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:

In honour of Raymond Leppard

This week we learned of the sad passing of Raymond Leppard, a conductor whose legacy should truly be celebrated. Anyone getting to know the music of Bach or other Baroque greats in the 1980s and 1990s would surely have encountered his wonderful recordings with the English Chamber Orchestra, either in their first pressings or through judicious reissuing on the Philips label.

Leppard offered a modern instrument alternative to the burgeoning movement of period instrument performance. Although the two sides had their differences, he ultimately showed there was room for both approaches, the music always foremost in his mind.

Leppard’s recordings always have poise, grace and energy, and hopefully the attached playlist will bring them to a wider audience. He was a fine choral and vocal conductor, resurrecting many operas from the Baroque and furthering the cause of composers such as Rameau and Monteverdi. It also includes part of a recent disc he did for Decca with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, where he was conductor from 1987 until 2001.

The playlist includes John Alden Carpenter’s Sea Drift from that disc, the Holberg Suite by Grieg and two works by J.S. Bach. Chiome d’oro, a short excerpt from Leppard’s recording of five books of Monteverdi madrigals, is included on account of its appearance as one of the conductor’s Desert Island Discs in March 1972.

Picture of Raymond Leppard (c) Thomas J. Russo

Wigmore Mondays – Marnis Petersen & Camillo Radicke: Anderswelt (The Otherworld)

Marnis Petersen (soprano, above), Camillo Radicke (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 23 September 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A song recital that was truly out of this world.

German coloratura soprano Marnis Petersen and pianist Camillo Radicke brought the concept of their most recent recording, Dimensionen: Anderswelt, to the Wigmore Hall for an hour of 20 songs by no fewer than 18 composers.

The description ‘coloratura soprano’ depicts a singer that specialises in an operatic style, often high in the register – and that fits the music in this extraordinary collection. Most of the songs – and a couple of the composers – will surely have been new even to the most devoted Wigmore Hall attendee, and as Petersen and Radicke threaded the links cleverly through sections entitled The Otherworld, Elves, Mermaids and Mermen and Northern Lights, they plotted a course from deepest Germany to northern Iceland.

To begin Petersen read a short passage before the first group of five songs. Hans Pfitzner’s Lockung (Temptation) (2:25), with its twinkling piano and entreating mermaids, beckoned us in to the first of the Elves sections. Here we found Reger depicting a ‘pert and wanton’ elf, to a suitably heady vocal from Petersen, then the first of three settings of Eichendorff’s Elfe poem from Bruno Walter (7:28).

Camillo Radicke was superb here, with the insistent trills high up in the piano’s register, over which Petersen floated beautifully. Julius Weismann’s setting of the same text (9:43) again opted for the high register, this time in an attractive triple time dance. Though written in the same year as the Walter, it felt considerably older – and transitioned nicely to Brahms, setting Heine’s seductive water nymph in Sommerabend (Summer evening) (11:21), which found Petersen’s vocal control in very fine shape.

The Mermaids and Mermen section, again five songs in length, had an intriguing juxtaposition of composers. Hans Sommer’s Lore im Nachen (Lore in the skiff) found Radicke catching the ‘shimmer in the evening gold’ on a tranquil lake, as Petersen again soared high in the register. Grieg’s Med en Vandlilje (With a water lily) (18:09) introduced a wary atmosphere with the lurking water sprite (18:09) before Carl Loewe, heard to such great effect in Benjamin Appl and Kristian Bezuidenhout’s recital the previous week, was at it again with the boldly descriptive Der Nöck (The nix) (20:46). The nix (Petersen) and its harp (Radicke) were both strikingly portrayed, and Petersen’s vocal was superb. Sinding’s Ich fürcht’ nit Gespenster (I fear no ghosts) (29:18) was also a striking song, appropriately ghoulish in its coda from Radicke after Petersen had confidently confronted her spectres. Finally we heard a pupil of Hindemith, Harald Genzmer, and the agitated Stimmen im Strom (Voices in the river) (31:32)

To another quintet of songs on Elves, beginning with the cheeky Elfenlied, Wolf’s subject humourously caught by Petersen, who sang into the piano as her subject staggered about having banged his head. Friedrich Gulda’s setting of Elfe – the third of the concert – was a collector’s item (37:34), the 16-year old intriguingly matching the other two in the high treble area for an impish setting. Carl Loewe’s second appearance was with the operatic Die Sylphide (39:20), Petersen’s voice again reaching sparkling heights. Franz Schreker’s Spuk (Spook) (41:42) felt like some of the most modern music here, flitting about with uncertainty and tension, while in a rare outing for the music of conductor-composer Hermann Zumpe, Liederseelen (Song-Souls) (43:58) was affectionately sung.

