Alice Coote/Julius Drake - Wigmore Hall, 28 March 2008
Schubert - Winterreise
Very few women have tackled the manly Winterreise successfully - Brigitte Fassbaender, and, memorably, Christa Ludwig are the only ones I'm aware of. And to add to the pressure on Alice Coote, tonight's performance, the first of two over the weekend, was being recorded.
Her performance tonight was completely idiosyncratic and entirely Alice, utterly spellbinding.
She swept through the entire 75 minutes with bare seconds separating each song, no pauses for breath, water or recomposure, turning the 24 songs into an uninterrupted torrent. This was not an intellectual exercise in laying each song in turn on a velvet cushion of considered response, but a revelation of the emotional truth underlying whole cycle.
Any blurring of the individual identity of each song was recompensed in the blinding intensity of the performance. Resisting any temptation to break the mood, the often jauntily-taken Die Post was in her hands cuttingly ironic, the illusory repose of Der Lindenbaum exposed as the bitterest of despair.
Alice Coote's voice is not merely an instrument, it's almost an orchestra in its own right. The core is a luscious velvety mezzo of great beauty, but we heard little of that tonight. The range of colour and expression she can extract is staggering, and she deployed it fearlessly. Not all of the risks worked - she can conjure something forceful and screechy, most effective used sparingly, like black in a painting. Here she daubed it on too liberally in the earlier part of the cycle.
No stranger to a trouser or two on the operatic stage, tonight Alice went for an all-black Liza Minnelli-ish look - black satin mini trench belted over narrow pants and a sparkly low cut vest. I mention this not merely in the interests of fashion. Alice Coote is an instinctive, almost compulsive, actress, and we would have got a different performance in a dress. Lurching forward, one hand in the piano, or twisted into some gawky pose or another, she cut an awkward, arresting, but entirely unselfconscious figure.
Julius Drake was an unintrusive and solid support, his role tonight very much a secondary one, no flourishes and no extended postludes, the piano symbolically on its shortest stick. As they left the stage after the final applause, she clutching the obligatory bouquet, he the wine bottle that the Wigmore Hall supplies to performers of the masculine gender, she made to grab his bottle. All that singing must build up some thirst......
Incidentally, I wasn't surprised to see a music stand - many performers need that crutch, regardless of how well they know their material - but I was surprised how often Alice referred to it.
Alice Coote and Julius Drake visited Radio 3's In Tune on Thursday to perform a couple of songs and discuss Winterreise. Here is the programme (their bit starts about 10 minutes in) - available online until Thursday.