Alice Coote leads in a sombre but uplifting recital.
It speaks volumes about what a generous human being and performer mezzo-soprano Alice Coote is, in choosing to share the stage with two new generation singers; as she says in the programme,
“In this, my first solo recital with an unrestricted audience since the pandemic began, rather than standing alone singing for you, I feel it is more meaningful in challenging times to offer the stage to two artists from the new generation to share in performing these three great Mahler cycles that profoundly express our common humanity. They, like all other young artists, have in the past years been denied crucial opportunities to grow, communicate and be heard by us all. Being the very future of our shared cultural life for creators and audiences equally, now, more than ever they need and deserve our time and our hearts. In return they offer us the opportunity to share in the excitement and joy of what is ahead…”
In a brief, pre-concert announcement, she referenced the war in Ukraine, and that these dark days of war had influenced the programme she had chosen for this evening. Yes it was sombre – there can be no denying that. But as always with Mahler lieder, when performed so passionately and lovingly as they were here, one couldn’t fail to be moved by the Austrian composer’s unfailing grasp and understanding of the human condition, and his innate and unique way of bringing that to life through the power of song.
The first of the three song cycles, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen was given a probing, spirited performance by Marta Fontanals-Simmons. Plumbing the emotional depths of ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’ (When my love has her wedding-day), she revealed a well-schooled mezzo, more comfortable when singing further down the stave, yet there was plenty of bloom at the top. In ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ (I have a gleaming knife), there was pain and anguish in abundance, particularly telling in the way she coloured the words So tief! So tief! (so deep, so deep). ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ (The two blue eyes), ends on a disconsolate note, which she captured to perfection.
“…one couldn’t fail to be moved by the Austrian composer’s unfailing grasp and understanding of the human condition…”
Then came Kindertotenlieder, which at the best of times is a harrowing experience – but given the backdrop of what’s happening in the world today, its sense of emotional desolation had added resonance. Fleur Barron was quite outstanding throughout, mining each song to lay bare the raw, unfettered grief that underpins each one. Impassioned in the first, the line ‘Musst sie ins ew’ge Licht versanken’ (you must immerse it in eternal light) piercing the soul, whilst railing against her grief in the third – she held nothing back at ‘Dort, wo würde dein Lieb Gesichten sein’ (where your dear little face would be). With a faultless technique, and burnished tone, she not only pointed the text immaculately, but drained every drop of emotion from each song, yet without ever allowing them to become mawkish.
After the interval Coote treated us to a devastating performance of the Rückert Lieder, in which every sentiment was laid bare. A singer at the peak of her powers, Coote infused each song with a wealth of feeling and tonal colour. ‘Ich atmet’ einem linden Duft’ (I breathed a gentle fragrance) felt almost heady in its depiction of a ‘spray of lime’, while in ‘Um Mitternacht’ (At Midnight) Coote was so moved herself that she had to stop after the first stanza. The thought of the people in Ukraine had distracted her, she told us – but she started again, and was overwhelming in her intensity. There can have been few dry eyes in the house by the close of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (I am lost to the world), setting the seal on an extraordinary performance.
The mood was lifted as Fontanals-Simmons and Barron returned to deliver an enchanting ‘Hans und Grete’ (Hans and Grete) and a beguiling ‘Rheinlegendchen’ (Little Rhine legend) respectively. Coote closed the programme with a wonderfully poised ‘Ulricht’, ‘Primordial Light’. Throughout, Graham Johnson’s playing was impeccable – perfectly attuned to the three singers, and wonderfully supportive throughout. And on the basis of this recital Marta Fontanals-Simmons and Fleur Barron both have exciting careers ahead of them, and it’s wonderful that Alice Coote gave them this opportunity to shine.