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 – Boris Giltburg plays Granados, Albéniz, Ravel, Rachmaninoff & Prokofiev @ Wigmore Hall

BorisGiltburg2-1440

Granados Goyescas: Quejas, o La maja y el ruiseñor (1909-12)
Albéniz Iberia (Book 3): El Albaicín (1907)
Ravel Miroirs (1904-5)
Rachmaninov Moments musicaux Op.16: no.2 in E flat minor, no.3 in B minor, no.4 in E minor (1896)
Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 8 in B flat major Op. 84 (1939-44)

Boris Giltburg (piano, above)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 14 March 2022

Written by Ben Hogwood

Boris Giltburg

14 March 2022
22:19

This was the second concert in Boris Giltburg‘s Ravel series at the Wigmore Hall – but as he eloquently explained in the programme and from the stage, it was impossible to proceed without responding to the situation in Ukraine.

Born in Russia but of Israeli nationality, Giltburg’s judgement in this was carefully considered. Reminding us that music has the overwhelming ability to reflect conflict as well as providing an appropriate response to it, in Prokofiev‘s Piano Sonata no.8 he had found the most accurate reflection imaginable. Ukrainian-born Prokofiev wrote the piece during the Second World War, and it was premiered by Sviatoslav Richter in Moscow in 1944. Here its resonance was unmistakable, the work unfolding with a mixture of uncertainty and resolve, with searing outbursts and anguished thoughts that spoke of oppression and tragedy. Prokofiev’s trademark dissonances were descriptive, the percussive rhythms laden with military power. The second movement relented a little in search of lyricism, Giltburg finding parallels with the composer’s ballet scores of the period, with hints of Romeo & Juliet carried on the air. Meanwhile the third movement, a powerful presto, tore up the tarmac in its relentless drive forward while finding time to consider the repercussions. Giltburg’s precision and power were beyond reproach here, his performance incisive but deeply reflective of current events. The Wigmore Hall listened closely, moved to silence throughout but responding with sympathetic applause.

Because of this performance the rest of the concert could have paled into insignificance, but that would reckon without some powerhouse performances of music from earlier in the century. It was refreshing to hear two Spanish works for starters. The music of Granados and Albéniz does not get enough exposure, and it should do – both wrote under the influence of Debussy but had something of the French master’s gift for picture painting. Giltburg caught the baleful tones of Quejas, o La maja y el ruiseñor (Lament, or the maiden and the nightingale), while the sultry El Albaicín was vividly descriptive and alluring.

Ravel may have written Miroirs in 1905 but in these hands it still sounded so modern. Noctuelles (Moths), a remarkable piece of picture painting from the French composer, found its match here, Giltburg delighting in its irregular contours, while the cleaner lines of Oiseaux tristes were no less effective. The much-loved duo of Une barque sur l’océan and Alborada del gracioso were brillianly performed – the former capturing the rocking of the boat with uncanny accuracy, surging forward before checking against the spray – and the latter exploring syncopations and dynamic variations to thrilling effect. Finally La vallée des cloches was both reverent and mysterious, notable for meticulous pedal work from Giltburg to maintain the atmosphere.

Immediately before the Prokofiev we heard three of the young Rachmaninov‘s six Moments Musicaux, a breakthrough collection that helped establish him as a serious composer for the piano in 1896. They are of similar design to the pieces of the same name by Schubert, in a group of six but giving the pianist freedom through varying dimensions and moods. These are pieces Giltburg holds close to his heart, and a whirlwind account of the second piece was checked by the darker hues of the third, a funeral march. This provided much food for thought with its nagging motifs, the music returning to the same itch with ominous regularity, before the fourth piece took off at a rate of knots, fearsome virtuosity tempered by immaculate melodic phrasing.

After the Prokofiev had made its mark we heard the ideal foil as an encore, Giltburg playing the Bagatelle no.1 by Valentin Silvestrov. A Ukrainian composer, Silvestrov was born in 1937 and – according to a conversation between Giltburg and a member of the audience – appears to have safely relocated to Poland. The simplicity of this piece, after the crunch of the Prokofiev, was doubly moving.

