Review: Ryedale Festival, An Italian Songbook, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, July 16

THE 46 songs of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook can rarely have sounded as immediate and topical as they did in this semi-staged version devised by Jeremy Sams and Christopher Glynn. The slightly stilted German of over a century ago emerged in colloquial English as if freshly minted, at the hands of five singers whose theatrics matched their voices.

First, however, a special word for Glynn, whose piano provided vivid and intelligent commentary unceasingly over a 75-minute span. The songs deal with love in all its guises. Time and again we were able to anticipate amatory emotions from the keyboard cues Glynn provided. He simplified the singers’ task immensely.

Sams and his co-director Louise Shephard introduced shades of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte into their narrative: Roderick Williams played the role of mediating philosopher Don Alfonso. His firm, warm baritone radiated reassurance, as he cajoled the other two men into courage with the fairer sex, before finally lamenting his own solitude once he had seen them successfully paired off.

We needed no printed texts. What the piano did not tell us became rivetingly clear from the singers’ expressions, both facial and vocal. Rowan Pierce, in particular, sported a witty variety of faces to match her fluent soprano, closely rivalled by her moodier, mezzo colleague Katie Bray. Nicky Spence (tenor) and James Newby (baritone) successfully won through the ladies’ disdain to provide the happy ending we all hoped for. Martin Dreyer