10 Apr 2014

Louise Alder, Wigmore Hall

This varied, demanding programme indisputably marked soprano Louise Alder as a name to watch.

Remarkably assured, and accompanied empathetically and imaginatively by pianist John Paul Ekins, Alder revealed an alluring voice characterised by lyrical charm and astonishing power, particularly at the top; and her vocal prowess was complemented by a sure sense of poetic meaning and musical poetry.

Benjamin Britten’s song cycle On This Island began the programme. Taking their cue from the title of the opening song, ‘Let the florid music praise’, Ekins and Alder relished the Handelian grandeur of the quasi-fanfare rhetoricisms, the soprano’s vocal lines charged with drama and energy, Ekins’ Baroque ornamentations ostentatious and rhythmically propulsive. After the splendour of the first stanza’s agile coloratura displays, the second stanza was more subdued, but lyrical and mellifluous, paralleling the move from public to private world in W.H. Auden’s poetry.

Alder demonstrated a focused and robust tone across the registers, and a flamboyant, theatrical musical presence in this first song. The second, ‘Now the Leaves are Falling Fast’, was more introverted, the irregular ostinato and repeated chords of the accompaniment, coupled with the circling semi-quavers in the voice, creating a tense mood: ‘Arms stiffly to reprove/ In false attitudes of love.’ Yet, the peace and fulfilment intimated in the final verse, ‘None may drink except in dreams’, was fittingly silky and consoling.

In ‘Seascape’ and ‘As it is plenty’ the performers grappled with the rather awkward text settings; the latter, in which Auden presents a social satire mocking the narrowness of bourgeois values, may be witty does not readily lend itself to musical embodiment — but Alder worked hard to convey the ironic vein. However, the even, oppressive chords of ‘Nocturne’ and Alder’s effortlessly lyrical vocal line conveyed a strong understanding of poetic nuance; for the ‘meaning’ is to be found as much in the metrical smoothness of the poetry as in the individual words and this is matched by the regularity of Britten’s music. As the monotone recitation gave way to a progressive rising to the highest pitch, Alder transformed the mood, expressing the move from sleep to consciousness: ‘Calmly til the morning break/ Let him lie, then gently wake.’

Four songs by Richard Strauss followed, beginning with ‘Ich Schwebe’ (I float) in which Alder revealed a rich resonance, if not quite a creamy Straussian sumptuousness. ‘Der Stern’ (The star) showcased the soprano’s wide range and seamless leaps between registers, conveying the tender relationship between the poet-speaker and the star above which ‘waves down here/ it approaches me warmly’ (‘Er nahte mir gern;/ Er Wärmet und funkelt’).

‘Waldesfahrt’ (Woodland journey) was eerily light of touch, the piano’s cascades and evocative diminishment suggesting the shadowy forms ‘nodding through the carriage window’ (‘Kopnickend zum Wagen herein’); the muted ending — as the shadows ‘blend together like mist’ and ‘giggle and dart’ away — was particularly affecting. ‘Schlechtes Wetter’ (Wretched weather) is a vivid setting of Heine’s depiction of quiet family life within and torrential rain without. The performers modulated effectively between the insouciant relaxation of domestic harmony, especially in the swinging waltz-like final stanza, and the dry discord which conveys the dreadful deluge seen through the window-panes.

After the interval came Franz Liszt’s Tre Sonetti di Petrarcha, settings of Petrarch’s sonnets 47, 104 and 123, which tell of the poet’s love for a woman named Laura. Surprisingly Italianate, these songs exploit bel canto idioms — virtuosic display, a wide vocal range, legato melodic lines, climatic phrase structures — and Alder proved equal to all the technical demands. Ekins too mastered the quasi- orchestral accompaniment with ease (the songs were originally published in transcribed form for piano solo). The introduction to ‘Benedetto sia ‘l giorno, e ‘I mese, e l’anno’ (Blessed by the day, the month, the year) had a warm sense of expanse, and the song gained in urgency, an impetuous accelerando towards the close expressing the obsessiveness of the poet’s passion. The strength of Alder’s upper register made a particularly strong impact, and conveyed a sparkling sense of joy, the thrill of the poet’s ‘first sweet pang’ (‘primo dolce affanno’) of love.

