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Seen and Heard Recital Review


Mahler & Schubert: Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano) and Julius Drake (piano), Wigmore Hall, 24.3.2006 (JPr)

The story of Franz Schubert is that of most composers of true genius; they live, have their few successes, many travails and then die with few really mourning their passing. That is the lot of the great artist. As a young adult lucky Franz got to abandon a financially secure teaching career in order to commit himself fully to his music. In his words, he had ‘come into the world for no other purpose than to compose.’ He never worked again in a public profession leading a very quiet life and adding to his prolific collection of compositions often just for piano and voice. Therefore, among the 1000 or so surviving compositions of his, Lieder are in the majority. This probably should not be a surprise since some of Vienna greatest singers were amongst his close circle of friends and collaborators in his music.

Schubert's short life of some 31 years was not one of comfort and ease. During this time, however, unsurpassed beauty and great imagination poured forth in the form of those songs, other works for piano, as well as, chamber music, and symphonies. Of course, as Mozart before him and Mahler after him (to name just two), he died without knowing that his music would earn its revered place in the hearts of successive generations of music lovers. He tried and failed several times to get recognition for his music, the operas in particular, throughout most of his life. During his life in Vienna (that city all three composers have in common) Schubert had never enjoyed the financial security or the material possessions of many of his affluent friends, his first published Lieder collections, and he was reasonably well known for his piano works among music students and local performers.

Alice Coote performed (without a break) thirteen of Schubert’s Lieder from the earliest ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ of 1814 to the later ‘Die Sterne’ of 1928. If I was given that task of picking just one to take to that famed ‘Desert Island’ it would be ‘Litanel auf das Fest all Seelen’ (Litany for the Feast of All Souls). Now I do not have a religious bone in my body and little interest in what happens to my soul when I stop breathing … and that almost happened during this song, so heart-stoppingly profound and ethereal did it seem with a hushed, meditative quality that took me as close to Paradise as I am ever likely to get. Songs like ‘Der Zwerg’, a sort-of black fairytale, brought out all Miss Coote’s dramatic qualities in her rich deep mezzo, probably contralto voice (why will singers not admit to being one?), in the story of a dwarf who was shunned by the girl he loves in favour of a king … another story as old as time! The dwarf takes her life and as they are on a ship lowers her into the sea knowing it is his end too. It was all so Grimm, sorry grim, but quite stunning.

The first half of the programme featured songs by Mahler, an eclectic selection of five, mostly Wunderhorn, settings with two Lied I was hearing for the first time, ‘Serenade aus Don Juan’ and unusually jocular (for Mahler) ‘Selbstgefühl’ (Self-assurance). These were followed by the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a wayfarer).

Here I review Christopher Maltman’s compelling account of these songs for Benjamin Zander’s new CD and it also includes some background about the importance of this music to his First Symphony. It is well known that part of their inspiration was the doomed love affair of Mahler’s in Cassell with a soprano in the opera company he was working for, Johanna Richter. In fact research reveals that the very young Gustav had a favourite Czech song ‘Let the knapsack rock’ which included the lines:

A wanderer,
A wayfarer,
Went from Hungary to Moravia
and there, in the first inn,
danced as if on water.
He danced like a madman
and his knapsack rocked with him.
whether it rocks or not,
the devil won’t take it away.

It is clear that the young Gustav saw plenty of these dancing journeymen (with their knapsacks) among those drinking to excess in his father’s inn. So his ‘Songs of a journeyman’ (the proper translation) were also inspired by an intense childhood experience.

In my review I mention how ‘by and large non-German singers seem to take more care with the words’. I am surprised to find Alice Coote was born in Cheshire because it was not only her ‘care’ with the words but her absolute understanding of their meaning and nuance, allied to her apparent gifts as a consummate actress both vocally and physically, that brought everything she sang to the stunning heights of emotional engagement. As an artist she lived, loved and died, never more so than in her gripping account of ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ (The two blue eyes), the last of the Wayfarer songs and its final line ‘Love and sorrow, and world and dream!’ when the lover gives up on life. She brought such a hush to the audience that everyone was fearful of intruding on public grief with something so mundane as applause.

I certainly will now follow Ms Coote’s career more closely after this stunning recital. She seems so European but is British by birth and training, for she studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, the Royal Northern College of Music and the National Opera Studio. She is a former winner of the Brigitte Fassbaender Award for Lieder Interpretation and the Decca Kathleen Ferrier Prize. Her operatic career has been mostly Monteverdi, Handel and Mozart. Undoubtedly her voice has the range and power for Verdi and Wagner. There is a future Kundry or Ortrud somewhere on her career path I am sure. What was remarkable was that 22 Lieder and the very assured encore of ‘An die Musik’ were sung without a note of music in front of her, thus increasing the communication between performer and audience.

More than a word here for her accompanist Julius Drake who revealed the technical skill of a virtuoso as well as bringing out all the subtle changes of mood needed throughout the challenging programme with just the most refined and elegant of touches on the piano.

Alice Coote and Julius Drake have recently released a recital disc of Schumann and Mahler for EMI. At the Wigmore Hall a marketing opportunity was lost as only a few copies were available and these immediately were sold. I recommend this (unheard) wholeheartedly and advise anyone wanting to hear more of possibly the most accomplished British recitalist of her generation to use the links on this site and purchase this disc from Amazon where it is available at less than £4. I do not consider there are many bargains in life but this would appear to be one of them.

Anybody following my witterings for this website will notice the lack of any complaints so far. Well were there any? Certainly yes because it upset me that this outstanding recital was wasted on an audience whose best years of classical music are far behind them. I am now no ‘spring chicken’ but still at least two-thirds of the sold-out hall were older than me. This superb music-making deserves to inspire a new generation to the glories of the voice but Wigmore Hall is preaching to the converted. It is about time for the Wigmore Hall ‘Proms’ and banning the Friends from buying tickets and selling them only for a short season to students or young people. If this does not happen concert-goers for this type of music are doomed to extinction. It was the case that on the night when someone young (in their thirties or forties?) and pleasant looking passed by I felt I stared too long (sorry if this is not PC) making me feel like a paedophile.

Alice Coote deserved a standing ovation… but standing was not possible for most of those applauding because they would have had to reach for their sticks under the seats first. They were an extremely appreciative audience and Alice Coote deserved no less.

© Jim Pritchard




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