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

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 Tr‰ume’ (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 Fl¸geln 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

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 S¸den’ 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 ‘?yczenie’ (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! ‘?liczny ch?opiec’ (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 Tr‰ume’, ‘Die Forelle’;
Mendelssohn – ‘Auf Fl¸geln des Gesanges’, ‘Der Mond’, ‘Neue Liebe’; Fanny
Hensel – ‘Bergeslust’, ‘Warum sind denn die Rosen so blass’, ‘Nach S¸den’;
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 – ‘?yczenie’, ‘?liczny ch?opiec’; Rossini – ‘Canzonetta spagnuola’.

Cadogan Hall, London; Monday 19th August 2019.

product_title=Proms at … Cadogan Hall 5
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Louise Alder

Photo credit: Gerard Collett