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Reviews

<em>Through Life and Love</em>, Louise Alder sings lieder by Richard Strauss
11 Aug 2017

Through Life and Love: Louise Alder sings Strauss

Soprano Louise Alder has had an eventful few months. Declared ‘Young Singer of the Year’ at the 2017 International Opera Awards in May, the following month she won the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World.

Through Life and Love, Louise Alder sings lieder by Richard Strauss

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Louise Alder

Photograph, courtesy of Askonas Holt

 

As well as acclaimed performances as Sophie von Faninel in WNO’s Der Rosenkavalier (which OT reviewers admired in Cardiff and Birmingham ), Alder has sung Marzelline in the BBC Philharmonic’s Fidelio at the BBC Proms , performed with the Academy of Ancient Music in Monteverdi’s Vespers at the Barbican Hall in June, and contributed to the Wigmore Hall’s ambitious project, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, participating in an unusual programme of songs for female vocal ensemble, ‘Schubert and Women's Voices’.

Despite this hectic schedule, Alder even managed to find the time and energy to step into the breach at the Wigmore Hall, when travel problems scuppered baritone Andrei Bondarenko’s planned recital at the end of July, and presented at short notice a concert of songs by Hahn, Debussy, Liszt, Poulenc, R. Strauss and Britten. Interestingly, a performance by Alder of the latter’s On this Island, which closed this Wigmore Hall programme, had previously impressed me on the occasion when I first heard the soprano sing at the Hall in April 2014 , leading me to declare that the ‘demanding programme indisputably marked soprano Louise Alder as a name to watch’.

Both that 2014 recital and this July’s concert with pianist Gary Matthewman included songs by Richard Strauss, some of which have found their way onto Alder’s debut album, Through Life and Love , which was released last month on the Orchid Classics label. The disc presents a life’s progress through song - from Youth (Das Mädchen), through Longing (Sehnsucht), Passions (Leidenschaft), Partnership (Liebe), Motherhood (Mutterschaft) and Loss (Verlust), to Release (Befreiung). And, although the songs in each section do not represent a chronology of Strauss’s career, the recording is in effect a survey in miniature of a life’s work, for Strauss composed over 200 songs, from the early ‘Weihnachtslied’ written when he was just six-years-old to the Four Last Songs which were his final musical utterance, published posthumously by his friend Ernst Roth in 1950.

Through Life and Love.jpg

Alder’s soprano is crystalline and has a thrilling shine. Although the colour palette is not extensive, the purity of sound is startlingly beautiful, and Alder can make the sparkle still brighter, or diminish the fullness to a fine thread, at will and with discernment. The German is well-enunciated - her experience with Frankfurt Opera no doubt informs her excellent diction - though I am less enamoured of her tendency to heavily roll the ‘r’s, sometimes quite markedly (particularly in the middle of words, which can disrupt the sweet sound). It’s a pity, too, that the song texts are not included in the accompanying booklet. Pianist Joseph Middleton plays with an elegance that can be stylishly urbane or delicately reflective, and communicates the narratives of these songs with sensitivity and insight.

There are two settings of poems by the expressionist poet Richard Dehmel. Alder negotiates the uncertainty and economy of ‘Leises Lied’ (Soft Song, Op.39 No.1) with lyricism and focus: the vocal leaps are flawlessly executed and tuned, and ‘Glänzt mir im Herzen immer’ really does ‘shine’ with radiant youthful ardour. Middleton’s upper register quavers hover inscrutably, finally ‘resolving’ onto an ambiguous second-inversion triad. In contrast, the harmonic saturation and flowing melodism of ‘Befreit’ (from the same Opus and included in the section entitled ‘Loss’), allow us to enjoy the glowing bloom of Alder’s soaring lines as she floats through the extended arcs. Strauss wrote in his diary on 1 June 1898, ‘Composed song Befreit by Dehmel very beautifully’; one feels he would add, ‘and sung with exquisite and subtle beauty it was on this occasion’. Alder and Middleton - who ensures every detail is heard but remains in a hinter-world between reality and dreams - adeptly suggest that the emotional intensity is contained within the singer’s heart: what we hear is the imagined embodiment of a soul’s bliss.

The piano’s restless rippling in ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade, Op.17 No.2), first scintillatingly glittering then dipping down into darker realms, perfectly captures the youthful excitement in Alder’s voice as she urges her beloved to creep softly from his bed and join her amid the twilight magic of the flowers, lindens and nightingales. The harmonic shift of the final stanza, ‘Sitz nieder, hier dämmert's geheimnisvoll’ (Sit, here it darkens mysteriously), is accompanied by an enchanting retreat to a hushed pianissimo, the deepening harmonic colours suggesting incipient true passion beneath the adolescent eagerness. ‘Breit’ über mein Haupt dein schwarzes Haar’ (Spread over my head your black hair, Op.19 No.2) - like ‘Ständchen’ a setting of the poetry of Adolf Friedrich von Schack - showcases the plush gleam of Alder’s soaring soprano, as rich and flowing as the imagined streaming black locks, which shines still brighter against the deeper hues of Middleton’s noble chords.

