Friday 13 December 2019

A bleakly haunted journey: Alice Coote and Julius Drake in Schubert's Winterreise at Wigmore Hall

Franz Schubert: Winterreise - autograph manuscript courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum
Franz Schubert: Winterreise - autograph manuscript courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum
Schubert Winterreise; Alice Coote, Julius Drake; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 December 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A performance of mesmerising intensity, as we experience the disintegration of the haunted protagonist in the superb partnership of Alice Coote and Julius Drake

We heard mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and pianist Julius Drake performing Schubert's Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall in 2012 [a performance issued on Wigmore Live, see my review]. The two returned on Thursday 12 December 2019 for a repeat performance which was also being recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast.

In fact, the programme was radically different from that first advertised for the concert, which had been billed as including Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, a selection from Schoneberg's Das Buch der hangenden Garten and songs by Berg and Weill. But encountering Alice Coote and Julius Drake in Winterreise is always a mesmerising experience, and there was certainly noting stale or repetitive about Coote and Drake's performance, quite the opposite. This was very much a performance in the moment, as Coote brought a haunted intensity to Schubert's great song-cycle. Throughout Coote showed superb technical control and was brilliantly partnered by Drake, so that the two charted a very distinct path through the Wanderer's journey. Speeds were on the slower side, Coote took her time and allowed herself moments to savour the intensity of the emotion, but it never felt over done.

Throughout there was a sense of intense emotion bottled up, and for all the eruptions of climaxes it was a very tense, interior performance. Not so much a young man living his experiences as an older protagonist recalling strong emotions. Perhaps a key to the musical and emotional arc was that Der Wegweiser (The Signpost) felt the emotional heart of the work, starting with haunted melancholy and moving towards bleak intensity. Yet there were moments of real power, as the Wanderer girded themself up, so that the simple melancholy of the opening of Das Wirtshaus (The Inn) grew into a powerful conclusion which led directly into Mut! (Courage).

Drake and Coote started with an account of Gute Nacht (Good night) which was flowingly lyrical, but still with that sense of the protagonist being haunted, and Coote's account of the later verses was surprisingly trenchant. There were moments of vivid story telling, but this was about the Wanderer's emotional journey, Geforne Tranen (Frozen Tears) was more powerful for having everything held back, whilst Erstarrung (Numbness) was lightly flowing but deeply felt and rather compulsive with evocative piano playing from Drake. The simplicity of Der Lindenbaum (The linden tree) hid deeper emotin, and Wasserflut (Flood) brought great weariness in the piano.

The journey continued through conflicting emotions, haunted intensity and vivid urgency, contrasts which were emphasises in Fruhlingstraum (Dream of Spring), and the Wanderer's intense, interior life led to the otherworldliness of Der Krahe (The Crow). This was someone who was barely holding together, disintegrating before our eyes, or perhaps already disintegrated but attempting to recall happier times and how they got there.  Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope) was screwed really tight, with some fabulous piano playing from Drake.  Songs like Im Dorfe (In the village) were hardly descriptive, but illustrated the protagonist's state of mind, with the light Tauschung (Delusion) leading to that intense central point of Der Wegweiser.

After the vividness of Mut, we went on with bleakness and a sense of constantly being haunted. Der Leiermann (The organ-grinder) had no sense of closure, but was melancholy and intense with a sense of stasis, as if the Wanderer was sat under a tree unable to go on, yet listening to the organ-grinder and imagining a future.

Ultimately, we are face with the impossibility of putting into words a description of a musical performance, but the reaction of the listeners in the Wigmore Hall was indicative; at the end there was a long silence, as the audience members took in the immensity of the emotional journey travelled.  The performance is scheduled to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 28 December 2019, make a note in your diary!

Schubert: Winterreise - Alice Coote, Julius Drake - Wigmore Hall Live - available from Amazon

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