Petersen and Radicke saved the most adventurous part of their concert until last, with four songs from Scandinavia and Iceland. Ariels Sang (48:06) was a rapturous contribution from Nielsen, boldly delivered, before Sinding reappeared with Majnat (May night) (50:26), a more thoughtful affair. Swedish composer Stenhammar’s Fylgia (53:25) was fulsome and florid in its praise of the spirit, but Sigvaldi KaldalónsHamraborgin (Castle crags) (55:46) painted its subject with uncanny atmosphere, depicting the rarefied atmosphere of the Northern Lights. Petersen capped her vocal performance here with a stunning top ‘B’ at the end.

It was a great way to finish – though after Radio 3 had departed there was another gem in store courtesy of the Finnish composer Yrjö Kilpinen, and an encore of his song Berggeist.

This was a recital of great imagination and technical brilliance. As an introduction to the classical song it would present some challenges to the casual listener, but with the enchantment offered by Petersen and Radicke’s partnership it would prove difficult to resist. Those familiar with the world – or otherworld in this case – should dive right in, as there will definitely be something new!

Repertoire

Marnis Petersen and Camillo Radicke performed the following songs (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

The Otherworld

Pfitzner Lockung Op.7/4 (1888-9) (2:25)

Elves I

Reger Maiennacht Op.76/15 (1903-4) (5:23)
Walter Elfe (1910) (7:28)
Weismann Elfe Op.43/4 (1909-10) (9:43)
Brahms Sommerabend Op.85/1 (1878) (11:21)

Mermaids and Mermen

Sommer Lore im Nachen Op.13/1 (publ. 1891) (15:25)
Grieg Med en Vandlilje Op.25/4 (1876) (18:09)
Loewe Der Nöck Op.129/2 (1857) (20:46)
Sinding Ich fürcht’ nit Gespenster (1885) (25:42)
Genzmer Stimmen im Strom (1941) (31:32)

Elves II

Wolf Elfenlied (1888) (35:24)
Gulda Elfe (1946) (37:34)
Loewe Die Sylphide Op.9 (1837) (39:20)
Schreker Spuk Op.7/4 (1898-1900) (41:42)
Zumpe Liederseelen (publ. 1895) (43:58)

Northern Lights

Nielsen Ariels Sang (1916) (48:06)
Sinding Majnat Op.22/3 (1893) (50:26)
Stenhammar Fylgia Op.16/4 (1893-7) (53:25)
Kaldalóns Hamraborgin (c. 1910) (55:46)

Encore – Kilpinen Berggeist Op.99/3

Further listening

All the songs in this concert can be heard from Petersen and Radicke’s recording on the Spotify playlist below:

One of many possible further steps is Wings In The Night, a collection of Swedish songs from mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Bengt Forsberg:

There are so many songs by Carl Loewe that it is difficult to know where you could start. Given his artistry, tenor Christoph Prégardien would seem to be a good bet, this album of songs recorded with pianist Cord Graben:

On record: Mark Bebbington, RPO / Jan Latham-Koenig – Grieg & Delius: Piano Concertos (Somm)

Mark Bebbington (piano), Irene Loh (piano duet), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Jan Latham-Koenig

Delius
Piano Concerto in C minor (final version) (1907)
3 Preludes (1921)
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (arr. by Peter Warlock for two pianos, 1913)
Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor Op.16 (1869)
Sketches for Piano Concerto no.2 in B minor (1881) (edited / orchestrated Robert Matthew-Walker

Avie SOMMCD269 [74’59”]

Recorded 1-2 August 2017 (Grieg) and 22 October (Delius)

Producers Siva Oke (Grieg), Paul Arden-Taylor (Delius)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Mark Bebbington continues his recording schedule for Somm with this enterprising coupling of concertos by Grieg and Delius, heard alongside shorter pieces and an unexpected novelty.

What’s the music like?

The novelty is the extant sketches for a ‘second piano concerto’ on which Grieg worked in the early 1880s, and which amount to some 150 bars. Robert Matthew-Walker has put these into performable shape, but it cannot be pretended the outcome is of more than passing interest. Bebbington also renders the sketches as a solo item and this might prove viable in terms of a recital addition or encore.

There are good things in his account of the A minor Concerto, the limpid interplay between soloist and orchestra in the central Adagio or raptness of response to the finale’s central episode with its ineffable flute melody, but the first movement is for the most part earthbound and the work’s apotheosis not free from bathos. Bebbington plays with scrupulous regard for dynamic nuance and timbral subtlety though, as in his recent account of the Gershwin concerto (SOMM260), the performance feels conscientious rather than inspired.

