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The best Lieder of all time

Leeds Lieder director Joseph Middleton picks out his top 10 Lieder – and their finest recordings to date

Joseph Middleton names best Lieder of all time

Britten: Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac

Britten was a song pianist whose colourful and visionary playing inspires most musicians working today. I love the recordings of him playing with Rostropovich, as well as those of him playing Schubert for his partner Peter Pears, in which it feels like he is composing someone else’s songs from the very heart of the piano textures. The theatrical scope and economy of means on display in Canticle II makes for a thrilling and very touching ten minutes of song.

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Recommended recording:

Peter Pears (tenor), Benjamin Britten (piano)
Decca

Fauré: 3 Songs: No. 3, Automne

Late Fauré in his darker mood is brilliant, and I love Elly Ameling singing Faure with her trademark precision and clarity. She is the president of Leeds Lieder, of which I am director, and has become a good friend, popping up to offer support at every concert I do at the Concertgebouw. Her warmth of character, good humour and fierce intellect is on evidence in everything she sings. Automne is relatively early, justly famous, and combines vehemence and cold indifference with the sweetest reverie in the middle section.

Recommended recording:

Elly Ameling: Icon
Warner Classics

Peterson-Berger: Intet är som väntanstider

In my first year at the Royal Academy of Music, I paired up with a Swedish soprano and immediately fell in love with her Scandinavian repertoire. I then found the voice of Söderström and devoured everything I could hear of hers, and later played recitals with Katarina Karnéus and Miah Persson, performing superb works by Gösta Nystrøm and Ture Rangstrøm. I think it must be the great un-mined repertoire.

Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg are probably my favourite duo on record. Total equals, and totally fearless. I love in this recording how you can revel in the high-end quality of their sound production, while also hearing them egg one another on and having enormous, virtuosic fun.

Recommended recording:

Anne Sofie von Otter (soprano), Bengt Forsberg (piano)
Deutsche Grammophon

Robert Schumann: Der Einsiedler

It seems that late Schumann is not quite as popular for artists and audiences as the big-hitters from his famous year of song in 1840, but I love the songs from 1850, some of which rarely make it onto a programme. The Eichendorff text for this song is one of my favourite. ‘Come, comfort of the world, quiet night’ it begins, followed by wonderfully evocative lines like ‘The years, like the clouds go by and leave me here in solitude.’

It is a strophic song, folklike, and looks like nothing much on the page. In a masterly performance, however, it takes on a spiritual, philosophical, hypnotic and hymnal quality that can be truly magical.

Recommended recording:

Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano)
RCA

Antonio de Literes: Acis y Galatea: Confiado jiguerillo

Confiado jiguerillo was the first song I played on the Wigmore Hall stage and was repertoire totally unknown to me until I studied in London. By a stroke of luck I won a competition that paired me up with Spanish mezzo, Clara Mouriz, for a series of recitals and BBC recordings. It was a baptism of fire for a pasty, reserved Brit to be thrown together with a glamorously temperamental, incredibly well-read Spaniard, but I slowly began to understand the culture, folklore and essence of this music. The queen of this repertoire must be de Victoria de los Ángeles for nobility of sound combined with heart.

Best recording:

Victoria de los Ángeles (soprano), Alicia de Lorrocha (piano)
Warner Classics

Debussy: Fêtes galantes: En sourdine

When performing Debussy songs, putting across the text and the shape of the French language is paramount to lifting his songs off the page, and he stitches the words into the very heart of his music in the most masterful and utterly unique way. The poem does not sit on top of his music: it becomes a new and indivisible cell whereby he creates a new organism of ‘words+music+singer+pianist’.

As a non-native, hearing the clarity with which soprano Suzanne Danco articulates consonants and sings such pure vowels makes for a masterclass in communicating the art of Debussy powerfully.

Recommended recording:

Suzanne Danco (soprano), Guido Agosti (piano)

Brahms: Schwesterlein

The voice of soprano Margaret Price does funny things to my soul. I can’t get enough of it, and in combination with the doyen of accompanists, Graham Johnson, the results are electric. Johnson has done more for the art of song than anyone else in my lifetime and his recordings, liner notes and books have shaped the way I think about poetry, music and song.

This recording of Brahms’s Schwesterlein displays such sincerity and imagination – as does their Schubert recording on Hyperion. A seemingly simple folksong becomes a whole world of human emotion.

Recommended recording:

Margaret Price (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)

Schoenberg: Erwartung

I bought a recording of Sarah Connolly and Iain Burnside performing Schoenberg’s Erwartung when I was a student and fell in love with Schoenberg‘s songs. I love how the early songs teeter on the edge of a new world. Echoes of Strauss and Mahler are there, but Klimt, Freud and the new heady romanticism in Vienna drench the songs in a new aesthetic.

Sarah Connolly’s singing on this disc is incredible, and never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that one day I’d make discs with her and travel to the world’s great concert halls to make music alongside such an artist.

Recommended recording:

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Iain Burnside (piano)

Bridge: Adoration

Baritone Thomas Allen has done more for my career than anyone else, talking me on tours to North America, inviting me to join him on his 70th-birthday tour of Schubert’s Winterreise, getting me an agent and being a friend to discuss poetry, our shared love of drawing, art, gardening and much more.

Malcom Martineau was my teacher at the Royal Academy of Music and introduced me to the joys of song. I wrote my MPhil Dissertation on Frank Bridge and I love his late works, particularly Oration and the Second Piano Trio. His song Adoration, performed here in a live Wigmore Hall concert to devastating effect, is a masterpiece to stand alongside anything in the Lieder canon.

Recommended recording:

Thomas Allen (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Wolf: Ganymed

In this boxset of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is word painting so vivid and so electric, combined with a pianistic virtuosity that I’ve rarely encountered in song accompaniment. I imagine many of these songs were recorded in one take, because they have the feeling of live, spontaneous music-making.

The colour Daniel Barenboim coaxes out of the piano shows a conductor steeped in both Wagner and the post-Wagner era. The song has enormous architectural challenges for the artists, particularly the middle section in this recording, where the drama moves from an earthly plane to something divine. Here though, you hear music-making of extraordinary tenderness, coached in an electric nervousness that later erupts in a mini Liebestod.

Recommended recording:

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Daniel Barenboim (piano)

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Leeds Lieder’s 10th anniversary festival runs from 17-20 June 2021 at Leeds Town Hall. Full programme here.