May 25, 2024

James Newby & Joseph Middleton – Live in Leeds 2024 – “powerfully controlled singing”

Hyde Park Book Club, Leeds        17th April 2024

The promoters, through the noise, are enjoying mixing things up for a gently punked version of the classics – from a classical cellist playing South African music to Senegalese traditional melodies (featuring a giant pumpkin) to tonight’s Lieder recital. Not that radical a selection of music this evening but it is in a cellar more used to garage bands like The Wave Pictures. Mhaol or Holiday Ghosts. A disused petrol station now home to a hipster bar / venue / club, tonight’s room is where the fuel tanks were and how they got a huge and gorgeous Shigeru Kawai grand piano down there is a mystery; it’s certainly the most beautiful looking and sounding instrument the club has ever seen.

Part of the Leeds Lieder Festival, a celebration of the formalised song form, this edges it a little with a number of adaptations of English folk songs and edges it further with the choice of setting. For all that, it is a showcase for some beautiful singing and playing. James Newby is a young but increasingly established baritone with a lovely clear upper register, which he shows off at various points. He’s sung a number of opera roles including Purcell and Britten, reinforcing the British connection. Long time collaborator, Joseph Middleton, has a strong reputation for his work with singers as distinguished as Felicity Lott and Thomas Allen. Together, they make for a creatively focused unit.

The setting pushes James Newby into some impressive swearing that wouldn’t go down the same in the more salubrious venues of the Lieder Festival but doesn’t faze anyone as he discusses the wankery he is going to display and encourages himself not to “fuck it up”. He even gets to wear trainers and a workwear jacket instead of the usual dinner jacket and dickie bow. The audience, a mix of music students from the local Conservatoire and older classical fans lap up the strange setting, though some, like me, might have found seventy minutes of standing still, without the usual shuffling about of a rock concert, a challenge.

The repertoire was eclectic and very well-judged, from the traditional Scarborough Fair, The Turtle Dove, O Waly Waly (a lovely highlight), Black Is The Colour Of My True Love’s Hair and on into Percy Grainger’s setting of Willow Willow. Along the way we were introduced to Ravel’s settings of Greek lyrics that, Newby assures us, were knocked off by the composer in a couple of days for a lecture tour. Some Mahler, Schumann and Suder is more what I was expecting and pleases in the adolescent angst of the lyrics, gently mocked by Newby in his introductions.

The highlight for me was a powerfully controlled singing of Hector Macneil’s poem, My Luve’s In Germanie. Heartbreakingly simple in its approaching tragedy, it is universal in emotion and could as easily be about the trenches of Flanders as the eighteenth century war it refers to. The pair encore with Sting’s Fields Of Gold, here given a simple and affecting rendition.

The evening has flashed by, with powerfully controlled singing, highlighting the feeling through understatement. There is no doubt that this voice, with the very subtle sound reinforcement the room required, is a special instrument that was a treat to be exposed to. Equally, the piano was at all points unobtrusive but always there, providing the other expressive voice.

I’m enjoying the series of events through the noise have put on so far in Leeds – each different but consistent in the interest they pique.

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