Christopher Maltman and Joseph Middleton, The Soldier: from Severn to Somme, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Thursday 22nd November 2018

THIS thought provoking programme of 20 songs from the 19th and 20th centuries traced the mythical soldier’s journey from boyhood awakening in idyllic Edwardian rural England to early death at the 1916 Battle of the Somme.

Acclaimed English baritone Christopher Maltman is celebrated as much for his interpretation of Lieder as for his intensely physical - sometimes shirtless - portrayals of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Gluck’s Oreste and Britten’s Billy Budd.

The focus was on the words and music in the warmth and intimacy of Opera North’s splendid mahogany barrel-vaulted Howard Assembly Room. Maltman, sensitively partnered at the piano by Leeds Lieder director Joseph Middleton, projected the tiniest nuances of atmosphere and mood.

The expressive range and richness of Maltman’s voice was evident from the opening notes of George Butterworth’s setting of Houseman’s poem Loveliest of Trees. In this song, the poet wistfully recalls seasonal changes from the blossom on the trees to the cherries hung with winter snows. Ivor Gurney’s Black Stitchel recounts the poet’s thoughts on life and love as the wind blows on a Northumberland Hill. The gung-ho tone of Charles Ives’ He is There! made for an arresting contrast. Mussorgsky’s Polkovodec (Commander in Chief) graphically describes the horrors of battle and its desolate aftermath. Perhaps the most affecting song was Schumann’s setting of Hans Christian Andersen’s Der Soldat in which a soldier is forced to execute his court martialled commanding officer. In the haunting Butterworth song Is My Team Ploughing? the ghost of a dead soldier’s questioning of his living friend becomes ever more poignant.

Maltman’s humanity and his genius for telling a story shone through this wonderful recital. Joseph Middleton’s spectrum of tonal colours matched every dramatic nuance. Clearly, singer and pianist were as one.

Geoffrey Mogridge