The latter is the last song in the ‘Longing’ section which opens, appropriately, with ‘Sehnsucht’ (Op.32 No.2). Like so many of Strauss’s lieder, this song was dedicated to his wife Pauline, and it was also the composer’s first setting of the poet Detlev von Liliencron. Here, Alder shapes the enigmatic fragments thoughtfully: her low voice is even and poised, but surges with colour when the vision of the road ahead appears before the protagonist. The fierceness of the avowal ‘If you directed your eye to me coldly, I would resist, my maiden’ (Und richtest du dein Auge kalt auf mich,/Ich trotze Mädchen dir) is startling, but short-lived, as the image of the beloved’s eye - ‘Wie eine Sonne mir in schwerer Nacht’ (like a sun to me in the heavenly night) - weakens the resistance. Alder floats to a heavenly top A which captures the soul-piercing beauty of the burning sun and lover’s gaze. No phrase so purely demonstrates the sheer beauty of Alder’s soprano, and her technical control, than the final, sustained declaration, ‘Ich liebe dich’.

The two songs of ‘Motherhood’ form an effective, complementary pair. Alder’s soprano slips lightly through the confident exuberance of the adoring mother’s praise for her infant’s golden curly locks, blue eyes and rosy cheeks in ‘Muttertänderlei’ (Mother-chatter, Op.43. No.2), Middleton’s accompaniment wryly thickening as she admires his perfect plumpness - ‘fatter than a fat snail’! There is pride, awe and joy in Alder’s voice as she captures the mother’s unconditional love, as embodied in the smoothly descending melisma, ‘so lieben’. In contrast, ‘Meinem Kinde’ (Op.37 No.3) is redolent with soft tenderness as the mother leans over her sleeping child’s crib, Middleton’s swaying cross-rhythms conveying the lilt of the rocking cradle.

Songs from Strauss’s first published collection, ‘8 Gedichte aus Letzte Blätter’ Op.10 (1885, settings of poems by the Austrian Hermann von Gilm), both open and close the 23-song sequence. The first song of ‘Youth’, ‘Nichts’ (Nothing), opens with a playfully leaping accompaniment - Strauss instructs the pianist to play ‘mit Laune’ (with humour) - and Alder’s crisp vocal line has a conversational ease. However, the broadening of the phrasing and the irresistible ascent of the vocal melody for the question, ‘Ist die Sonne nicht die Quelle/Alles Lebens, alles Lichts? (Is not the sun the source of all life and all light?), takes us into the reflective sentiment of the operas. In ‘Die Nacht’ (The Night) Middleton’s skill in evoking - through the piano’s unceasing, gradually enriching, pulsing quavers - the unstoppable shadow of the night which creeps from the woods and extinguishes all the lights of the land, is matched by the tinge of awe which Alder introduces into her vibrato-light melody. The sense of disturbing transformation is wonderfully captured through the change of harmonic colour with the line ‘Alles nimmt sie, was nur hold’ (It takes everything that is dear), while the growing strength of Alder’s vocal climbing vocal line suggest both fear and wonder at the night’s power to take the silver from the stream and the gold from the cathedral roof, dismissive both of nature and of man’s gods.

‘Zeuignung’ (Devotion), placed at the start of ‘Release’, confirms Alder’s and Middleton’s ability to encompass both delicate tenderness and blissful exultation within a song lasting less than two minutes. Middleton, in particular, seems able to discern the precise moment in the song where Strauss infuses the flowing triplet accompaniment with an over-spilling joy, leading into the final stanza with a finely shaped rubato then enriching the dense chords with power and passion. The disc ends with the final song in the Op.10 set, ‘Allerseelen’ (All Soul’s Day), in which Middleton’s sensuous syncopations suggest the underlying emotional tumult of the recently bereaved protagonist as she strives to relive past moments of joy. The woman’s delusion is intimated by the harmonic chasm which opens when she imagines that she is reunited with her beloved, ‘Gib mir nur einen deiner süßen Blicke,/ Wie einst im Mai (Just give me your sweet gaze, as once you did in May), and Alder and Middleton push on compellingly, making the climactic Ab declaration that she holds him close to her again even more tragic and ephemeral. Then, the mask skips: arpeggiations and rhythmic doubt infiltrate the accompaniment once more, and the self-assurance of Alder’s final ‘Wie einst im Mai’ is undermined by the falling seventh and by the overly earnest weight of the soprano’s low register.

Alder will resume her engagement with Frankfurt Oper later this autumn where she will sing Despina, Sophie (Werther) and, in March 2018, Clorinda (La Cenerentola). Before that, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy Alder’s performances in the UK, when she helps Classical Opera launch their new venture, 'The Mozartists’ at the Wigmore Hall in September, travels to Scotland to join the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Glasgow and Perth in September, returns to the Barbican in early October for a semi-staged performance of Purcell’s King Arthur with the Academy of Ancient Music under Richard Egarr, and then heads north again to Newcastle for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony with Paul McCreesh and the Royal Northern Sinfonia at the Sage Gateshead . Clearly, Alder has no intention of resting on her laurels: her star remains surely and brightly in the firmament.

Claire Seymour

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