Saturday, 28 January 2017

Muhly, Argento and Schumann from Alice Coote and Julius Drake at Wigmore Hall

Nico Muhly - photo Ana Cuba
Nico Muhly - photo Ana Cuba
Nico Muhly, Dominick Argento, Robert Schumann; Alice Coote, Julius Drake; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 27 2017
Star rating: 5.0

Three powerful cycles, from 21st, 20th and 19th centuries exploring creativity and mental health

'I myself am the enemy who must be loved? What then'
This programme from mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and pianist Julius Drake at Wigmore Hall on 27 January 2017 explored creativity and mental health, with the premier of a new song-cycle by Nico Muhly, Strange Productions, Dominick Argento's From the Diary of Virginia Woolf and Robert Schumann's Twelve Kerner Lieder, Op.35. In the case of the Muhly and the Argento, the authors of the texts had experience of mental illness. Nico Muhly's new piece, written for Alice Coote, used texts from G. Mackenzie Bacon's On the Writings of the Insane and poems by John Clare (who spent his final years in an asylum). Argento's Pullitzer Prize-winning cycle, which was written for Janet Baker in 1975, goes from Virginia Woolf's first diary entry to the poignant last one before she committed suicide. And of course, Robert Schumann spent his last years in an asylum.

Dominick Argento
Dominick Argento
G Mackenzie Bacon published his On the Writings of the Insane in 1870, and the extracts Muhly used for his Strange Productions all referred to the way Bacon saw the act of writing as a tell for mental health problems, three narrative passages by Bacon are interspersed with a sample letter from the book, full of striking non-sequiturs, and two of John Clare's poems. The two Clare poems are full of lyrically passionate descriptions, but I was unclear how we were meant to read them in the context of a song cycle about mental health.

The work is constructed rather like a baroque cantata, with Bacon's narrative passages forming linking recitative between the three 'arias', the two Clare poems and the sample letter from Bacon's book. And, like some Baroque cantatas, Muhly's work started in media res with the piano plunging straight into the recitative-like setting of Bacon's text, Alice Coote's superb diction bringing out the sense of the words with comments from Julius Drake on the piano. The setting of Clare's An Invite to Eternity paired Alice Coote's slow yet lyrical vocal line with a spare, yet dark piano accompaniment. Muhly's use of melisma in the vocal line moved meant the piece gradually became more rhapsodic, with Coote developing in intensity and Drake's comments darkening, providing a mood of foreboding over Clare's lyrical rhapsody. The second recitative-like setting of Bacon's narrative, led to a letter from one of Bacon's patients, in which the text is full of free-association and non-sequiturs. Any single moment sounds rational, but the transition of one to another brought nonsense. Muhly's busy and vivid music enable Coote to really bring out the sense/nonsense of the words and she created a really disturbing effect, inhabiting the character completely. The final recitative section, led to the setting of Clare's 'I am!' in a form of lyrical arioso, which Coote and Drake made really strong and powerful stuff, getting quite mystical at times.

Nico Muhly always writes intelligently and sympathetically for the voice, and his new piece really played to Alice Coote and Julius Drake's strengths, enabling them to give a powerful and disturbing performance, yet to have a view of Muhly's music I think I would have to have further listening.


The second work in the programme was written for Janet Baker by Dominic Argento, and premiered by Baker and Martin Isepp in 1975 in Minneapolis. Argento sets eight excerpts from Virginia Woolf's diary, set in chronological order from the first entry in 1919 ('What sort of diary should I like mine to be?') through to the final entry in 1941 ('No: I intend no introspection'), with entries on anxiety, a fantasy play, Thomas Hardy's funeral, tea in Rome, and the Second World War.

Argento bases the cycle round a tone row, first presented by the singer in the opening phrase 'What sort of diary should I like mine to be', but the work is not dogmatic and Argento freely moves between tonal and atonal, matching Woolf's stream of consciousness with a flexible freedom, a sort of modern arioso. The first song is lyrical despite the tone-row, with Coote and Drake creating an elegant, clear yet expressive texture, yet with an expressionist feel. Here, and throughout, Coote gave a sense of inhabiting the text, giving us a feel of the personality behind the words and never coming out of character between the songs, so the eight songs formed a powerful and dramatic whole. The second song, 'Anxiety' was busy and vivid, quite a tour de force from both singer and pianist, with heightened anxiety from Coote and neuroses in the piano. The haiku-like 'Fancy' was full of colour, the performers bringing different colours to each line. 'Hardy's Funeral' was hardly descriptive and real stream of consciousness, with a dark strong piano complementing the voice's free arioso.

The piece was very text based, and the piano was an important partner, and as Woolf's fantasy took flight we got a sense of dramatic rapture. 'Rome' brought hints of popular song in the piano, refracted through Argento's style and providing an intriguing backdrop to Coote's musing. The work is not frightened of humour, and there were some neat comic touches which illuminated the darkening sense of crises in Woolf's mental health. 'War' was powerfully expressionistic, with disturbing repeated notes in the piano, stark and disturbing. The powerfully nostalgic 'Parents' was elegant, whilst capturing the magic and excitement of the text as Woolf thought about her parents - Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) & Julia Duckworth (1878-1895). And then the final entry, lyrical, tonal but profoundly obsessive, with hints of previous songs in the piano, leading to a real sense of mysticism.

This was a remarkable performance from Alice Coote and Julius Drake, with Coote giving a real sense of inhabiting the character whilst never going to histrionic extremes, and Drake's partnering of her drew some remarkable colours from piano with his very intense and present playing. This was a powerful account of a fine piece of music, where Argento's writing complements and captures the mood of Woolf's writing. I certainly hope that we will hear it again from Coote and Drake.

For those interested in the original performers of the piece, Janet Baker and Martin Isepp did record Argento's cycle, but I have only been able to discover a very expensive import on Amazon.

For the second half of the recital, Alice Coote and Julius Drake gave us Schumann's Kerner Lieder, Op. 35. These date from his famous Liederjahr of 1840 which also gave rise to Dichterliebe, and Frauen-liebe und -leben. Unlike these, the Kerner Lieder is a song sequence (Liederreihe) rather than cycle, but like Christian Gerhaher (who performed the cycle at Wigmore Hall in October 2016, see my review), Alice Coote and Julius Drake gave us a real feeling of a character taking a physical and emotional journey, with Coote bringing out a characterful sense of the young man involved.

Lust der Sturmnacht combined Drake's vivid, impulsive piano with Coote's beautifully controlled and shaped phrases, whist Stirb, Lieb' und Freud! had a lovely Bachian piano accompaniment to Coote's quietly expressive phrases, with a clear sense of the different characters involved. Wanderlied was taken at quite a tempo, until the final verses when things came to a grinding halt as we learn just why the young man is going wandering.

Erstes Grün was remarkably intimate, private thoughts, whilst sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend started darkly resonant, with Coote's phrasing flowing. The performers made Auf das Trinkglas eines vertsorbenen Freundes into something rather philosophical and not a little hymn-like. Wanderung returned us to the more lighthearted mood, with Coote floating phrases beautifully. A melancholy, thoughtful Stille Liebe led to the intense, questioning Frage. Coote's veiled tone and Drake's dark piano made something truly remarkable out of Stille Tränen.

The final two songs formed an emotional whole, quietly powerful and digging deep into this enigmatic music. The whole performance was an intensely personal one, with Coote inhabiting the troubled young poet and Drake fully her equal in the partnership, bringing out the complexity of Schumann's enigmatic music.

We were treated to an encore, one of Schumann's last songs Meine Rose.

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