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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Gustav MAHLER (1860–1911)
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen [17:09] Rückert-Lieder [19:03]
Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra/Marc Albrecht
rec. 2015/16, NedPhO-Koepel, Amsterdam
No texts enclosed PENTATONE PTC5186576 SACD [61:35]
Alice Coote has during the last half-dozen years emphatically proven that she is one of the very best song interpreter of her generation. I have hitherto reviewed three CDs with her, two live recording from Wigmore Hall and a studio recording with lovely French melodies, titled L’heure exquise – all three utterly attractive. On the present disc she joins the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra under its Music Director since 2011 Marc Albrecht for a traversal of Gustav Mahler’s three groups of orchestral songs. “Traversal” sounds like a run-through and that’s what it emphatically isn’t. These are deeply considered readings, where there is a very close rapport between singer and conductor, either for the simple reason that they are twin-souls or that they have had fruitful preliminaries – perhaps both.
My very first impression of the recording was the clarity and the transparency of the delicate writing for the wind instruments. The sense of chamber music is very tangible, but that doesn’t exclude thrilling fortissimos as in Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer (tr. 3) or an overwhelming climax in Um Mitternacht (tr. 8) or, the most spine-chilling of all, the opening thunderstorm of In diesem Wetter (tr. 8). The voice also carries out well, thanks to Mahler’s sensitive scoring and Marc Albrecht’s considered conducting – and of course the excellent job of the balance engineers.
Alice Coote creates an almost dreamy atmosphere in the opening song of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen through discreet portamenti and a great deal of rubato, both there and elsewhere – very obvious in Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld (tr. 2), which is both eager and recessed. Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer (tr. 3) is full of contrasting moods, depicted through inwardness and outward intensity and myriads of nuances. The end of Die zwei blauen Augen (tr. 4) is wonderfully hushed, almost as touching as Heinrich Schlusnus on his legendary recording from 1950.
The beauty of her voice is particularly obvious in the five Rückert songs, as is her nuanced legato singing and the concentrated inwardness. The opening of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (tr. 9), so soft, almost whispered, reminds me of Janet Baker’s recording with Barbirolli. Her readings of Mahler, and especially of the Rückert songs, have been my touchstone recordings for many years and Alice Coote is almost her equal. There is also the same sense of closeness in feeling between Ms Coote and Albrecht as the one between Ms Baker and Sir John.
In Kindertotenlieder the colours of orchestra are darker, more ominous, and Alice Coote responds to that with contralto-tinted tones. The interplay between singer and conductor is just as close here as in the previous cycles. Without over-acting she expresses the pain, the controlled desperation in Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen and Wenn dein Mütterlein, but also the light in the voice in the fourth song Oft’ denk’ ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen, there is an almost celestial beauty in her singing. And in the last song: the black desperation, the pain in the voice, but in the final bars when the storm clouds have dispersed – reconciliation. This is a deeply touching reading, on a par with another classic recording: Brigitte Fassbaender’s. The two are very different but both are in their unique ways so sensitive, so skinless, so completely satisfying.
These songs are among the most recorded orchestral songs in the catalogue and there are many rival versions that should satisfy even the most discriminating listener: Christa Ludwig, Frederica von Stade and Katarina Karneus to mention three more or less at random. Janet Baker and Brigitte Fassbaender will probably never be surpassed, neither Ludwig, von Stade and Karneus in their own unique ways. That’s also the level where Alice Coote belongs.