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 – Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton: The Contrast

Carolyn Sampson (soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Friday 14 February 2020 (lunchtime)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit Marco Borggreve

Once best known for her interpretations of Baroque music, Carolyn Sampson is revelling in the world of song. With musical partner Joseph Middleton painting pictures from the piano, she has made a number of attractive releases for the BIS label – of which The Contrast is the latest.

This Wigmore Hall concert doubled as the album launch event, and was programmed with a wide range of responses to settings of English text. The pair began with Sir William Walton’s multi-poet cycle A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table, reminding us just how different London was when this was written in 1962. The balance was tricky in The Lord Mayor’s Table itself, where there is a lot going on in the piano part, but Sampson carried her line with verve. Her accent on Wapping Old Stairs was well judged for subtly comedic effect, while Holy Thursday cast a spell and Rhyme ended the cycle with a flourish.

The songs of Roger Quilter can really blossom in the right hands, and Sampson sang this selection of five beautifully. The flowing My Life’s Delight and softer By a Fountainside showed off her natural delivery, Middleton responding with lovingly caressed accompaniment. Dream Valley was a beautiful reverie as dappled sunlight shone across the Wigmore Hall, while the Arab Love Song was urgent and fleet-footed, while Fair House of Joy ended the selection with a winning smile.

Huw Watkins wrote his Five Larkin Songs for Sampson, and was present for this powerfully affecting performance. The challenge of setting Larkin’s occasionally bleak verse is realised with music of passion and dramatic impact, and as she said from the stage, Sampson clearly loves to sing the songs. The wandering piano line of Who called love conquering? contrasted with the awkward shifts in the soprano line, both of which were handled extremely well. Sampson’s ringing delivery brought expressive power to Love Songs in Age, as did her instinctive use of vibrato. The end of Larkin’s wry poem Money, ‘it is intensely sad’, left a strong aftertaste, while Dawn showed a hint of Britten in its setting. The delivery of the last line, ‘How strange it is for the heart to be loveless, and as cold as these’, made an impression with its completely (and deliberately) flat tone.

Finally we heard five songs from Frank Bridge, whose contribution in this area is still underrated. That is in spite of heartwarming songs such as Go not, happy day, which was full of smiles in this performance, bubbling over with good feeling. Adoration showed of a sumptuous vocal tone, while Come to me in my dreams could have been written for such a voice. Once again Middleton’s accompaniment was ideally weighted and phrased, the two combining for a magical and poignant encore of Bridge’s Yeats setting When You Are Old, powered by an achingly tender melody from the piano.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music:

Walton A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table (1962)
Quilter My Life’s Delight Op.12/2 (1908), By a Fountainside Op.12/6 (1908), Dream Valley Op.20/1 (1916), Arab Love Song Op.25/4 (1927), Fair House of Joy Op.12/7 (1908)
Watkins Five Larkin Songs (2009-10)
Bridge When most I wink (1901), Go not, happy day (1903), Adoration (1905), Come to me in my dreams (1906), Love went a-riding (1914)

Further listening & viewing

You can listen to the whole of the In Contrast release on Spotify here:

To hear clips and to purchase, In Contrast can be found on the Presto website

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:

Wigmore Mondays: Lucy Crowe & Joseph Middleton – English song

Lucy Crowe (soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Purcell, realised Britten Lord, what is man? (A Divine Hymn) (1693) (1:17-6:36 on the broadcast link below); O solitude, my sweetest choice (1684-5) (6:40-12:00)
Weldon, realised Britten Alleluia (before 1702) (12:04-14:00)
Michael Head Over the rim of the moon (1918) (The ships of Arcady 15:20-18:15, Beloved 18:25, A blackbird singing 19:48-22:08, Nocturne 22:12-25:21)
Ireland The trellis (1920) (26:37-29:25); My true love hath my heart (1920) (29:33-31:10); When I am dead, my dearest (1924) (31:14-33:00); If there were dreams to sell (1918) (33:02-34:46); Earth’s call (34:54-39:38) (1918)
Walton 3 Façade Settings (1931-2) (Daphne (40:47-43:30; Through gilded trellises (43:36-47:16); Old Sir Faulk (47:17-49:08)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 24 September 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

On this evidence Lucy Crowe and Joseph Middleton are two of the finest exponents of English song around. This finely planned recital showed off the versatility in Crowe’s voice, as well as its clarity and pure emotion. Middleton also distinguished himself with some exceptional scene-setting and characterisation of his descriptive piano parts.

The solemn glory of Britten’s Purcell realisations provided an imposing start, although Crowe allowed the expansive setting of A Divine Hymn (from 1:17 on the broadcast) plenty of room to express its excitable joy, with a sparkling finish to boot. O solitude (6:40) was a more thoughtful interpretation and beautifully sung, while the twists and turns of John Weldon’s Alleluia (12:04) were skillfully negotiated. Britten’s expanded piano parts, his own informed response to Purcell’s melodies, were in safe hands thanks to Middleton.
There followed a rarity in the form of Michael Head’s short cycle Over the rim of the moon, from his late teenage years. The ships of Arcady (15:20) featured tolling bells in Middleton’s right hand, while a rapturous Beloved (18:25) gave up its soul. A blackbird singing (19:48) embraced the open air, with a sparkling first note from Crowe, while the cool Nocturne (22:12) sent a light shiver down the spine.

Crowe really came into her own in a sequence of five John Ireland songs. Ireland can be elusive in some interpretations, but not here. As soon as Middleton’s descriptive piano set the scene for The trellis (26:37) Crowe was in her element, using a poignant pause to illustrate ‘the whisper’d words between and silent kisses’. The breathless adoration of My true love hath my heart (29:33) was countered by the finality of When I am dead, my dearest (31:14), which brought a tear to the eye. If there were dreams to sell (33:02) offered a more upbeat outlook, before Earth’s call (34:54) took us right to the water, depicting the plover, cuckoo and stormy ploughland with exquisite detail, all blown by Middleton’s blustery breeze.

