Johann Sebastian Bach to Elvis Costello: a programme of broken barriers at Wigmore Hall.
Some themed concert programmes are perfectly planned and balanced; others just hang together, but feel overly contrived; others still (I’m looking at not a few Proms programmes) slap any old stuff into the mix and hope for the best by pasting the word ‘contrasting’ over it. Alice Coote and Julius Drake’s Wigmore recital on Wednesday was a deliberate attempt to cross the boundaries between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ by pulling together songs by 25 composers spanning nearly 300 years on the basis of ‘music is music; we like them: we hope you do too’. It was a brave gesture to programme Bach, Berlin Bernstein, Bowie, and Brel together, taking in Hahn and Handel, Lehmann and Lennon, Mahler, (Joni) Mitchell and Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and Strauss, Wagner, Weill and Wolf, (and a few more that weren’t conveniently alliterative). And, in some ways, it worked.
It worked firstly because Coote and Drake are consummate performers. Drake’s playing, as always, was sensitive to both singer and song, underlining, for example, the quality of restrained ecstasy in Hahn’s L’heure exquise, the tiptoed humour of Arne’s Where the bee sucks, or the gentle throb of the rhythm under Mitchell’s Borderline; it goes without saying that his attention to the need to close the emotional arc of the song through Nachspielen in works such as Wagner’s Schmerzen, or Wolf’s Denk’ es, O Seele! was spot on. Coote is one of the great communicators, and we were not disappointed – indeed, the whole evening was an exercise in demonstrating how, even with the score in front of them, a singer can keep the audience engaged through gesture, through eye contact, and expression. Her delivery of text, as ever, was precise, and she used the whole range of vocal colours at her disposal to paint picture after picture: the light and delicate formality of Mozart’s An die Freude; the shift from glow to blaze in Handel’s Quando mai, pietata sorte; the sighing resignation of Costello/Bacharach’s My thief; the sudden chest voice arrival of Gilbert’s Fairy Queen at the end of an otherwise throwaway Where the bee sucks; the gloomy Russian intensity of Tchaikovsky’s My genius, my angel, my friend.
“Alice Coote and Julius Drake’s Wigmore recital… was a deliberate attempt to cross the boundaries between ‘classical’ and ‘popular’…”
The ‘classical’ material, as expected, was all delivered with brilliance and a sure understanding of period and style (the tiniest touches of ornamentation on the repeated passages of Bach’s Bist du bei mir were perfectly aligned with its status as one of Bach’s short works of casual genius). And here were some absolutely first-rate performances. Mahler’s Rückert Lied Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, full of intense sweetness and an analytical attention to degrees of quiet singing arguably ranked among the best ever performances; likewise, Strauss’ Morgen was given all the breathing space it needs – the last “…Schweigen” one felt was going to last forever, and that was before the gorgeously prolonged Nachspiel whose final resolution seemed to last for hours.
Crossover between genres, though, presents its challenges, and you always feel that, somehow, ‘popular’ singers singing classical music works better than the other way round. A song is a song, and its delivery with an informal voice rarely takes away its inherent power (Streisand’s 1976 album ‘Classical Barbra’ is an old but shining example of this; her accounts of Orff’s In trutina and Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga are a joy to listen to). Delivering more vernacular text with a classically trained voice, though, always teeters on the edge of comedy, and, sadly, some of this occurred. While many singers have covered John Lennon’s 1971 Imagine, it’s a difficult one to pull off. Its zeitgeist is so very strong that one feels that really, only Lennon – with his whole backstory at the time – can bring its true spirit to life. And certainly, only Lennon, with that nasal transatlantic/scouse voice can deliver the extended “You (hoo-oo-oo-oo”) with conviction; pronouncing it with rounded RP vowels (as did Coote) merely summons the comedic spirits of Slocombe, Bucket and Miller.
Thanks, in a large part, to Ben Dawson’s sensitive arrangements, some of the other ‘pop’ material was inspiringly excellent: Jacques Brel’s My Death retained its dark humour through a cabaret-style delivery underscored by a rustling wayward piano accompaniment; Nina Simone’s arrangement of Berlin’s You Can Have Him was a tour de force of stormy feigned insouciance. The star, though, was Bowie’s Life On Mars; realising that nothing could match Bowie’s otherworldly strained tones and odd vowels, Dawson opted for an arrangement full of shades of piano, from the opening crystalline drops high on the piano keyboard to the sudden lyrical and fluid “sailors, fighting in the dance hall”. The transition from this into the Mahler was a work of programming genius.