Sunday 31 March 2013

Haunted intensity - Alice Coote in Schubert's Die Winterreise

Schubert - Die Winterreise; Alice Coote, Julius Drake; Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0057
Though there is a long and distinguished history of mezzo-soprano's singing Schubert's Die Winterreise, the pairing still isn't all that common and often results in something extra special. Alice Coote is an artist who combines beauty of tone with a remarkable nervous intensity, so her performance of Die Winterreise was always going to be striking. She sang the cycle, with Julius Drake at the piano, at the Wigmore Hall in January 2012 and this disc, on the Wigmore Live label, is based on live recordings of two performances.

Coote and Drake establish the tone from the outset, with Coote providing burnished vocal tones and a fine sense of line, combined with a feel for the shape of phrases and a stunning intensity of words. She is ably partnered by Drake and the two bring a feeling of pressing onward and feverish brightness to the opening song, Gute Nacht (Good Night). This continues into the next song as Die Wetterfahne (The weather-vane) is characterised by an almost manic intensity.

Gefrorne Tranen (Frozen tears) is performed with a haunted feel, the performers bringing out the oddity of the piece. And Erstarrung (Numbness) continues the feeling, of anxious pressing onward. Coote starts Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree) slowly, again with a haunted feeling as the poet looks back, turning darker in the penultimate verse and we find ourselves in another world at the end.

Wasserflut (Flood) is sung with a mesmerizing dark intensity which brings out the ambivalence of the song. Throughout the cycle Wilhelm Muller and Schubert fix on apparently ordinary things as symbols of the protagonist's bleak mental state and this is something which Coote highlights brilliantly, especially in the way she brings out individual words and phrases.

Her interior performance of Auf dem Flusse (On the river) draws you into the protagonist's state. There are some lovely details in the piano too, nagging away in complement to Coote. She has a wide range of colours in her voice, which she uses to great effect, combined with a very expressive use of language.

Drake's gusts in the piano in Ruckblick (A backward glance) aptly mirror the poet's anxiety. Then in Irrlicht (Will-o'the-wisp) Coote is masterly and completely mesmerizing with Drake complementing her brilliantly. Rast (Rest) starts lyrically but Coote does not let us get away with anything and gradually the screw turns. A performance of Die Winterreise by Coote was never going to be light. But she mines the text without ever over-pointing the words, bringing a depth to them.

Drake and Coote's Fruhlingstraum (Dream of Spring)  is full of contrasts, the musical extremities mirroring the  protagonist's state of mind, with Drake matching Coote in dramatic intensity. In Einsamkeit  (Loneliness) you really become aware of the colours she brings to her voice, intensifying the words but still with a fabulous sense of line.

Die Post (The mail-coach) is sung with a haunted melancholy which lingers unsettlingly beneath the surface liveliness. And Der greise Kopf (The hoary-head) sees Coote singing with a bleached-out blankness, slowing the song so it is almost formless. Der Krahe (The crow) brings out Coote's histrionic abilities, with a fine sense narrative again conveying something under the surface.

Drake's accompaniment to Letzte Hoffnung (Last hope) twinkles, but hints at the anxiety which Coote bring out, conveying the decay of hope. And the grumbling in the piano is a superb counter-point to Coote's bleat narrative in Im Dorfe (In the village). her delivery is lyrical but intensely felt. The result is to make the song otherworldly, almost creepy, as if the poet sees the town from an hysterical dream.

Der sturmische Morgen (The stormy morning) is perhaps less sturm und drang than I would have expected. Whilst Tauschung (Delusion) is a lovely lyrical interlude, a delight, though of course it is all delusion. In Der Wegeiser (The Signpost) Coote sings with lyrical intensity, but thins the voice down to bleached bleakness and almost nothing at the very end.

Das Wirtshaus (The Inn) has a long, thoughtful introduction from Julius Drake before Coote enters, hauntingly beautiful with striking dignity, leading to a wonderful climax. In Mut! (Courage) Coote's lively performance is complemented by the rhythmic intensity in the piano. Coote brings a weary bleakness of tone to Die Nebensonnen (Phantom Suns) but offsets this with the still vibrant passion in her voice. The final song, Der Leiermann (The organ-grinder) is irredeemably bleak, but made beautiful by the lovely tone of Coote's voice and Drake's sensitive accompaniment.

This is a lyrically intense account of Die Winterreise, nervous and highly charged, pregnant with meaning; the bleakness of the message offset by the sheer beauty of the performance. Coote and Drake are highly communicative performers, but always within the shape of the music; this isn't an account which uses distortion of line and word for effect.

The overall timing of the cycle puts it at the slower end of the spectrum. Coote's 78:47 compares to Stutzman's 76, Padmore's 74.18 and Dieskau's 73 (in his 1979 recording with Brendel). Brigitte Fassbaender (with whom Coote studied) comes in at a remarkably fleet 69.51. But Coote and Drake's  performance never feels slow and you grow to relish the care which Coote and Drake lavish on the songs.

Though this is taken from live recordings, you can hardly tell. Early on there are one or two upper notes which sound pressed, but that is all. There is hardly any audience noise, except for the eruption of applause at the end. The booklet includes an article by Hilary Finch (more about Coote's performance than Schubert's song cycle), plus full texts and translations.

But there remains the issue of pitch, inevitably the higher keys in which Coote sings the cycle raise the work's centre of gravity. This is something both performers attempt combat, giving the piece a dark gravity, but the general tone is different to that of a tenor singing Schubert's original keys. I have to confess that I will always be attached to the cycle in its tenor version, but Coote brings such a singular vision to the work that I will gladly be re-visiting her recording.

The CD is released on 8 April 2013.

Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) - Die Winterreise, D911 [78.47]
Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
Julius Drake (piano)
Recorded live at the Wigmore Hall, 26 and 28 January 2012
Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0057 1CD [78.47]

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