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20 Aug 2019

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 5: Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman

“On the wings of song, I’ll bear you away …” So sings the poet-speaker in Mendelssohn’s 1835 setting of Heine’s ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’. And, borne aloft we were during this lunchtime Prom by Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman which soared progressively higher as the performers took us on a journey through a spectrum of lieder from the first half of the nineteenth century.

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 5

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Louise Alder

Photo credit: Gerard Collett

 

Alder’s programme had me reflecting on the challenges of devising a sequence of song for a fairly short mid-day recital. Does one take a theme and offer the audience contrasting responses from a variety of composers? Is homogeneity of idiom and period preferable to diversity? At first glance, this programme looked fairly conventional: a chronological progression from Schubert, through the Mendelssohn siblings, and on to Liszt and Chopin - complemented by a geographical movement from central Europe, then further eastwards, though with a nod towards Paris.

But closer inspection revealed a slight idiosyncrasy in the programme, for two of the three Schubert songs and the five songs by Liszt were to be performed in ‘versions’ less well known to audiences. And to Alder herself: during a brief word after the recital, the soprano commented that there had been a lot of ‘new’ music to learn, and that it was a challenge to sing the ‘variants’ of songs whose more familiar incarnation was so present in one’s musical memory.

Not that there was any sign of this ‘challenge’ during a performance that was characterised by relaxed affability, even playfulness at times, and confident, easeful musicianship. Alder is a natural ‘actor’, and she brought the varied contexts and protagonists of the lieder immediately to life, aided by Matthewman’s discrete but superlatively attentive accompaniments. The clarity of Matthewman’s voicing, the gentleness and precision of the quietest episodes, the fine definition of motive and pattern, the lively coloristic touches: all such made for an impressively sensitive complement to Alder’s vocal line.

Matthewman’s mastery of both tiny motif and broader canvas, and the relationship between the two, was exemplified in the opening song, ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, in which the piano’s murmuring wheel gained almost imperceptible momentum as the abandoned Gretchen’s yearning grew and the visions of her lover intensified, resuming its spinning with wonderful hesitancy then determination after the climactic memory of his kiss, a peak that Alder’s passion pushed a little off kilter - a rare, small lapse, but entirely forgivable at such an early stage in the recital as she settled into her stride. The second version of ‘Nacht und Träume’ (published in 1823 as Op.43 No.2) followed. Matthewman’s soft pedalling conjured a sleepy mood, the piano sinking low, and Alder’s soprano acquired a floaty dreaminess as she longed for the spirit of the night to return. My first impression was that the tempo was rather slow, weakening the ‘pull’ of some of the harmonic progressions. But a subsequent glance at the two versions revealed that in 1823 Schubert did indeed add ‘sehr’ to the ‘langsam’ instruction of the first version! The performers had been true to his intended languid reflectiveness after all.

Alder closed the Schubert sequence with ‘Die Forelle’, in its fifth version (1821). She performed this song during the Song Prize Final of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, and the beguiling vivacity and drama that she brought to her Cadogan Hall performance made it clear why she won the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize in 2017 and prompted Gerald Finley to remark “she is born for that stage”!

Three songs by Felix Mendelssohn preceded three by his sister Fanny, and here Alder’s soprano seemed freer, more fluid in the upper register and more focused in the middle. Matthewman’s rippling arpeggios sparkled in ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’, while after the delicacy of the roses’ delicate scented whispers, Alder allowed the blissful dreams to bloom at the close. The rocking syncopations of the brief ‘Der Mond’ throbbed with a passion which burst vibrantly forth in the second stanza, with the poet’s plea to the shining moon for a single glance brimming with heavenly peace, while ‘Neue Liebe’ found Mendelssohn in ‘fairy mode’ and the duo tripping precisely, fleetly and with a feverish frisson through the racing night journey.

Fanny Hensel’s ‘Bergeslust’ seems to offer a joyful vision of nature, with the woods and mountains stretching up to the heaven, but Alder and Matthewman used the brief modulation to the minor mode to subtly intimate graver thoughts. Lovely rubatos imbued ‘Warum sind denn die Rosen so blass?’ with a tender wistfulness; in contrast, ‘Nach Süden’ was as exuberant and purposeful as the birds flying southwards, ‘into the eternal blossoming’, that the poet-speaker eulogises.

It was the five songs by Liszt, though, that were both most substantial and most impressive. The major-minor dialectic of the piano’s introduction pulsed through ‘Freudvoll und Leidvoll’, which trembled with anguish and surged with love. Alder was fully in tune with the poetic sentiments which she and Matthewman communicated with genuineness and creative inflection. ‘S’il est un charmant gazon’ was delightfully fresh, joyous and spontaneous; ‘Oh! Quand je dors’ billowed wonderfully, with Alder drawing every nuance from the text - the lover’s passing breath and the transformation of woman into angel made tangible by the coaxing vocal delivery. Best of all was ‘O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst’, in which natural simplicity gave way to more artful expression, as Alder’s beautiful soprano soared through the ever more impassioned arcs. Matthewman’s harmonies roved, breaking beyond the ordered confines of the opening of the song and pushing the voice towards impassioned declamation which overflowed with feeling, until, with wonderful control, soprano and pianist drew the emotions which had so richly flamed back within their hearts.

After such heights of Romantic sensibility, a relaxation into a more folky spirit was welcome, and Chopin’s lilting ‘Życzenie’ (The Maiden’s Wish) swept us into a more carefree world. Alder may have required the score for these Polish songs, but - while I’m not in a position to judge the authenticity of her Polish - she didn’t seem to glance down at it very often! ‘Śliczny chłopiec’ (Handsome lad) was similarly winsome and full of playfulness, preparing us for the smouldering and teasing of Rossini’s ‘Canzonetta spagnuola’ which accelerated with gleeful confidence and devil-may-care abandon, as Alder raced through the vocal ripples.

As they accepted the spirited applause of the capacity Cadogan Hall audience, Alder thanked Matthewman with a warm hug. The performers obviously enjoyed themselves as much as we did.

This recital is available on BBC Radio 3 iPlayer for 28 days.

Claire Seymour

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 5: Louise Alder (soprano), Gary Matthewman (piano)

Schubert - ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, ‘Nacht und Träume’, ‘Die Forelle’; Mendelssohn - ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’, ‘Der Mond’, ‘Neue Liebe’; Fanny Hensel - ‘Bergeslust’, ‘Warum sind denn die Rosen so blass’, ‘Nach Süden’; Liszt - ‘Freudvoll und leidvoll’, ‘O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst’, ‘S'il est un charmant gazon’, ‘Ah! quand je dors’, ‘Comment, disaient-ils’; Chopin - ‘Życzenie’, ‘Śliczny chłopiec’; Rossini - ‘Canzonetta spagnuola’.

Cadogan Hall, London; Monday 19th August 2019.

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