Saturday, 23 January 2016

Alice Coote and Julius Drake in Schubert, Strauss and Elgar

Alice Coote
Alice Coote
Schubert, Strauss, Elgar; Alice Coote, Julius Drake; Temple Music at Middle Temple Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 21 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Improvisatory freedom and rich characterisation

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, accompanied by pianist Julius Drake gave a generous programme of songs by Schubert, Strauss and Elgar as part of Temple Music’s Temple Song series at Middle Temple Hall on Thursday 22 January 2016. The programme started with Schubert songs including An den Mond, Der Musensohn, Der Zwerg, Auf dem Wasser zu singen, Nacht und Träume, and Erlkönig, and the second half opened with a selection of Richard Strauss songs including Zueignung. Ruhe meine Seele, Heimliche Aufforderung and Morgen, concluding with Elgar’s Sea Pictures.

Julius Drake - Sim Canetty-Clarke
Julius Drake
photo Sim Canetty-Clarke
We had been warned that Coote was suffering problems with her throat, but little of this seemed evident from her fully committed and richly dramatic performance.

We heard two versions of Schubert’s An den Mond, Alice Coote and Julius Drake opened with Schubert’s first version. This was quite low key, but with a lovely attention to detail of word and phrase from Coote. She sang with a lovely rich lower register, but shaded the upper register finely. Der Musensohn was performed with vibrant vigour, yet a light touch in the piano and delight in the voice. Der Tod und das Mädchen combined the intense drama of the young girl with a vivid evocation of Death. Der Zwerg opened with a sense of mystery in the piano and a lovely veiled tone from Coote, developing a real sense of sense of suppressed excitement as Coote brought out the different narrative voices vividly. Her performances were not operatic, but in all the songs she rendered individual characters vividly. The second version of An den Mond was full of lyric melancholy, building to a real sense of rapture.

Rather than simply relaxing in the simple beauty of the song, Auf dem Wasser zu singen was really full of character in both piano and voice, whilst Seligkeit was surprisingly strongly sung and richly vibrant. Coote made Abendstern something rather touching and poignant. Nacht und Träume was quiet and intense with Drake making a lovely shimmer in the piano, and Coote singing with a lovely sense of long phrases, to create something mesmerising. Rastlose Liebe was all vivid vigour, with the phrases tumbling out.

Du bist der Ruh was beautiful, but with a real sense of inwardness, whilst the second Wanderers Nachtlied combined this with an enchanting sense of line. Finally, we were treated to a really vivid account of Erlkönig, with Coote combining real firmness of line with a virtuoso sense of the different voices in the song, especially the insinuating title role with the piano really turning the screw up in the tension.
The second half opened with a group of Richard Strauss songs, and it was fascinating to hear them sung by a mezzo-soprano. With Alice Coote singing the lower lying passages quite strongly, the music took on a new texture and you were aware of different colours being possible in this music. I came away realising that the songs could be rather meatier than we sometimes think. Zueignung sung with refulgent tone, and a great attention to the words. The tempo was quite steady, but Coote and Drake made the song full of emotion. Nichts combined a perky almost Mendelssohnian piano part with humour from Coote. Allerseelen was suitably inward and intense with a sense of suppressed emotion until the climax. Ruhe, meine Seele sounded amazingly dark with the lower key in the piano complementing the intense drama in Coote’s delivery making it seem really inspired. Heimlich Afforderung started with infectious joy, but when the poet does move to the garden for the meeting things became secret and seductively mysterious before building to a very full climax. Finally Morgen! In a performance which combined a lovely sense of line with barely contained excitement, and the feeling that the performers really meant the words.The performances were not always perfect, but Alice Coote's willingness to take risk and very free way with the songs made them seem almost improvisatory, bringing a sense of excitement and a sense of being in the moment. Julius Drake responded admirably to the challenge of partnering a performance of such freedom and these were performances of Strauss songs which were about far more than the simple beauty of the vocal lines.

Finally, we heard Elgar’s Sea Pictures in Elgar’s version from voice and piano. Regrettably Alice Coote was not dressed as a mermaid as evidently Clara Butt was when she premiered the work in 1899! Sea Slumber Song was hushed with some real magic in the piano, and Coote’s freely fluid vocal line making the piece rather poetic and leaving the sense of Victorian grandeur far behind. Drake’s characterfully affecting piano in In Have complemented the richly woven vocal line. Sabbath morning at sea was sober and serious become vibrant as Coote and Drake responded to the passion in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words. Where corals lie was not taken too fast, and performed in veiled manner before growing into real luxuriance of tone, with Coote’s voice taken on really burnished sound. Finally The swimmer was projected with a vivid sense of the words and a superb climax, and again avoiding the overdone sense of Victorian grandeur.

This was a wonderfully vivid, in the moment recital where Coote and Drake responded to character in the songs with a lovely sense of freedom so that it was gripping from beginning to end. Coote is one of those artists who allow themselves the freedom to take risks, and with Drake partnering the result was a performance which was mesmerising.

The audience responded warmly to the performance and we were treated to an encore, Schubert's An die Musik.

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