Online concert review – Louise Alder & Joseph Middleton @ Wigmore Hall – Songs by Amy Beach, Clara Schumann, Lili Boulanger, Alma Mahler & Libby Larsen

Louise Alder (soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Beach 3 Browning Songs Op. 44 (1889-1900)
Clara Schumann Er ist gekommen Op. 12 No. 1; Warum willst du and’re fragen Op. 12 No. 3; Liebst du um Schönheit Op. 12 No. 2 (1841)
Lili Boulanger Clairières dans le ciel (excerpts): Elle était descendue au bas de la prairie; Vous m’avez regardé avec toute votre âme; Au pied de mon lit; Nous nous aimerons; Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve (1913-14)
Alma Mahler Laue Sommernacht (1910); Ich wandle unter Blumen (1910); Licht in der Nacht (1915)
Libby Larsen Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII (2000)

Wigmore Hall, London, 21 March 2022

Watch and listen

review of online broadcast by Ben Hogwood Picture of Louise Alder (c) Gerard Collett

Soprano Louise Alder and pianist Joseph Middleton are renowned for consistently original programming, and this recital for a BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at the Wigmore Hall recital was no exception. Assembling songs by five women composers, they offered a fascinating juxtaposition of style and text setting, offering further proof that the music of Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler need no longer operate in the shadows of their husbands.

Given the freshness of the air in Southern England it was entirely appropriate that the pair should begin with a vibrant song from Amy Beach, The year’s at the spring. The first in a trio of Robert Browning settings, it had a sprightly tread, in contrast to the Ah, Love, but a day! of Beach’s short cycle, where ‘summer has stopped’, which found the singer in a worrisome state but easily negotiating her higher range. The third song, I send my heart up to thee, was subtly prompted by Middleton’s arpeggiated piano

The Schumanns’ year of song was not just exclusive to Robert, with Clara publishing three settings of Friedrich Rückert that year. They made a powerful impact in this concert, with a tempestuous account of Er ist gekommen (He came in storm and rain). There was an intimate air to Warum willst du and’re fragen (Why enquire of others), tinged with longing and sung by Alder with a beautiful, natural tone. Liebst du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty) was lost in love, prompted by Middleton’s easily flowing piano.

In her all too brief life, Lili Boulanger gained for herself a reputation as a vocal composer of impressive standing, a view boosted by this quintet taken from Clairières dans le ciel, settings of 13 poems by Francis Jammes. When singing of the ‘girls who are too tall’ in Elle était descendue au bas de la prairie (She had reached the low-lying meadow), Alder soared to the heights, while the pair enjoyed Boulanger’s harmonically elusive writing, Middleton upholding the tension beautifully in Vous m’avez regardé avec toute votre âme (You gazed at me with all your soul).

Au pied de mon lit (At the foot of my bed) stood out as one of the most memorable songs of the recital. A character picture, it was vividly painted by the pair before a turbulent and passionate episode, notable for Alder’s sublime vibrato control at the end. The anticipation of Nous nous aimerons (We shall love each other) hung heavy on the air, with appropriately rich harmonies, before the singer’s lower range brought rich colour and notable control to the slow Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve (If all this is but a poor dream).

We then heard a trio of Alma Mahler settings, strongly chromatic and – in the case of Laue sommernacht (Mild summer night) – particularly sultry. The Heine setting Ich wandle unter Blumen ( I wander among flowers) was short but urgent, before a second setting of Bierbaum, Licht in der Nacht (A nocturnal light) brought us back to earth for deep contemplation. The song rose briefly to acknowledge the rapturous brightness of the star ‘above the house of our Lord Jesus Christ’ before sinking into the dark lower end of the piano once again.

Libby Larsen’s song cycle Try Me, Good King took as its inspiration the last words of the five executed wives of Henry VIII, giving Alder the opportunity to characterise each of the fated women. She did so with impressive power and guile, Katherine of Aragon hanging on high above a worrisome chord, with Anne Boleyn then fraught with trouble. As with the earlier songs Alder’s body language was a powerful visual aid, taking Boleyn’s words ‘Try me’ up to the very skies above. Larsen’s setting for Jane Seymour exhibited a special radiance, while Anne of Cleves was given a resolute if ultimately skewed march. The final Katherine Howard proclaiming her innocence to ultimately deaf ears, insisting her innocence before really scaling the heights of anguish.

