Review: Daniel Kidane – Songs of Illumination

Each year, the Leeds Lieder Festival brings together a number of composers and performers to celebrate a variety of songs and poetry in many languages. This year’s festival ran from 19-22 April and on Sunday 22 I had the opportunity to hear the world premiere of Songs of Illumination, three of Blake’s poems set to music by Daniel Kidane.

Kidane, who describes himself as a British composer of mixed heritage (his mother is Russian, his father Eritrean), has attracted considerable attention as one of four young composers who was selected last year to represent the UK in Portugal as part of the Year of British Music. Having previously studied at the Royal College of Music, London, and the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, as well as studying violin and composition privately in Saint Petersburg, he is currently reading for a doctoral degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He has indicated a strong interest in developing multicultural aspects within British classical composition (including, for example, bringing elements of grime and jungle into his music), and his previous engagements have involved working with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra (for Sirens, in April 2018) and Dream Song, performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall this year.

For the Leeds Lieder Festival, his premiere was one of a three-part series performed by Ian Tindale on piano and the wonderful tenor, Nick Pritchard, who I’ve previously seen perform at Southwell Minster. As well as Kidane’s Songs of Illumination, Tindale and Pritchard offered a collection of songs by Robert Schumann, Liederkreis, and Benjamin Britten’s Winter Words, settings by Britten of Thomas Hardy’s final collection of poetry.

As Schumann was the first selection to be performed, this did lead my expectations in a slightly different direction, as I began to wonder whether Kidane was included in this selection as someone deciding to dabble with Romanticism in musical styles as well as choice of lyrics. The main piece of music I’d heard before by Kidane – Sirens, which takes its inspiration from Shakespeare’s Sonnets – was not necessarily a clear guide in this respect, mixing contemporary dance rhythms with more obvious contemporary classical inspiration. In the end, it was Schumann who was the odd person out in this concert, with Britten’s powerful dissonances offering a closer guide to the Kidane’s three pieces.

Although there was no indication in the programme, it seemed more than possible to me that Kidane was invoking at some level Britten’s 1965 Songs & Proverbs of William Blake. Another collection of pieces for piano and voice (admittedly baritone rather than tenor), the deep, rumbling tensions of Britten’s opening proverb found its echo in the first of Kidane’s songs, Blake’s “A Dream”. Likewise, in “The Little Black Boy” (a song rarely set to music by classical – as opposed to popular – composers), Pritchard thrillingly expressed Kidane’s rhythms in a fashion that brought to mind songs such as Britten’s setting of “The Tyger”, creating an underlying anxiety and sombre tone that seems to be (from reviews I’ve read of Dream Song) a theme elsewhere in his work at the moment.

The biggest surprise for me was “The Land of Dreams”. Taken from the Pickering Manuscript, this is not a poem that is widely anthologised, although Donald Fitch’s Blake Set to Music indicates that it has been used by more than half a dozen composers, including Nigel Butterley and Alec Rowley. What was particularly exceptional for me in this choice was that it demonstrated a deeper appreciation of Blake’s work than I had expected: while “The Land of Dreams” is not unknown to British composers in particular, it is hardly a common source of inspiration.

In contrast to Dream Song, which draws upon fragments of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” accompanied by an orchestra and choir, Songs of Illumination demonstrates Kidane’s use of more intimate musical forms and settings. The three songs performed at Leeds were thoughtful, intellectual pieces that reflect the potential for a much more thorough engagement with Blake, should Kidane wish to explore more of the poet’s works (and I for one hope that he does). Without emphasising too much his Russian heritage and experiences in Saint Petersburg, his work was reminiscent in part of Dmitri Smirnov, who has dedicated a great deal of his output to exploring Blake’s music since the 1970s and 1980s. Like Smirnov (and Britten before him), Kidane challenges us to listen to Blake as the intellectual precursor of Modernism rather than a simpler voice of Romanticism.