Alice Coote’s voice has a rich flavour nowadays, full-toned with a haunting plangency that suits Schumann particularly well. Yet in this technically flawless live recital it’s not just the mezzo-soprano’s timbre that astounds, nor yet her musicianship, which we take as read; it’s her profound identification with the inner drama of these thirty-one Songs.
To compare Coote’s latest recorded account of Frauenliebe und -leben with the 2003 version on her debut disc for EMI is to understand how daring an artist she has become. The earlier reading was convincing and correct – her voice significantly lighter than it is now – whereas on this Wigmore Hall release she probes beyond mere notes to dig out the emotional core of the settings. The result is less a song-cycle than a one-woman opera about love, life and loss.
If Coote is the psyche then Christian Blackshaw is the beating heart of the partnership. They take the opening song, ‘Seit ich ihn gesehen’ (Since first seeing him), at a pace beyond slowness as the poet-narrator is left dumbstruck by a coup de foudre. “Wherever I look, I see only him”. After the Schubertian feel of ‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’ (He, the most wonderful of all), Coote’s naked interpretation sheds all concert-hall formality for the startling modernity of ‘Ich kann’s nicht fassen’ (I cannot grasp it) in which she values dramatic truth ahead of tonal beauty. The song sings more eloquently as a result.
The ubiquitous masterpiece that is Frauenliebe und -leben is the centrepiece of a recital that opens with a garland of Schumann’s finest love-songs, the last of which, ‘Mein schöner Stern!’ (My lovely star!) is a prayer for transfiguration that rends the heart. Coote pleads it with a controlled outpouring of vocal strength that recalls the great climactic swell in Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody.
Although Dichterliebe tells a male tale, it is no more a man’s cycle than, say, Schubert’s Winterreise, which Coote has also recorded. She and Blackshaw chart a bleak trajectory through Heinrich Heine’s plunge into the poet-narrator’s emotional depths. As dreams give way to tears, despair and false hope, the mood of Träume gives way to trauma. The later poems are a grab-bag of pangs for the coffin.
The darkened soul kicks in at song seven, the deceptively titled ‘Ich grolle nicht’ (I bear no grudge), which Coote delivers as a call of pity rather than hatred for her deceiver until a howl of pain, high-lying and untrammelled, unearths her true feelings. It is a shattering moment of artistry.
Blackshaw, an equal collaborator, colours and intensifies the drama at every turn. The moto perpetuo accompaniment to ‘Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen’ (What a flute and fiddling) gives way to an expressive feathering of the keys at the start of ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen’ (When I hear the little song) and the most touching epilogue.
The great closing song of Dichterliebe, ‘Die altern, bösen Lieder’ (The bad old songs) sees the poet flat-line into despondency, with Coote so intense that the listener hardly dares breathe and Blackshaw rapt as her reflection and confidant. At its end the audience’s applause comes as a ferocious intrusion. It could and should have been excised, particularly as the encore, Schumann’s setting of Goethe’s ‘Nachtlied’, so beautifully ends the disc as a hushed envoi: until the bravos crash in once more. The booklet includes texts and translations.