Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Alice Coote/Julius Drake: Winterreise @ Wigmore Hall

28 March 2008

In the first of two recitals at Wigmore Hall, mezzo Alice Coote gave a mesmerising performance of Schubert’s late song cycle.

What marks this singer out as exceptional is not just a startlingly beautiful voice but also an extraordinary dramatic intensity.

Coote makes you feel that she has a vast reserve of suffering to draw upon, although some may find her interpretation a little too forceful at times.

While her emotional involvement was far from mechanical, there was an almost robotic feel to the singer’s movements. From the beginning, the level of intensity was high; this was less a performance of reflection than an acting out of the torrents of emotion trapped below the iced river. It often veered close to the operatic.

Schubert’s great work trips and falters from one state of desolation to another, with just brief episodes of relief. There was some repose in the shade of the linden tree but, as the cold winds blew, Coote jerked back into a highly-strung state, finishing the song on the verge of tears. Something I’ve noted about her in recital before is that she carries on acting long after the song is ended.

There are fleeting moments, such as the stormy morning, when the protagonist seems to swoop out of her introspection and recognise the external world but we are almost immediately thrown back into a pit of dejection. If one is tempted at times to feel like telling Schubert’s wanderer to pull herself together, you wouldn’t dare do that with Coote, so disturbed a quality is there to the characterisation. This is someone not just saddened by the unrequited nature of her longing but balancing on the knife-edge of sanity.

Halfway through the journey, the insouciance of the post-horn’s trumpeting lifts the mood once again, only for it to remind the traveller of the distance she is from her beloved. Frhlingstraum, vacillating between lyrical hopefulness and the darkness that greets waking, was a spell-binding highlight.

This then is not the world-weary route; Coote’s lovelorn traveller does not go gentle into the good night that draws her like a magnet in the final songs. Instead of slinking away beside the hurdy-gurdy man, she ended the cycle standing tall and defiant.

Some of Schubert’s greatest writing is for piano and the integral contribution of the accompanist was in the hands of the superlative Julius Drake, always supporting the singer in the most sensitive way possible.

A woman performing this work is not common but certainly not unprecedented. Coote’s mentor Brigitte Fassbaender is a famous exponent. Another performer with whom the work is closely associated, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, has pointed out that Winterreise is no comfy evening of art songs but one that should leave the audience feeling devastated. I certainly left the Wigmore Hall chastened and ill-prepared to face the brashness of London and the journey home.

This is a performance that is likely to stay in Alice Coote’s repertoire for a long time to come, as a justly celebrated interpretation of this great work.

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