Fortunately. the remainder of this disc is far more persuasive. Heard here in its final version, Delius‘s Piano Concerto is a three-movements-in-one design whose occasional awkwardness of transition and tendency to rhetorical overkill is more than outweighed by the resourceful evolution of its ideas and the allure of its melodic contours. Bebbington duly responds with playing of sensitivity and panache, reinforcing the not inconsiderable claims of this work to a place in the standard repertoire.

Also featured here are the Three Preludes, their rhythmic vitality and improvisatory freedom more than usually in evidence, and a duet transcription by the teenage Peter Warlock (aka Philip Helseltine) of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring that is alone worth the price of the disc: its ruminative vistas deftly and unerringly uncovered.

Does it all work?

For the most part. Bebbington is up against several decades of stiff competition in the Grieg, and his reading does not offer any great revelations. The Delius, however, is arguably a front runner for this final version, while the fill-ups are of similarly high quality.

Is it recommended?

With reservations. The playing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Jan Latham-Koenig is never less than responsive, with Irene Loh an able partner in the Delius. Sound is spacious if a little too resonant in tutti passages, and Matthew-Walker’s notes are a model of informed insight.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about the release on the Somm Recordings website

Live review – City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Grieg Peer Gynt; Sibelius, Rautavaara & Salonen

Klara Ek (soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 14 February 2019

Salonen Dona nobis pacem (2010)
Rautavaara Cantus Arcticus (1972)
Sibelius Rakastava Op.14 (1893/8)
Sibelius En Saga Op.9 (1892/1902)
Grieg Peer Gynt – incidental music (selection), Op.23 (1875)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

You can listen to the concert as broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by clicking on this link

It may not have been a typical Valentine’s Day concert, but this evening’s programme from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra certainly had an abundance of rapture and wonder.

Not least in its welcome revival of Cantus Arcticus, the ‘Concerto for Birds and Orchestra’ with which Einojuhani Rautavaara had confirmed a decisive turning away from the twelve-note procedures of the previous decade. Its utilizing his recordings of birdsong from the Finnish marshland may be nearer conceptually to Respighi’s Pini di Roma than Messiaen’s Oiseaux éxotiques, but the interplay with orchestra is deftly and poetically carried through – from the stark backdrop of The Bog, through the searching poise of Melancholy then to the gradual build-up of Swans Migrating, its hymnic apotheosis duly becoming a Rautavaara hallmark.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla secured a warm and euphonious response from the CBSO, which was no less attuned to the emergent drama of Sibelius’s En Saga. After an atmospheric opening, the ensuing episodes unfolded a little sectionally for momentum to be gauged consistently, though the magical passage with solo strings before the climactic section was spellbindingly delivered – then, after a suitably fraught culmination, the closing pages affectingly mingled poignancy and resignation; qualities evident not least in the clarinet playing of Oliver Janes.

Prefacing each of these works were short but pertinent a-cappella choral pieces. The upward striving of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Dona nobis pacem gave the CBSO Youth Chorus its chance to shine, while a rare hearing for Sibelius’s The Lover brought the CBSO Chorus to the fore for a melting account of three settings from the Kanteletar – their tales of yearning, encounter then farewell between lover and beloved eloquently rendered with no trace of false sentiment. Maybe Gražinytė-Tyla will tackle the almost as seldom heard version for strings before long?

After the interval, Grieg’s incidental music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. What to include became far less straightforward after publication of the complete score, but tonight’s selection centred on the familiar two suites and three additional items. Gražinytė-Tyla secured a lively response in the Overture, then brought out the pathos of ‘Ingrid’s Lament’ and encroaching menace of In the Hall of the Mountain King. The influence upon Sibelius of The Death of Åse was no less evident than that of Morning on Debussy, while the Arabian Dance had nonchalance to spare and Anitra’s Dance an alluring poise. Peer Gynt’s Homecoming sounded suitably windswept, and inclusion of the soulful Whitsun Hymn gave the CBSO Chorus its moment in the spotlight. Klara Ek was soloist in Solveig’s Song and Solveig’s Cradle Song, both of which she sang simply and affectingly, avoiding the operatic overkill often encountered. A pity the grotesquely comical Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter was not included, but what remained was a more than plausible overview – skilfully and evocatively rendered.

It more than set the seal on this well planned and rewarding concert, some of whose relative unfamiliarity was outweighed by its undoubted appeal. The Peer Gynt selection can be heard again on Saturday on BBC Radio 3, alongside the UK premiere of tone poem The Sea by Mikalojus Čiurlionis.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert, including the whole incidental music to Peer Gynt (with the exception of the Salonen, which has not yet been recorded):

Further information on this concert can be found here