Keith McDonnell beats the lockdown to witness the Wigmore Hall’s last attended recital for a while.
No two performances of Schubert’s dark song cycle, Winterreise, will ever be the same – this goes without saying, given the different singers, both type and temperament, who have embarked on this bleak winter’s journey over the years. However, some commentators have expressed surprise that Alice Coote’s latest interpretation differed so radically from her previous ones. But isn’t this missing the point entirely? Circumstances, emotions and events all have a bearing on how an artist approaches a work, and the fact that Coote’s father died a few weeks ago no doubt infused this remarkable performance with an added dose of loss and despair. This song cycle is a work she’s lived with for a long time, as she said on social media ahead of this performance: “30 years ago he (her father) bought me a score of Schubert’s Winterreise. He used to listen to the legendary Hotter/Moore recording on vinyl in his painting studio. Aged seven or eight I would stand at the door and marvel at these miniature sound worlds that said so much to me even then,containing all the inevitable isolation every human experiences at some point in life or in death. Tonight I dedicate our performance of it to my beloved Daddy.”
And given this would be the last live event for many in the audience, on the eve of another lockdown, until – well who knows when, emotions in the hall ran high. Having had the privilege of seeing Coote tackle Winterreise on several occasions, the way in which she laid bare her emotions didn’t come as a surprise, but what made this latest incarnation so devastating, was their intensity and rawness. Her long walk in the darkness began with an almost understated ‘Gute Nacht (Good Night)’ which paved the way for a journey infused with melancholy, where the bleakness and sense of loss almost became too overwhelming. The climax to ‘Gefrorene Tränen (Frozen Tears)’ felt more like a cry of despair, whilst the closing line of the fifth song, ‘Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree)’ was sustained on what seemed to be a vocal line spun from gossamer.
“…given this would be the last live event for many… emotions in the hall ran high”
Coote’s ability to bleach a line of colour one moment, such as at the end of ‘Frühlingstraum (Dream of Spring)’ and then deliver the next song, ‘Einsamkeit (Solitude)’ with wild, operatic abandon left one marvelling at her interpretative skill, and ability to switch moods in the blinking of an eye. As the cycle progresses, and the songs become increasingly darker, the sense of a gradual descent into madness became evident in Coote’s approach both to the text and musical line. There was a sense of staring into the abyss with ‘Der greise Kopf (The Old Man’s Head), and while there are more menacing ways to approach ‘Die Krähe (The Crow)’, few can have delivered a more shattering climax than Coote did here at full throttle. With an almost unhinged, declamatory ‘Der stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning), and a wild ‘Das Wirtshaus (The Inn)’ this devastating, emotionally-draining journey led inexorably to its close with an overwhelmingly bleak ‘Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-gurdy Man)’. Supported at every turn by Christian Blackshaw’s exemplary playing, Coote’s Winterreise was disturbing and engrossing in equal measure, and she sang every bar as if her life depended on it.
More details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found here.