Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Coote / Drake @ Wigmore Hall, London

26 January 2012

There are really only two ways to present Winterreise, the greatest of all song cycles; either you are the forlorn outcast who cannot fathom why you should have been singled out for such suffering – what might be called the ‘Habe ja doch nichts begangen’ interpretation – or you are the raw, exposed, angry reject who has not had, and never will have, “the fine point of his soul taken off to become fit for this world” as Keats put it. Alice Coote and Julius Drake place themselves in the latter category from the very first notes, and this performance, growing from yet so different to that of 2008, showed that when it comes to the interpretation of such masterpieces, the gender of the singer is of no relevance.

‘Gute Nacht’ gripped us in the most tender spots; no wistfulness here, but an anguished, defiant turning away from all that was believed to be dear, the only gentleness provided by Julius Drake’s exquisitely hesitant playing of the introductory phrase to ‘Will dich im Traum nicht stören’. The rawness here did not let up until ‘Der Lindenbaum’ where Coote’s unique timbre, burnished and suggestive of the ‘cello both in its sonorousness and its pliability, provided bittersweet emotions at ‘Ich träumt’ in seinem Schatten’. I don’t think I’ve ever heard so eerie a sound in all Schubert as the one which Coote produced at ‘Hier findst du deine Rüh’ where the lime tree’s tempting blandishments carried the same kind of invitation as the Erlkönig’s persuasion of the fleeing child. Even the rest promised at the song’s close did not deceive us.

Julius Drake always manages to make it appear that the singer he is accompanying is the only one on his books, and theirs the only possible interpretation, and this definitive, yet never arrogant style was much in evidence both in ‘Rückblick’ where his tempestuous vorspiel prepared the ground for the blazing commitment of the singer’s first stanza, and in ‘Einsamkeit’ where his playing took its cue from the crucial word ‘elend’ – no playing, or indeed singing, could sound more evocative of wretchedness.

Alice Coote colours her words in the manner of a Fischer-Dieskau or a Fassbaender, but her colours are entirely individual. In the final word of the line ‘Die Augen schliess ich wieder’, the emphasis was not so much on regret, as with the first of those previous great interpreters, but hopelessness. The moments of brightness in this reading of the work are all false ones, as with the heart-rending expression of absurd joy at the chimera of grey hair in ‘Der greise Kopf’ and the momentary delight at the appearance of the will-o’-the-wisp in ‘Täuschung’.

‘Ich bin zu Ende mit allen Träumen’ could be seen as the defining line as far as Coote and Drake are concerned – it’s the end of the road for all dreams, and even the despair can go no further. Yet it does, somehow, travelling via a wrought, abandoned ‘Mut!’ and a wrenching ‘Die Nebensonnen’ to a ‘Die Leiermann’ of barely suppressed anguish. This is not a Winterreise for the faint-hearted (is there such a thing?) but it is one which is stamped with the individual quality owned only by its greatest interpreters. If you missed it last night, Alice Coote and Julius Drake will return to the Wigmore Hall to repeat the performance on Saturday 28th – needless to say, most highly recommended, as is the very different partnership in the same work of Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis, which you can hear in the hall on February 14th and 16th. Now that should round off your Valentine’s Day in fine style.

Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org

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