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

In concert – Dr Samantha Ege, CBSO Youth Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein: Korngold, Tchaikovsky & Price

Samantha-Ege

Korngold Schauspiel-Ouvertüre, Op. 4 (1911)
Price Piano Concerto in D minor (1932-4)
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 (1888)

Dr Samantha Ege (piano, above), CBSO Youth Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 27 February 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Picture of Joshua Weilerstein (c) Sim Canetty-Clark

The year’s first concert by the CBSO Youth Orchestra programmed a staple of the symphonic repertoire with two works by composers whose success in their lifetimes subsequently faded almost to oblivion, only to meet with renewed acceptance in a very different cultural climate.

It might have been the first such piece he himself orchestrated, but Overture to a Drama finds the 14-year-old Erich Korngold in command of late-Romantic forces with a tonal opulence to match. Best here are the ominously modal introduction which returns transformed in a defiant peroration, and while the main sonata design rather goes through the motions – not least a ‘by numbers’ development – it engaged due to Joshua Weilerstein’s astute direction, not least his bringing out the wistful charm of its second theme (eloquently played by oboist Elly Barlow).

Florence Price’s Piano Concerto was met with a distinctly equivocal response when given at last year’s Proms, and it made a comparable impression today. The introduction – soloist in ruminative dialogue with trumpet and woodwind – promises much, but the actual Andantino proceeds rather dutifully to a half-hearted climax. This heads into a central Adagio where the piano arabesques elegantly dovetail with instrumental solos (notably cellist Eryna Kisumba) in a manner redolent of Edward MacDowell’s once-ubiquitous D minor Concerto. The final Allegretto unfolds to the rhythm of the Juba (precursor of Ragtime), but the overall effect is tepid compared to its use in Price’s symphonies, even if Samantha Ege (replacing an injured Jeneba Kanneh-Mason) might have made more of its vivacity on the way to a forceful close.

A prominent academic as well as pianist, Dr Ege recently met with considerable acclaim for her album of Price’s piano music Fantasie Nègre (Lorelt), and it would be well worth hearing her in a concerto of greater substance such as those by Adolphus Hailstork or George Walker.

Weilerstein (above) works extensively with youth orchestras, and there was doubting his rapport with these players in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Pensive if never turgid, the first movement’s introduction passed seamlessly into an Allegro whose rhythmic tensility held its expressive fervour in check. The coda’s march-past then found meaningful contrast with the sepulchral start of the Andante, its indelible horn theme (lucidly rendered by Alex Hocknull) part of an inevitable unfolding capped by a stormy return of the ‘fate’ motto and coda of gentle pathos.

Segueing unexpectedly but effectively into the Valse, Weilerstein duly made the most of this music’s elegance and insouciance. Nor did he lose focus in the Finale’s opening restatement of the motto-theme, whose appearance can all too easily pre-empt what follows. There was no lack of impetus as the music built purposefully towards an apotheosis whose affirmation was shorn of bombast, nor any risk of hectoring with the triumphal surge to the close. This is never an easy piece to bring off, and the present performance was rarely less then convincing.

For more information on this concert, click here – and for information on the artists click on the names Samantha Ege and Joshua Weilerstein. Websites dedicated to Korngold and Florence Price can be accessed by clicking on the composer names.

In concert – Jonathan Martindale, CBSO / Michael Seal: Summer Classics

michael-seal

Jonathan Martindale (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)

Dvořák Carnival Op.92 (1891)
Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending (1914/20)
Elgar
Chanson de matin Op.15/2 (1889)
Grieg
Peer Gynt Suite no.1 Op.46 (1875/88) – no.1, Morning; no.4, In the Hall of the Mountain King
Mendelssohn
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)
Vivaldi
The Four Seasons Op.8 (1718/20) – no.2 in G minor RV315 ‘Summer’
Price
Symphony no.1 in E minor (1931-2) – Juba Dance
Tchaikovsky
The Nutcracker Op.71 (1892) – Waltz of the Flowers

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 2 July 2021 (2pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Jonathan Martindale courtesy of Upstream Photography

The penultimate event in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current season, this afternoon’s Summer Classics featured a wide-ranging selection of pieces that between them spanned over two centuries, and whose ‘feel good’ factor at no time precluded stylish or committed playing.

With longstanding associate director Michael Seal at the helm, the orchestra made the most of Dvořák’s effervescent Carnival overture; the alluring pathos of its central interlude accorded due emphasis, and with some eloquent woodwind solos. Its popularity during recent years has made Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending a regular inclusion in such programmes, and Jonathan Martindale (below, who also led the concert) gave a thoughtful while never flaccid reading – most perceptive in the middle section with its folk-like whimsy and fanciful evocations of birdsong. The CBSO responded with limpid dexterity, the whole performance a reminder that this work is best tackled as a concertante piece and by a player (recalling such as Hugh Bean, Iona Brown and, more recently, Richard Tognetti) who knows the orchestra from the inside.

Next came an ingratiating take on Elgar evergreen Chanson de matin, then excerpts from the First Suite of Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt – a rapturous Morning and stealthy In the Hall of the Mountain King skirting headlong terror at the close. Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream made for an unlikely but effective centrepiece – the highlight being those fugitive imaginings towards its centre, along with the disarming eloquence of its final bars where the teenage composer conjures a fulfilment he was only rarely to recapture.

The Summer concerto from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons again saw Martindale as soloist in an account that lacked little of that rhythmic vitality his contemporaries (notably Bach) seized on with alacrity; nor was there any absence of poise in its atmospheric second movement. One who has come in from the cold partly through the recovery of her manuscripts, Chicago-based Florence Price broke with convention by introducing the Juba Dance into her symphonies in lieu of a scherzo; the CBSO responding in full measure to its rhythmic verve. A winning harp solo from Katherine Thomas launched Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker and ended the main programme in fine style – Seal and the CBSO acknowledging the applause with the final ‘galop’ from Rossini’s William Tell overture as a dashing encore.

Throughout the concert, film expert Andrew Collins interspersed proceedings with his remarks and recollections (not least on that seminal 1970s supergroup The Wombles). The music itself was accompanied by varying shades and colours of lighting, but these rarely seemed intrusive – not least compared to the garish ‘Moulin Rouge’ effects routinely encountered nowadays at the Proms. Certainly, anyone in the process of getting the know just what classical music was all about, and those merely in search of a pleasurable afternoon’s listening, were well served.

Next Wednesday brings the last in this current series of concerts, the CBSO being conducted by Joshua Weilerstein (who is replacing an ‘unable to travel’ Edward Gardner) in an enticing programme of Judith Weir, Prokofiev (with the violinist Alina Ibragimova) and Beethoven.

You can find information on the final concert in the CBSO’s season at their website. For more information on composer Florence Price, click here