Tuesday 26 March 2024

Young Lovers: Louise Alder and Joseph Middleton in an entrancing evening at Wigmore Hall

Joseph Middleton & Louise Alder at Wigmore Hall in 2022
Joseph Middleton & Louise Alder at Wigmore Hall in 2022

Young Lovers: Fauré, Nadia Boulanger & Raoul Pugno, Mahler, Copland, Ned Rorem, Rogers & Hammerstein; Louise Alder, Joseph Middleton; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 25 March 2024

Young love in all its forms in an entrancing recital from this duo partnership which took is from France to settings of a Belgian symbolist to intimate Mahler, then evocations of a New England poet and an American composer in Paris, before ending with a damned good song from musical theatre

Soprano Louise Alder and pianist Joseph Middleton returned to Wigmore Hall on Monday 25 March 2024 with Young Lovers, a programme that moved from French song to German, to American, beginning with Fauré and Nadia Boulanger, then Mahler's Rückert Lieder followed by Copland's 12 poems of Emily Dickinson, two songs by Ned Rorem and ending with Hello, Young Lovers from Rogers & Hammerstein's The King and I.

We began with a group of songs by Gabriel Fauré, beginning with 16-year-old Fauré setting Victor Hugo, another setting of Hugo from his student days followed by two later songs. Le papillon e la fleur is Fauré's Opus 1, No. 1, his first song in a long career that would take him from 1861 through to the 1920s. We began with light amusement, yet full of engaging character and signalling that in addition to lovely tone, care about words and a luxurious sense of line, Alder is a delightful story-teller. Chanson d'amour (from 1882, later in the composer's career) was somewhat impulse with an urgency of tone and restlessness that belied the sentiment. Returning to Victor Hugo, Reve d'amour from Fauré's student days was serious, yet with a light, fluid texture, flowing beautifully. Finally, another later song, from 1879, Notre amour, impulsive, urgent and delightful. More Fauré please.

In 1909 (at the age of 22), Nadia Boulanger collaborated with Raoul Pugno, a French composer with whom she often played piano duets, to write a song cycle based on the poems of Belgian Symbolist poet Émile Verhaeren (1855-1916). We heard three songs from the cycle, all very French, bringing Fauré into the 20th century, yet without quite scaring the horses. C'était en juin was urgent and ardent, Alder's vivid performance giving a sense of the poet being carried away in the excitement love. Que tes yeux clairs, tes yeux d'été was quiet and intense, with a sense of calmness and relaxed luxuriance. Finally, S'il arrive jamais was urgent, the voice carried away over the ardently rippling piano accompaniment.

Mahler's Rückert Lieder came next. Written in 1901 and 1902, the cycle included one song 'Liebst du um Schönheit' that was a personal gift for Alma and was not included in the early performances of the cycle. Order seems to have been flexible, especially Mahler's first two performances both omitted the one song and moved the others around. Mahler wrote the orchestra and piano accompaniments simultaneously, so these really are songs with piano accompaniment rather than a piano reduction of the orchestral score. For all the luxuriance of Mahler's orchestral writing (and the orchestra for these is relatively small), there is an intimacy to the piano versions, which chimes in with the fact that apart from 'Um Mitternacht', these are songs about love.

'Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!' began with Joseph Middleton's lighter, transparent piano with Alder's thoughtful entry matching him. This wasn't all lightness though, there was something very thoughtful about Alder's performance, and seductive too, the way she used her tone. 'Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!' was urgent and intent, yet rather delightfully skittish in character, whilst 'Liebst du um Schönheit' was serious and rather touching as she caressed the phrases, both performers taking their time. 'Um mitternacht' is the dark one of the set, here plangent and intent turning to intense rapture. Finally, 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen' (a song that I always want - erroneously! - to translate as I have become off-hand with the world), interior and infinitely sad with a mesmerising final verse.

Aaron Copland wrote his Emily Dickinson settings in 1949 and 1950, initially he was not planning a cycle but the songs kept coming. There is no specific theme, instead Copland tries to present a picture of the rather tart-voiced New England poet. There are many themes to the poems set, love and mortality, nature, faith and doubt, but the essential element lacking is sentimentality, Dickinson might be open, direct, quirky and complex, but even when romantic she is hardly sentimental. Copland reflects this, he is also the least romantic of composers, and he also reflects the quirkiness of Dickinson's writing, the way she can turn a poem with a few lines.

We began with an almost hymn-like account of 'Nature, the Gentlest Mother' with Alder's performance complemented by the Nature-like sounds coming out of Middleton's piano. There was a warmth to this performance, with no sense of Dickinson's tart coolness, instead Alder was by turns vivid, characterful, quietly plangent, and thoughtful. Even when being gentle she could be quirky, and each song was full of character and story; essentially this was a series of (very) short stories told by pair of master storytellers.

We don't hear enough of Ned Rorem's songs, which is strange because he wrote in a style that was intelligently 20th-century, again, without frightening the horses. Early in the Morning dates from 1955, something of a waltz, yet clearly telling a story, just an evocation of a moment. Then I will always love you from 1957, darker and more complex as the poets thoughts roll on and on, the music becoming more intense and somewhat disturbing.

We ended with Hello young lovers from Rogers & Hammerstein's 1951 musical, The King and I, and when performed like this you could not help but think what a damn good song it is (it was written for Gertrude Lawrence who was a fine singing actress).

We were treated to two encores! First, more Rogers & Hammerstein with If I loved you from Carousel and then Florence Price's Night (written in 1946, the year after Carousel!).

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