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The most exciting Festival yet: Joseph Middleton on Leeds Lieder 2023

As he prepares to bring recitals, masterclasses and events to venues in and around Leeds over this year’s extended nine-day Festival, pianist and Leeds Lieder Director Joseph Middleton picks out some highlights taking place here in the Howard Assembly Room at Opera North – and in our restaurant, Kino.

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“Performing in, and listening to, recitals at the Howard Assembly Room has become one of each season’s great joys for me ever since I began working at Leeds Lieder. My suitcase has had a lot of action these past few months, as I lug it from city to city, and despite the diary being packed with fantastic halls, from Wigmore, to the Berlin Philharmonic, Tokyo’s Oji Hall, Lisbon’s Gulbenkian and Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie to name a few, I can hand on heart say that the jewel that is the HAR remains one of my favourite venues. It is the perfect size for a song recital, the acoustic is fantastic for the human voice, the piano is always kept in superb condition, and the audience is one of the warmest and most knowledgeable around. It is a real pleasure to perform there.

It’s also a special hall for the audience too, and so as listeners, I would urge you to come to the many and varied treats Leeds Lieder has programmed for our 2023 Festival.

I can’t wait to hear Mark Padmore – Lieder royalty, and a real favourite of Leeds audiences – open the Festival with a typically wide-ranging recital. I always learn something new attending one of Mark’s concerts and this programme really does have something for everyone. The Schumann first half includes the remarkable Hans Christian Andersen songs (these are not fairy tales I’d be reading to my children!) and one of the pinnacles of German Romanticism, his Eichendorff Liederkreis. The song Mondnacht, that sits at the centre of this cycle, must rate as one of the most beautiful songs ever written. After the interval, I’ll look forward to hearing songs by Tansy Davies and Sally Beamish, both of which are new to me, as well as Frank Bridge’s Journey’s End. Bridge is one of my favourite composers and I can’t understand why he is still so neglected.

On Saturday 10 June we welcome Peter Brathwaite and Allyson Devenish to the HAR. I’m sure many of you will have been listening to Peter on Radio 4, and reading his fascinating articles in The Guardian. Peter is a Leeds Lieder Trustee, as well as renowned singer. During lockdown he began making the most beautiful images using props from around his home, to reimagine portraits of black sitters. These intriguing recreations now form a book and for his event in Leeds Peter will project images onto the back wall of the HAR, and introduce them and illuminate them with songs. I would put this event as one of the ‘do not miss’ events of the Festival! Come and be challenged, delighted, and moved.

An image from Peter Brathwaite's series Rediscovering Black Portraiture © Peter Brathwaite

My good friend and superstar soprano Louise Alder joins us straight from tours with the Berlin Philharmonic, and successes in opera across the globe. She is a thrilling companion on stage, and no wonder audiences love her, with that extraordinary instrument, megawatt smile and fearless stage presence. Recitals with her are some of the most satisfying I enjoy. In opera she is one of most famous Mozartians of her generation, so we thought we’d include some of his songs in her recital. After the interval we’ll perform some Sibelius. These songs are still not so often performed, but my goodness they are fun to play.

For the first time we have programmed an electro-acoustic recital, so after Louise’s performance you’ll find me in the bar at Kino listening to Lotte Betts-Dean. She is one of the most adventurous recitalists to emerge in recent years and having worked with her at Aldeburgh I know we are in for an hour of colourful and thoughtful music making. Any event where one is encouraged to sit with a pint while listening to music at the same time gets my vote.

Leeds Lieder has always been about more than just world-class artists giving recitals, and so on the Sunday our audience has the chance to enjoy a walking trail around Kirkstall Abbey that blends music, nature and mental health. SongPath returns to Leeds Lieder after our successful collaboration last year, and Jess Dandy (who performed in the Festival so movingly with Martin Roscoe recently) joins Joanna Harries to lead this event that connects music, poetry, art and science.

I’m a fan of a Yorkshire Pudding, a Fat Rascal and a pint of Tetley’s, but for my money the greatest export from Yorkshire has to be Dame Janet Baker. Anyone who has seen me consume a beef roast dinner complete with homemade Yorkshire pud, will know that this is the highest compliment I can offer up. She is the finest of artists: a true intellectual and the kind of singer that other singers hold in the highest regard, and listen to in wonder. Her humanity and lifelong quest to get to the truth of everything she sings is a constant inspiration to those of us who have a similar interest in music. In a rare public interview, it really is a such an honour to welcome Dame Janet to Leeds Lieder once again. She will discuss her work as a recitalist with John Bridcut before we screen his moving portrayal of her.

Schubert remains the benchmark against which all other song composers are compared. He invented the form as we know it and expressed the human condition like no other composer before or since. I certainly feel that I owe this Austrian a huge amount because his art has enriched my life in inexplicable ways. His genius lies in the way he can turn a modest, intimate, purposefully small form into the most profound utterance, often over the course of a couple of pages of music. Without doubt the greatest authority on Schubert song currently appearing before the public is Graham Johnson, proudly also one of our Patrons. Graham’s way of combining sharp intellect with a probing thoughtfulness makes his lecture recitals so fascinating. We celebrate the 200th anniversary of Die schöne Müllerin with Graham. I cannot wait to learn something new about a cycle I’ve played often and studied for years.

From Monday 12 June to the end of the Festival (17th June), we decamp to our friends at Leeds Conservatoire. Fans of Opera North will have the opportunity to hear Nick Pritchard (a standout star in the recent Alcina) alongside Head of Music David Cowan and the Opera North String Quartet in a celebration of Vaughan Williams (Thursday 15th June, 1pm), and we welcome star performers such as Veronique Gens, Sir Simon Keenlyside, Ailish Tynan, Christine Rice, Kate Royal and Julius Drake, and James Newby as well as masterclasses from favourites including Sir Thomas Allen and Joan Rodgers. Please do come in your droves! This is without doubt the most exciting Festival we’ve mounted”.

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