Louise Alder, Wigmore Hall

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

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 W‰rmet und

‘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. BÈla BartÛk’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


BartÛk: 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.

image_description=Louise Alder [Photo by William Alder]
product_title=Louise Alder, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Louise Alder [Photo © William Alder]