For more information on Boris Giltburg you can visit his website

In concert – Laura van der Heijden & Jâms Coleman @ Wigmore Hall – Pohádka: Tales from Prague to Budapest

Laura van der Heijden (cello), Jâms Coleman (piano)

Janáček Pohádka (1910, rev. 1912-23)
Dvořák Gypsy Songs Op. 55: Songs my mother taught me (1880)
Kaprálová Navždy from Navždy Op. 12 (1936-7)
Mihály Movement for cello and piano (1962)
Kodály 3 Songs to Poems by Bela Balazs Op. posth.: Why are you saying that you do not love me (1907-9); Énekszó Op. 1: Slender is a silk thread (1907-9)
Sonatina for cello and piano (1909)
Janáček Violin Sonata (1914-15, rev.1916-22)

Wigmore Hall, London, 9 March 2022

reviewed by Ben Hogwood Pictures (c) Olivia Da Costa (Laura van der Heijden), Sim Canetty-Clarke (Jâms Coleman)

It bears repeating that times are tough for new artists in music. Competition is fierce, while opportunities for live performance and recording have been severely hampered over the last two years of lockdown and pandemic restrictions. How refreshing, then, to talk about two new artists, a long term agreement with Chandos and a chamber music album notable for its originality and depth of expression.

The new artists, cellist Laura van der Heijden and her musical partner, pianist Jâms Coleman, have been performing together since 2017. Their debut album, for which this concert was an official launch, looks at music from Central and Eastern Europe with its roots in folk, either written directly for cello and piano or falling naturally into a vocal range.

The album shares its title, Pohádka, with a three-part fairy tale for cello and piano by Janáček, based on a Russian tale. This began the concert, a picture book performance bringing the story to life with sharp characterisation and flair. Janacek used a good deal of his music to explore macabre storylines and this was no exception, though the lighter, more lyrical moments were good fun. van der Heijden’s tone was sonorous and projected easily to the back of the hall, while Coleman’s stylish playing was capped with limpid work in the second section.

We then heard arrangements of two songs from Dvořák and Vítězslava Kaprálová as an idea complement, the former transcribing beautifully from voice to cello, with tasteful ornamentation from the cello. It was good to hear more of Kaprálová, a talented Czech composer who tragically died from tuberculosis when she was just 25. Her music immediately cast a spell, Coleman’s mysterious chords matched by a remote but moving line from the cello in its higher register.

Different qualities were required for the music of Hungarian composer and conductor András Mihály. His Movement for cello and piano was a dramatic rollercoaster, and rather volatile at times – reflecting perhaps the differing styles at play in modern music when it was written in 1962. While there were undoubtedly elements of Bartók and even Webern in the music’s contours, which veered into atonality at times, there was a fierce expression suggesting Mihály’s music should be explored further. Both players responded with a terrific performance, mastering the technical demands.

Zoltán Kodály was also an influence on Mihály, and his music suits the cello hand in glove, whether in large-scale sonatas or shorter, folk-informed songs. We heard two songs here, the cello a doleful voice for Why are you saying that you do not love me, while Slender is a silk thread found Coleman beautifully spinning out the silvery tale. However the single-movement Sonatina for cello and piano, at just under 10 minutes, made a lasting impression with its passion, profound lyricism and subtle melancholy. The performers’ love for this piece was clear, and the high voltage account found them finishing each other’s musical sentences.

The same could be said for Janáček’s Violin Sonata, a pungent piece whose proximity to World War One is evident in the rapid fire of its phrases. The composer’s unusual musical language was once again wholly compelling, with broad lyrical statements countered by strange, abrupt full stops to his melodies. The parallels with the current situation in Ukraine were impossible to ignore, especially with the emotion both players brought to the second movement Ballada, its sweeping melodies reaching skyward. Ultimately the acidic third and fourth movements cast a cloud over the mood, the players vividly depicting the distant sound of gunfire alongside more thoughtful introspection. van der Heijden was commendably modest about her own arrangement of the Sonata, for cello and piano, an extremely successful version losing none of the intensity or fractious treble phrases. Both players were superb, their virtuosity and togetherness notable throughout.