After these heights, the Walton Façade settings worked well, Crowe handling the tricky wordplay of Edith Sitwell impressively. Her sideways looks during Daphne (40:47) were brilliantly done, as were Middleton’s persuasive piano rhythms underpinning Through gilded trellises (43:36), where Crowe hit her top B flat with ease. Old Sir Faulk (47:17), with its bizarre lyrics, gave a nonsensical end.

The two encores were unforgettable. Crowe began with an unaccompanied version of She moved through the fair (50:23-53:18), which tugged urgently at the heartstrings, and ultimately brought a tear to the eye. So too did one of Britten’s finest folksong settings, The Salley Gardens (54:20-56:47), a pure and beautiful note on which to end.

Further listening

Lucy Crowe has not recorded any of the repertoire in this concert, but the playlist below gives leading interpretations of the songs she sang.

For further exploration of the songs of John Ireland, this album gives his complete output:

BBC Proms: Dame Sarah Connolly & Joseph Middleton – English Songs

Proms at the Cadogan Hall: Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Stanford A Soft Day Op.140/3 (from A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster) (1913) (from 7:15 on the broadcast)
Parry Weep you no more, sad fountains (from English Lyrics Set 4) (1896) (9:58)
Vaughan Williams Love-Sight (from The House of Life) (1903) (12:18)
Gurney Thou didst delight my eyes (1921) (16:53)
Somervell A Shropshire Lad – ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ (1904) (20:19)
Bridge Come to me in my dreams (1906) (22:45)
Howells Goddess of Night (1920)
Bridge Journey’s End (1925) (28:19)
Britten A Sweet Lullaby (36:34); Somnus (40:31) (both 1947, world premieres)
Holst Journey’s End (1929) (42:50)
Britten A Charm of Lullabies Op.41 (1947) (45:09, 47:22, 49:08, 51:06, 52:48)
Lisa Illean Sleeplessness … Sails (2018, world premiere) (57:31)
Mark-Anthony Turnage Farewell (2016, world premiere)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 6 August 2018

You can listen this Prom by clicking here The times given on this page refer to the starting times on the broadcast itself

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood. Photo of Sarah Connolly (c) Jan Capinski

11 composers and four world premieres in an hour. Not a recipe for sleep and respite, you might think, but Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton constructed between them an enchanting tour of English song, ending up at some far-flung outposts.

For anyone new to the form this would have been the ideal introduction, especially as Dame Sarah was singing with wonderful clarity and diction. I hardly needed to glance at the texts, for her words and expressions, added to those of Middleton’s carefully and beautifully crafted piano parts, did the job perfectly. The structure of the recital was very satisfying too, with natural pauses at the end of a short group of songs for applause and the intake of breath – and, as the subject matter was sleep and dreams, it ensured nobody had fallen foul of the listening criteria in the hot conditions!

The two began in Ireland, presenting the beatific calm of Winifred LettsA Soft Day, as set by Stanford, with the ‘wind from the south’ that some of us in the hot Cadogan Hall would have been longing for! So too for the subject of Parry’s Weep you no more, sad fountains, with its flowing piano lines. This pair from the fathers of English song led to one of the ‘sons’ – Vaughan Williams, and a deeply felt Love-Sight from his song-cycle The House of Life – and Ivor Gurney, his moving Thou didst delight my eyes.

We moved on to Arthur Somervell, the brief but tenderly devastating Into my heart an air that kills (from A Shropshire Lad) and then Come to me in my dreams, an expressive, earlier example of Frank Bridge’s chromatic credentials. Bridge appeared later with the lovelorn Journey’s End, following Herbert Howells’ magical Goddess Of Night – where Connolly allowed the text plenty of room.

Britten’s interpretations of sleep and dreams range from the calm to the nightmarish, aspects that surfaced throughout his song-cycle A Charm of Lullabies, which was given with two extra songs intended for the cycle but left unused. Recently ‘repaired’ by Colin Matthews, A Sweet Lullaby and Somnus were receiving their world premieres and were interesting finds if not quite reaching the level of intensity in the cycle itself.

Britten starts his night with A Cradle Song, before Connolly’s Scots accent (she was born relatively close by in County Durham!) brought an extremely authentic voice to The Highland Balou. The fifth number, The Nurse’s Song, is structured like the Dirge from Britten’s earlier Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. It focused everyone in the hall on the vivid storytelling of Connolly’s voice, from which she moved through humour, intense scolding (scary, too!) and soft slumber. The music ranged wildly, Britten’s wandering piano writing recalling Shostakovich in A Cradle Song, while the clustered chords of the refrain in Sephestia’s Lullaby spoke vividly in a language Janáček would understand. Connolly’s characterisations were brilliant, the audience impatient to clap between numbers initially but held in rapt concentration at the end.

In between the Britten discoveries, Gustav Holst contributed a sparse but telling interpretation of Journey’s End, which Connolly again sang with deep expression, while Australian composer Lisa Illean gave us another world premiere, a farewell of her own in Sleeplessness … Sails. This was a very slow-moving piece where Connolly held admirable control, despite the music’s seeming reluctance to move on. Arguably more effective was Turnage’s Farewell, a profound statement which ended with the composer bounding on the platform, delighted at the interpretation. It would be lovely to hear more from him in song – and from this pair, too, who delivered a wonderful hour’s escapism to the land of nod!

You can hear Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton’s new recital disc Come To Me In My Dreams, which features much of the music heard in this concert, on the Spotify link below: