Two Wigmore recitals of Clara Schumann and friends: first Helen Charlston, then Louise Alder

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various (programme below): Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano), Sholto Kynoch (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 20.3.2022. (CC)

Helen Charlston

Various (programme below): Louise Alder (soprano); Joseph Middleton (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 21.3.2022.

Louise Alder at Wigmore Hall

A double bubble here of song goodness, linked by the voice of Clara Schumann. While Louise Alder on the Monday lunchtime concert presented all female composers, Helen Charlston the afternoon before launched with Clara Schumann’s Op.13, linking it (aptly) with Brahms before mixing English music by Britten, Rebecca Clarke, Finzi and Juliana Hall and songs from Charlston’s brilliantly conceived project, Isolation Songbook.

Helen Charlston has impressed on multiple occasions in the past, including a Bach Weihnachtsoratorium with VOCES8 (review click here). Her voice is rich and beautiful, and it comes with a refreshing musicality which appears to be fully at the service of the composers in question. Clara Schumann’s set of Six Lieder, Op.13 date from the year of her husband’s so called ‘Liederjahr’ of 1840 (Clara’s set actually spans 1940 to 1843); the inspiration Cupid caused in both Schumanns gifted the world with so much. What becomes evident in the very opening bars of Op.13 is that Clara’s musical vernacular is very different from Robert’s, and highly individual. The chromaticism of the opening of ‘Ich stand in dunklen Träumen’ (‘I stood in dark dreams’) is most beguiling. Charlston’s legato, too, was superb – those who know this song, indeed all of Op.13, from Barbara Bonney’s recording with Vladimir Ashkenazy might be surprised to hear the extra layers of the music laid bare. The second song, ‘Sie liebten sich beide’ (‘They loved one another’), like the first to a text by Heinrich Heine, was, in Charlston and Sholto Kynoch’s hands, replete with yearning, with the pianist relishing Schumann’s heartfelt gestures. Kynoch delivered the repeated chords of ‘Liebeszauber’ (‘Love’s magic’, text Emanuel von Geibel) brilliantly, but it was Charlston’s legato, particularly in the song’s later stages, that impressed. Wonderful to hear the mezzo’s golden tone matching the text (the ‘gold’nen Schein’ – ‘golden glow’ – of the moon) before a Rückert text (‘Ich hab’ in deinem Auge’ / ‘I saw in your eyes’) delivered more harmonic magic from Clara Schumann. Her way with harmony is incredibly sophisticated. Nice of Charlston to give a ‘lunga pausa’ between the fifth and sixth songs to accommodate the page turn in the programme. This final song, von Geibel again, is a masterpiece in and of itself, closing with the poignant question, ‘Kannst du das Lied verstehn?’ (‘Can you fathom the song?’).

The Clara Schumann absolutely lost nothing in comparison with some of Brahms’s most famous songs. Kynoch has the ability to nail the opening mood of a song, something he absolutely achieved in the light first bars of Ständchen. Charlston told the story beautifully (superbly clean vocal slurs too) before arguably the most magical of Brahms’s songs, Wie Melodien zieht es mir (Thoughts, like melodies, steal softly through my mind). One of the most glorious melodies of any song, ever. Interestingly, Kynoch seemed to emphasise the piano writing’s late provenance: the Piano Pieces of Opp. 117-119 are a breath away; something that held for Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer, here a masterclass of legato from both protagonists. For the opening of Feldeinsamkeit there was the perfect bed of sound over which this song of peace could make itself known, each word relished by Charlston. A folksong to end, that archetypal Romantic symbol of the Lindenbaum, the lime tree from the Deutsche Volkslieder, WoO 33.

The move to the Isolation Songbook was made via Britten’s beautifully atmospheric setting of Thomas Moore, How sweet the answer (lovely hand crossings in the piano) and Rebecca Clarke’s fragrant, sophisticated 1919 song, Down by the Salley Gardens, dreamy, the piano garlanding the vocal line. Magical – Charlston’s feeling for a phrase’s shape never wavers.

And so to the Isolation Songbook, with inserted Finzi and Juliana Hall. Andrew Brixey-Williams’s Abat-jour. The Britten song had ended with repetitions of the word ‘again’; he, in the repetitions of the opening word, ‘Around’, it was as if Britten had found his mirror before the vocal line spiralled off, coloured by icy high piano. Interesting to pick Finzi, arguably the most sophisticated of English composers (albeit in understated fashion) to follow this, the lovely ‘As I lay in the early sun’ from Oh fair to see, Op.13b. Finzi is able to penetrate to the very heart of beauty; Charlston and Kynoch’s close was particularly memorable in this regard.

Back to the Isolation Songbook for the angular lines of Joshua Borin’s Nature is Returning, a meditation on how birds and animals started to reclaim their territory in lockdown. It includes an element of theatre (clapping and a real high five) – but holds much beauty. Another insert: the lovely ‘To Mother’ from Juliana Hall’s Letters to Edna before the way we go, Nathan James Dearden’s contribution to the Songbook, a very different song, the piano almost pointillist, the voice low and, here, beautifully resonant. Finally, Stephen Bick’s On His Blindness, with its warm harmonies and prayer-like demeanour. A fabulously thoughtful way to close, and a beautifully chosen encore, too, Purcell’s Evening Hymn (‘Now that the sun hath veiled his light’).

… and so to the next lunchtime. Louise Alder who was such a memorable Musetta in Puccini’s La bohème recently at English National Opera (review here), something rather different than the repertoire she sang here. Although having said that there is no doubting the impassioned nature of Amy Beach’s ‘The Year’s at the Spring’, the first of the Browning Songs, a passion that in this performance raised to positively exultant heights. The second song, ‘Ah, Love, but a Day’ is a miracle of flowing melody and shifting moods, each traced beautifully by Alder and Joseph Middleton. Perhaps ‘I Send My Heart Up to Thee!’ is the purest ‘Beach’, the rippling piano arpeggios against the aspiring, ascending vocal line.

The Clara Schumann here was the Op.12 (also published in Robert’s Op.37). Middleton’s handling of the stürmisch piano part of Op.12/1 was beautifully fluent, while Alder projected all of the impetuosity of a young girl in love. Most music lovers will recognise Rückert’s poem ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ from (Gustav) Mahler’s setting. Here was Clara’s, quite Brahmsian in the piano but with an individual vocal line that spoke from the heart and was beautifully shaded by Alder. That was placed last of the three – Op.12/3 ‘Warum willst du and’re fragen’ (‘Why enquire of others’) was placed second – some wonderful pianissimi there from both.

The fragranced bed of Gallic sound that Lili Boulanger creates in ‘Elle était descendue au bas de la prairie’ (‘She had reached the low-lying meadow’) was stunning, as was Alder’s delivery of the (sometimes high) vocal line. That is the first song of the set: the eighth, ‘Vous m’avez regardé’ (‘You gazed at me’) boasts a hypnotically oscillating piano part, while ‘Au pied de mon lit’ (‘At the foot of my bed’, No.5) has the most touching piano part – it struck me almost as a piano Prélude with vocal obbligato. A bell-like piano, implicit at first then more obvious later, creates the atmosphere for ‘Nous nous aimerons’ (‘We loved each other’, No.7), a slow song with a piano part that seems to slowly swing like a pendulum. Finally, ‘Si tout ceci n’est qu’on pauvre rêve’ (‘If all this is but a poor dream’), a song with a decidedly Wagnerian opening and markedly heavy gait. Absolutely revelatory to hear these songs live.

Alma Mahler’s music is another composer whose works need to escape the shadow. Laue Sommernacht (text Otto Julius Bierbaum) is full of heady harmonies; most impressive, though, was the way Alder seemed to breathe the vocal line into existence. The song links beautifully in mood to Ich wandle unter Blumen (I wander among flowers), which turns out, though, to be a very different song, moving into altogether other, and rapid, territory. Talking of different territory, Licht in der Nacht enters almost Schoenbergian territory.

Finally, Libby Larsen – not Lili Boulanger, as our song texts asserted – and her astonishing setting of the final words of five of King Henry VIII’s wives in her 2000 piece, Try Me, Good King. A pulsing piano note begins Catherine of Aragon’s final statement, which appears in the setting almost like reading a letter (‘My most dear lord, king and husband …’) before Anne Boleyn’s begins with a proper cry (and a really visceral one from Alder): ‘try me, good king’. Jane Seymour seems more accepting of her fate. Far spikier is Anne of Cleves farewell, almost playful and certainly witty, before Catherine Howard’s last words have the last word.

The texts are drawn from final letters and gallows speeches of the various ladies. Larsen interweaves a lute song into each song (Dowland, Praetorius, Campion). Again, one encore, the enchanting Night by Florence Price.

Colin Clarke

Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano), Sholto Kynoch (piano):

Clara Schumann – Six Lieder, Op.13 (1840-3)
BrahmsStändchen, Op.106/1 (c.1888); Wie Melodien zieht es mir, Op.15/1 (1886); Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer, Op.105/2 (1886); Feldeinsamkeit, Op.86/2 (c.1879); Es steht ein Lind, WoO 33/41
BrittenHow sweet the answer (1957)
Rebecca ClarkeDown by the Salley Gardens (1919)
Andrew Brixey-WilliamsAbat-jour (2020, from Isolation Songbook, commissioned H. Charlston)
FinziOh fair to see, Op.13: As I lay in the early sun (1921, rev 1956)
Joshua BorinNature is Returning (2020, from Isolation Songbook)
Juliana HallLetters from Edna: To Mother (1993)
Nathan James Deardenthe way we go (2020, from Isolation Songbook)
Stephen BickOn His Blindness (2020, from Isolation Songbook)

Louise Alder (soprano); Joseph Middleton (piano):

BeachThree Browning Songs, Op.44 (1889-1900)
Clara SchumannEr ist gekommen, Op.12/1 (1841); Warum willst du and’re fragen, Op.12/3 (1841); Liebst du um Schönheit, Op.12/2 (1841)
Lili BoulangerClairières dans le ciel (1913/14): Elle était descendue au bas de la prairie; Vous m’avez regardé avec toute votre áme; Au pied de mon lit; Nous aimerons; Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve
Alma MahlerLaue Sommernacht (1910); Ich wandle unter Blumen (1910); Licht in der Nacht (1915)
Libby LarsenTry Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII

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