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SEEN AND HEARD RECITAL REVIEW
 

Schubert,  Winterreise:  Alice Coote (mezzo soprano), Julius Drake (piano) Wigmore Hall, London 28.3.2008 (AO)


Alice Coote’s mentor was Brigitte Fassbaender, whose own Winterreise has become a great classic.  So listeners have waited for Alice Coote’s interpretation for many years, knowing her singular voice and personality.  Indeed, the pressure of expectation probably had an effect on Coote’s performance on this, the first of two recitals.   Coote is a sensitive person – as all artists are – and she would have known how much was riding on this performance.  No wonder she seemed tense and withdrawn at first.  But strangely enough, this in itself contributed to the impact of the interpretation.

The protagonist in Winterreise sets out on a journey away from social convention.  The beloved has deserted her in order to become “eine reiche Braut” and conform to what others want her to be.  So in Coote’s performance there was an intriguing tension between inner intensity and outward form, which connects to these themes in the cycle.  Coote relied a great deal on “acting”, extending the music through physical gestures, such as tearing at her hair. There’s a strong tradition that, in Lieder, that expression should spring from the inner power of the music. Indeed, there are many who claim that, because Fischer-Dieskau was fairly immobile, all other singers have to be.  But all human beings move involuntarily when they communicate, so why shouldn’t singers ? If Coote’s movements veered far closer to theatricality than is the norm, it was perhaps a kind of intuitive self defence.  Winterreise exposes a singer’s psyche in a raw, merciless way.  It’s hardly surprising that singers should want a kind of barrier between themselves and the audience.  Perhaps at this stage of Coote’s career she still needs a bit of protective cover, so I don’t fault her for her gestures.  They certainly didn’t harm her singing.  At some points she covers her mouth with her hand and bends her head. “Streng verboten !” the dogmatic might scream. But Coote’s voice came through clearly : the gesture helping her to shade the nuances with gentleness and vulnerability.  Eventually, I think, her inner strength will help her overcome the excessive acting, and liberate her natural, intuitive feelings.

This was a very moving performance because Coote understands the cycle’s emotional range.  It is by no means solely a one dimensional monologue of neurosis.  Schubert understood why Wilhelm Müller, the poet, made so much of external images like the crow, the Wirtshaus and the river. The protagonist is travelling in a defined physical landscape and doesn’t really lose all connection with reality. Indeed, the music reflects the dichotomy between the inner and outer world.  The dynamics pull from side to side, like the wind blowing the protagonist off her feet.  Here Coote and Drake captured the sense of swaying turbulence very well, intensifying the dramatic flow at different ends of phrases.  As a friend commented, Drake’s strong, confident playing expressed another element in the cycle.  The protagonist may be vulnerable but Nature is powerful.  Something pushes the protagonist on, so she keeps moving, instead of resting under the frozen Lindenbaum and passively yielding to death.

Indeed, what struck me about Coote’s performance was her courage. Coote’s protagonist doesn’t have a death wish.  The most touching moments in this performance were those where Coote sang with quiet, understated tenderness.  Her protagonist is a gentle soul, so her decision to strike out on this dangerous journey is even braver and more shocking.  Like Christine Schäfer’s Winterreise, the dichotomy between vulnerability and strength is extremely powerful.  Coote and Schäfer inhabit the territory of Winterriese so naturally that some baritone versions can seem quite shallow in comparison.

This was quite an intriguing performance.  There were some problems with pitch, intonation and diction, but technical glitches apart, there was enough emotional substance here to make one wonder where Coote´s journey with Winterreise will lead her in the years to come. Over the years, I´ve heard Coote develop so I´m fairly sure she´ll get there. She´s already grasped the most important part of singing Winterreise, which is understanding its psychological depth.

The concert was being recorded for eventual release on the Wigmore Hall’s own label.

Anne Ozorio


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