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).
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
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