour, and I think it’s also quite interesting to buttress them alongside his pupil’s work.

“From my research I discovered that Coleridge-Taylor admired Puccini for his sense of colour, and we’ll hear that in some Puccini songs from which the big operatic numbers were born. ‘Sogno d’or’ is the big Act II ensemble from La rondine. That sort of seascape which you hear a lot in La rondine is also very present in the two pages of ‘Terra e mare’. It’s a short song, but you get a flavour of Puccini’s sense of colour, and you can see the attraction for Coleridge-Taylor: it’s why we love Puccini’s operas.

“I’ll be honest: the second half of the programme is really me showing off! We’ll hear a bit more of Coleridge-Taylor, swooping out of the interval with Six Sorrow Songs, which are quite arresting. And then to the Strauss songs: three that I haven’t sung for a long time, ‘Einerlei’, ‘Nachtgang’ and ‘Ständchen’. It’s very nice to go back to them and to enjoy how he uses the piano and how it really fits like a glove with the voice. It’s also satisfying to get back into that sonority, not singing ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ in Ariadne, but singing about a night walk. It’s right at the bottom of the voice but I don’t use my voice in the same way as I would at the beginning of Act II of Ariadne: it’s very contained, intimate; very worshipful. And that requires a very different vocal colour from anything I’m singing in Ariadne.

“With the sort of the sort of operatic repertoire that I sing there’s a lot to get my teeth into with the Strauss and the Verdi. It’s interesting that although the Verdi songs are not arias, they have the big emotions, the flourishes that we find in his operas.

“I’ve known Simon Lepper almost since the very beginning of my career, but it wasn’t until the last few years that we’ve begun to work together more regularly, on the album, our Wigmore Hall concerts and other engagements. It’s a real gift because he is someone at the top of his game. We’re pretty much the same age, we share a sense of humour and a lot of interests outside music, and as much as anything I think that helps to establish an unspoken trust: if he does something new, I can trust that he is serving the music. And if I do something new I can trust that he will rally and go with it, and I think you really need that for the magic to happen”.

The recital will celebrate the life of Dr Keith Howard OBE, President of Opera North, and a philanthropist of exceptional vision and generosity. The Howard Assembly Room was named after him in recognition of his major donations to the Transformation project, and in 2018 Dr Howard made a personal donation of more than £11 million towards Opera North’s Music Works project, enabling the completion of this major redevelopment. He passed away in August 2021, only weeks before the opening of the new facilities that he was instrumental in creating, and which were named the Howard Opera Centre in his honour.

Elizabeth Llewellyn and Simon Lepper perform a concert in celebration of Dr Keith Howard OBE in the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds at 7.30pm on Tuesday 28 March.

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