This was an extremely rewarding concert, energetic and romantic in turn but also thought-provoking through its wartime undercurrents. Laura van der Heijden and Jâms Coleman deserve great credit for their refreshing take on a chamber music album, which bodes well for their ongoing relationship with one of Britain’s best classical independents. Theirs is a partnership to watch closely.

Watch and listen

In concert – Elisabeth Brauß @ Wigmore Hall – Domenico Scarlatti, Mozart, Ravel & Prokofiev

Elisabeth Brauß (piano)

Domenico Scarlatti Sonata in C minor Kk56; Sonata in C Kk159 ‘La caccia’; Sonata in B minor Kk27; Sonata in B minor Kk87; Sonata in G Kk427 (exact dates unknown)
Mozart Piano Sonata in A minor K310 (1778)
Ravel Sonatine (1903-05)
Prokofiev Piano Sonata no.3 in A minor Op.28 (1917)

Wigmore Hall, London, 24 January 2022

reviewed by Ben Hogwood from the online broadcast

Seven sonatas and a sonatine in the space of an hour represents good value for a lunchtime concert – and even more so when the works in question span nearly two centuries. This was down to the clever programming of German pianist Elisabeth Brauß, a member of the BBC New Generations Scheme. She presented a potted history of the development of the sonata, moving as it did to the very centre of the concert platform by the twentieth century.

Brauß began her imaginatively thought-out hour with five sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, just under 1% of the composer’s remarkable output in the form. Within his 550 or so published works there is an inexhaustible variety, and Brauß gave us some fine examples. Her crisp delivery of the C minor work was complemented by the playful ‘Caccia’ sonata, Scarlatti’s writing of parallel thirds tastefully ornamented in the right hand. Slipping into B minor, there was a more obvious Bach influence in an elegant performance of the Kk27 sonata, before a more reflective example in the same key, given plenty of room with ideally weighted inside parts. This thoughtful and emotive account was swept to one side by the showy G major sonata, chasing the clouds away.

Mozart‘s A minor sonata followed, a profound work written in the wake of the sudden illness and death of the composer’s mother Anna Maria in Paris, 1778. The principal phrase of the first movement is conspicuous for a ‘wrong’ note, an E flat played at the same time as an A minor chord, which can throw the listener. Brauß did well to give it the surprise factor, resulting in quite an unnerving and uncertain mood.

The second movement was initially calm, bringing out the singing style of Mozart’s marking of Andante cantabile con espressione rather beautifully. There was a refreshing lack of weight to this performance, the melodies floating on air, in contrast to a heavy-set middle section. The Presto finale, initially serious, brightened as the tonality moved into the major key, Brauß sensing hope in Mozart’s writing.

There was clarity in her Ravel, too, which found the right combination of technical flair and intimacy. Brauß portrayed the questioning nature of the first movement, just before its main theme returns and resolves. A limpid second movement was followed by a finale notable for its virtuosity – following the Animé marking – but which kept its conversational qualities.

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.3 is a compressed firecracker, a work with plenty to say in its eight minutes. This performance was very impressive if holding back a little in the more raucous moments. Brauß was a more than capable guide to this impetuous piece, however, finding the heart of the adventurous coda, which sounds a lot newer than its 1917 composition date would suggest.

She clearly loves Prokofiev, as the Prelude in C major Op.12/7 made an ideal encore, bringing out the composer’s balletic side. There was less percussiveness in this lyrical account, notable for some lovely melodic phrasing.

