Wigmore Mondays – Louise Alder & Joseph Middleton: Lines written during a sleepless night

Louise Alder (soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 6 January 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

This was a concert with an especially personal link for soprano Louise Alder. The Russian Connection – subtitle of her first album for Chandos – goes much further than the repertoire chosen. It reflects Alder’s Russian ancestry, with generations of her family, up to and including her grandfather in 1914, born in the country.

In addition to that, Alder and regular recital partner Joseph Middleton have created a captivating program linking Grieg, Medtner, Tchaikovksy, Britten, Rachmaninov and Sibelius through their choice of poets and their use of a language outside of their own. Six composers, four languages (at last count!) and some richly descriptive writing all made for a particularly memorable concert, especially when performed with the passion and musicality on show here.

Alder and Middleton judged their program to perfection, bringing in the new year with a spring in its step as Grieg’s Heine setting Gruß (Greeting) tripped into view (2:33 on the broadcast link). This is the first song in a compact but deeply descriptive cycle of six from the composer, setting German poetry with his typical melodic freshness and flair. Alder shows lovely control on the final ‘Gruß’ word, before applying a slight husk to the deeply felt Dereinst, Gedanke mein (One day, my thoughts) (3:40), which made a striking impact here. Lauf der Welt (The Way of the World) (6:23) has heady urgency, singer and pianist working as one, while the evocative Die verschwiegene Nachtigall (The secretive nightingale) (8:01) is a sultry, sensual setting in these hands, the initial picture beautifully painted by Middleton. Zur Rosenzeit (Time of roses) (11:40) is filled with intense longing, while Alder’s tone in Ein traum (A dream) (14:55) is particularly beautiful, working through to a powerful finish.

Nikolai Medtner is a Russian composer known for his piano music rather than his songs, so it was gratifying to have Alder and Middleton (above) include two here. They are fine pieces of work, too, with an impressively fulsome piano part that Middleton tackled with deceptive ease and clarity. Mailied (May song) (18:15) holds an intense vocal line over its catchy piano part, while Meeresstille (Calm sea) (20:10) is really well controlled by Alder here.

Tchaikovsky’s numerous songs contain many treasures, and the two French language examples here were no exception. The Sérénade (23:22) dances in the bright light of dawn, with a slightly furtive piano, while Les Larmes (The tears) (25:02) provides much darker soul searching.

Britten’s Russian-language song cycle The Poet’s Echo is a relative rarity in the concert hall, but as Alder and Middleton showed here it contains music of typically fearsome and compressed intensity. The spirit of Musorgsky is evident not just in the choice of poet (Pushkin) but in the bare piano lines, rumbling in the deep for the first song Echo (29:22). Alder’s line is fearlessly delivered, with songs like My heart… (32:17) and Angel (33:48), with its quasi-orchestral piano part, making a powerful impression. The nightingale and the rose (36:20) take powerful flight, the piano gnawing at the heel of the vocal line, while the strange Epigram (40:13) has a striking reverberation achieved through the open piano lid. The final song, Lines written during a sleepless night (41:07) captures the supreme irritation of insomnia through the ‘monotonous tick of the clocks’, with a chilling piano postlude. This work remains a difficult nut to crack, listening-wise, but this is the sort of performance to do it.

We then heard two songs by Rachmaninov, both again setting Pushkin texts. Sing not to me, beautiful maiden (46:44), an early song from the composer’s late teens, receives a fulsome account here with Alder capturing the devastating beauty of the song. The later How fair this spot (51:56), taking the mood from darkness to relative light, is even better, Alder’s top ‘B’ a note of extraordinary clarity.

The generously packed concert concluded with three Sibelius songs, sung in Swedish. Once again these songs are found to be fiercely intense, often expressed through the bare minimum of means. The tempestuous Säv, säv, susa (Sigh, rushes, sigh) (54:02) is heady stuff, while the dynamic range achieved by both performers in Våren flyktar hastigt (Spring is swiftly flying) (56:27) is hugely impressive. Finally Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote (The girl came from her lover’s tryst) (57:49) has a huge, orchestral scope, a reminder that the Second Symphony is not far away in the composer’s output. The song chills to the bone when turning tragically into the minor key for its third verse and the lover’s treason.

This was a simply outstanding concert from Alder and Middleton, deeply intimate yet including the audience in all of their asides. These qualities extended to the wonderful encore, Rachmaninov’s A Dream, where the rippling piano part and exotic harmonies supported Alder’s heavenly soprano line.

If more of the Wigmore Hall Monday lunchtime concerts are as good as this in 2020, we are in for many treats indeed! It only remains for you to listen on BBC Sounds if you haven’t already…and to keep up with the series as it progresses.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Grieg 6 Songs Op.48 (1884-8) (2:33)
Medtner Mailied Op.6/2 (1901-5) (18:15), Meeresstille Op.15/7 (1905-7) (20:10)
Tchaikovsky Sérénade Op.69/1 (1888) (23:22), Les Larmes Op.69/5 (1888) (25:02)
Britten The Poet’s Echo Op.76 (1965) (29:22)
Rachmaninov Sing not to me, beautiful maiden Op.4/4 (publ.1893) (46:44), How fair this spot Op.21/7 (1902) (51:56)
Sibelius Säv, säv, susa Op.36/4 (1900) (54:02), Våren flyktar hastigt Op.13/4 (1891) (56:27), Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte Op.37/5 (1901) (57:49)
Encore – Rachmaninov A Dream Op.38/5 (not on the broadcast)

Further listening

Most of the music from this concert is part of Louise Alder and Joseph Middleton’s new disc for Chandos, Lines Written During A Sleepless Night: The Russian Connection, with the exception of the two Rachmaninov songs. The full playlist is here:

If you enjoyed Alder and Middleton in this concert – which I’m sure you did! – their previous outing together is a sumptuous collection of songs by Richard Strauss for Orchid Classics which is bound to appeal, and certainly plays to their strengths:

Meanwhile to enjoy the Rachmaninov song output in its entirety there are few better historical guides than soprano Elisabeth Söderström and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy:

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