During the recitative opening of ‘Pace non trovo’ (I find no peace), Ekins etched the piano lines, particularly the left hand gestures, with real clarity, then found an orchestral resonance in the more operatic aria section ,as Alder’s melody blossomed, culminating in an intense climax cut short by a theatrical silence: ‘Equalmente mi spiace morte e vita’ (death and life alike repel me). Then, the gently undulating accompaniment to ‘I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi’ (I beheld on earth angelic grace) established a sweetness upon which Alder beautifully floated her graceful melody.

After these Austrian and Italian sojourns the performers returned to home territory with three songs by Frank Bridge. ‘Goldenhair’, a setting of Joyce, was characterised by vivid textures and expressive harmonies. ‘When most I wink’, composed when Bridge was a student and the first of his songs to survive, and ‘Love wen a-riding’ were clearly and lightly enunciated by Alder, who communicated the songs’ simple charm engagingly.

The vocal items were framed by two compositions for strings, both dating from the 1920s, impressively performed by the Ligeti Quartet. Béla Bartók’s 4th String Quartet is a taut, sometimes terse work of unceasing compression and concentration, in which outbursts of athletic energy puncture pointillist textures and timbres. The Ligeti Quartet presented a remarkably eloquent reading, controlling the arching five-movement form with intelligence and insight.

The confident tone with which they began the opening Allegro was immediately absorbing; supple melodic lines, energised by rhythmic accents which were rich rather than harsh, intertwined in complex counterpoint, but the textures retained a distinctive clarity as the voices mirrored and answered each other. There was buoyancy and bite, and some agile cello playing from Valerie Welbanks who shaped the pentatonic lyrical fragments expressively. The fleeting flickerings of the muted Prestissimo which follows were wonderfully ethereal; the panoply of coloristic devices — muted harmonics, glissandi, pizzicati — were skilfully negotiated and the players convincingly privileged texture over melody and harmony.

The ‘night music’ of the third movement beautifully contrasted the pianissimo shimmering of the upper strings with the cello’s well-focused exotic melody which meandered in folk-like fashion. Leader Mandira de Saram assumed the melodic thread, her sweet high phrases wistful and melancholy, before second violinist, Patrick Dawkins, interjected with some robust, gutsy G-string colours. The snapping pizzicati of the fourth movement generated a vigorous rustic verve, and this dynamism spilled into the Allegro molto which was an invigorating, impetuous dance, the unpredictable accents building to an emphatic concluding statement of the motto theme which binds the work.

Alban Berg’s passionate, dramatic Lyric Suite closed the recital. The Ligeti Quartet conveyed both the romanticism and modernism of the work, the sweeping range of diverse emotions balanced by a cerebral appreciation of the work’s architecture and language. Since musicologist George Perle discovered in 1976 an annotated copy of the first edition which revealed the precise, autobiographical programme of the work, the emotional highs and lows have been understood within the specific context of Berg’s obsessive passion for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin; but one did not need a narrative key to the musical code in order to appreciate the unfolding drama, so sure was the Ligeti Quartet’s command of the shifts of tempo and intensification of mood: giovale, amoroso, misterioso, estatico, appassionato, delirando, desolato.

The penultimate Presto was fearsomely feverish before the final Largo, in which the players chose to restore the setting of Baudelaire (translated into German by Stefan George) which the dark, foreboding music had originally accompanied. Alder’s focus was startling and the range of colours she found in her lower register impressive; the depiction of the barren polar world over which darkness dwells was weighty and ominous. The chilling climax, as the soprano faced the terror of this night of chaos (‘Und dieser nacht o ein chaos riesengross’) was a moment of extreme theatre: ‘nacht’ rang with piercing intensity, only for Alder to crescendo through the phrase with astonishing power. The falling contours of the final dissolving phrases were attentively shaped but without mannerism, as the string voices slipped away as inexorably as Baudelaire’s slowly unwinding spindle of time.

Claire Seymour


Bartók: String Quartet No. 4; Britten: On this Island Op. 11; Richard Strauss: ‘Ich schwebe’, ‘Der Stern’, ‘Waldesfahrt’, ‘Schlechtes Wetter’; Liszt: Tre sonetti di Petrarca; Bridge: ‘Golden Hair’, ‘When most I wink’, ‘Love went a-riding’; Berg: Lyric Suite. Louise Alder, soprano; John Paul Ekins, piano; Ligeti String Quartet. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 31st March 2014.