“The greatest thing in music in my life has been to have known Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler — in that order.” Bruno Walter’s declaration reminds us of the greatness of the contralto, whose birth this concert wonderfully celebrated with music “associated with her,” although some might mourn the lack of any Handel or folk song in an otherwise finely chosen programme.
Alice Coote is the only mezzo-soprano alive today whom I would want to call “the Kathleen Ferrier of our time,” Lorraine Hunt Lieberson having been taken from us by the same disease that killed Ferrier. What does such praise mean? Only that in the absolute sincerity of her interpretations, the forthright honesty of her delivery, and above all the wholeheartedly moving quality of her intonation, Coote is the worthy successor to the great contralto whose effect upon her thirty years ago was “life-changing.”
Schubert’s ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ was sung with all the barely suppressed passion which Goethe gives his speaker, the lines ‘An seinen Küssen / Vergehen soll!’ right on the edge of rawness, and ‘Die junge Nonne’ was almost indecently rapturous — who would have thought that a line such as ‘Ich harre, mein Heiland’ could sound quite so voluptuous? ‘An die Musik’ was similarly forthright in expressing a quite different emotion, despite a few verbal glitches and a little too much hesitancy at the piano.
That hesitancy was put to wondrous effect in Frauenliebe und Leben, with Graham Johnson providing playing of delicacy and sensitivity, especially in the exquisitely tentative music of the nachspiel. Schumann’s deeply sympathetic setting of Chamisso’s story of a middle-class woman’s life was heartbreakingly brought to life by Alice Coote, with each song inspiring tears at some point; from the complete lack of sentimentality of ‘Du Ring an meinem Finger’ to the no-holds-barred emotion of ‘Süsser Freund,’ this was singing of a dramatic power worthy of the legendary contralto herself. I required my hankie throughout ‘An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust.’
The highlight of the Brahms group was a superbly sung ‘Sapphische Ode,’ the richness of the singer’s tone and the seamless quality of her legato line echoed by the lucent piano. Mahler’s Rückert Lieder were sung with the kind of spacious serenity associated only with the finest interpreters of this music, the closing song a vignette of resignation and acceptance. A great recital, and a fitting tribute to a much-missed artist.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org