As an encore, Alder and Middleton gave us Florence Price’s Night, a chance for the soprano to spread her wings with longer phrases. Perhaps surprisingly there was a hint of Richard Strauss here, enjoyed in the piano part by Middleton – the song capping an hour of discovery and vivid storytelling.

For information on Louise and Joseph’s album of French song on Chandos Records, Chère Nuit, click here

On record – Sir John Tomlinson, Rozanna Madylus & Counterpoise: Kokoschka’s Doll (Champs Hill Records))

Rozanna Madylus (mezzo-soprano), Sir John Tomlinson (bass), Counterpoise [Kyle Horch (saxophone/clarinet), Deborah Calland (trumpet), Fenella Humphreys (violin), Iain Farrington (piano)]

Music by John Casken, Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler, David Matthews, Richard Wagner, Anton Webern and Alexander Zemlinsky

Champs Hill Records CHRCD150 [81’54”]

Producer Matthew Bennett
Engineer Dave Rowell

Recorded 21-22 May 2018 & 17 January 2019, Music Room, Champs Hill, Sussex

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The enterprising ensemble Counterpoise returns with its second release – an ambitious and wide-ranging selection centred upon that redoubtable femme fatale who was Alma Mahler and with a major new piece of music-theatre featuring Sir John Tomlinson from John Casken.

What’s the music like?

The generous programme effectively divides into two parts. The Art of Love opens with four songs by Alma – her setting of Julius Bierbaum’s Mild Summer Night and A Nocturnal Light followed by that of Gustav Falke’s Harvest Song, all of them accorded a fresh perspective in resourceful arrangements by David Matthews. Much the finest is the recently located setting of Leo Greiner’s Lonely Walk, but even this must yield to the radiance of Paul Wertheimer’s Blissful Hour by Zemlinsky, Alma’s lover before Mahler and an underrated Lieder composer.

Matthews’s subtle arrangement of Mahler’s rapturous Rückert setting If You Love for Beauty, followed by his ominous Wunderhorn setting Where the Splendid Trumpet Sounds, proceed Iain Farrington’s violin-and-piano transcription of the start of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (it would be worth hearing the rest). Webern’s glinting Trio Movement for clarinet, trumpet and piano is intriguingly countered by Matthews’s hardly longer yet more equable Transformation (with addition of piano); after which, his arrangement of Wagner’s Dreams (last of five settings after Mathilde Wesendonck) underlines its rapt introspection. Rounding off this first part with Liszt’s take on Isolde’s Liebestod might almost be thought rather predictable, but Farrington’s pointedly unshowy rendering is an undoubted pleasure.

The second half of this programme is devoted to Kokoschka’s Doll – a melodrama for bass-baritone and ensemble by John Casken, who has also devised the text in collaboration with Barry Millington. Drawing on the artist’s letters and autobiography, this almost 40-minute piece focusses on Kokoschka’s fractious liaison with a recently widowed Alma Mahler, his near-death experience as a soldier on the Eastern front, then his ill-fated attempt to recreate Alma as a doll to his idealized specifications. Unfolding between past and present, the text provides plenty of leeway for Sir John Tomlinson to convey the tortured while not a little self-seeking protagonist through an adept interplay of speech and parlando – dispatched with his inimitable blend of fiery rhetoric and soulful rumination. Instrumentally the music is rich in timbral and textural nuance, following the emotional ebb and flow of Kokoschka’s musings as they spill over into the irrational. An engrossing concept, skilfully realized, which would certainly be worth presenting in a scenic version at some of the UK’s many studio-theatres.

Does it all work?

As an overall sequence, certainly. Counterpoise is an object-lesson of unity within diversity, whether in the range of music this ensemble brings together or in the arresting nature of the arrangements it favours. Added to which, the singing of Rozanna Madylus is a treat in store.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Performances and recording leave nothing to be desired, while the booklet features a succinct introduction by Millington along with reproductions from Kokoschka’s drawings of his ‘Alma Doll’ – more appealing visually than it becomes at the denouement of the scenario!

Listen and Buy

You can read more about this release, listen to clips and purchase from the Champs Hill website