Watch and listen

You can listen to the repertoire from this concert in choice recordings on the Spotify playlist below (Elisabeth has not yet recorded any of the pieces):

In concert – Sandrine Piau & David Kadouch @ Wigmore Hall – Journeys: Longing and Leaving

Sandrine Piau (soprano), David Kadouch (piano)

Schubert Mignon (Kennst du das Land) D321 (1815), Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister D877: Heiss mich nicht reden; Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (1826)
Clara Schumann Er ist gekommen Op. 12 No. 1 (1841); Sie liebten sich beide Op. 13 No. 2 (1842); Lorelei (1843)
Robert Schumann Lieder und Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister Op. 98a: Kennst du das Land (1849)
Duparc La vie antérieure (1884); L’invitation au voyage (1870)
Lili Boulanger Clairières dans le ciel (1913-14): Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve; Je garde une médaille d’elle; Vous m’avez regardé avec toute votre âme
Debussy Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917); 5 poèmes de Baudelaire (1890): Le jet d’eau; Recueillement; La mort des amants

Wigmore Hall, London, 17 January 2022

reviewed by Ben Hogwood from the online broadcast

It was heartening indeed to see the Wigmore Hall at capacity for the visit of soprano Sandrine Piau and pianist David Kadouch, bringing with them a new program with the theme of Journeys: Longing and Leaving.

They delivered the songs in two ‘halves’, one of German Lieder drawn  from the first half of the 19th century, the other of French song from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, giving us a smooth trajectory from Schubert to Debussy.

Refreshingly the journey took in substantial contributions from Clara Schumann and Lili Boulanger, three songs from each – as well as showing the increasing influence of Wagner on even the smallest forms of vocal music as the century turned.

Singing from a tablet, Sandrine Piau gave heartfelt performances and had the ideal foil in David Kadouch, whose brushstrokes on the piano were immediately telling. His chilly introduction to the third song in the Schubert group, Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, set the tone after a characterful first song and a sorrowful second, with a soaring vocal line from the soprano. Piau sang with arms outstretched, expressively capturing all the ornamentation and hitting the depths of the song’s turbulent middle section.

The Clara Schumann selection was fascinating, especially given the context of husband Robert’s well-known productivity in the years 1841-1843. The urgent Er ist gekommen was first, a heady song sitting high in the range, before a setting of Heine from just after Schumann’s celebrated year of song, a yearning and ultimately tragic number with a limpid commentary from the piano. The Loreley started in the same key, pushing restlessly forward. The only Schumann song in the program retained its intensity despite a noisy mobile phone introduction, a very different setting to the same text as tackled by Schubert at the start.

Turning to France, we heard two from the small output of Henri Duparc, whose entire output barely covers the length of a single concert. There is quality rather than quantity, however, and we heard the celebrated L’invitation au voyage, sumptuously performed with great poise. The two found the ideal pacing for La vie antérieure before it, solemn but quite open, and building to a powerful declamation.

Lili Boulanger wrote powerfully original music before her tragic death at the age of 24. Her orchestral tone poems have received greater exposure of late but the songs have remained relatively hidden. Piau and Kadouch put that to rights with three songs drawn from the wartime collection Clairières dans le ciel. They found an ominous tone in the lower vocal register from Piau, all the more so given the retrospective knowledge that Boulanger would only live for another three years from when the songs were written. The pained complexion at the end of Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve from Piau was profoundly affecting, then a slightly more optimistic Je garde une médaille d’elle led to the purity of Vous m’avez regardé avec toute votre âme.

Finally a selection from Debussy, prefaced by his final published piano piece Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon. This was a nice touch as an interlude, and was beautifully played. by Kadouch, We then heard three of the five Baudelaire poèmes, beginning with a babbling fountain shaded by Kadouch as Piau’s voice floated easily above. Recueillement (Meditation) found stillness initially but with the poet, distracted by darker thoughts, was mirrored by the music breaking from its reverie. Piau judged the awkward intervals perfectly, especially the final words with their harmonic transformation. The ultimate farewell was saved for last, La mort des amants quite a complex song. As with much early Debussy the harmonies travelled far but arrived at a strangely logical end point, both performers exhibiting exceptional control at journey’s end.

Piau spoke of the program giving ‘therapy after these two long years’, after which Beau Soir – one of Debussy’s celebrated songs – proved the ideal encore, though as the soprano warned, it was essentially saying, “Look at these beautiful things, because everybody goes in the same direction – death!”

Watch and listen