Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano) & Julius Drake (piano)
Recorded 26 & 28 January 2012 in Wigmore Hall, London
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: May 2013
CD No: WIGMORE HALL LIVE
Duration: 79 minutes
Eyebrows used to be raised when a woman sang Winterreise, but unlike our wakeful wanderer that’s an issue long since put to bed. In Lieder, where the singer is a storyteller rather than an operatic character, gender matters not a jot; indeed, several of the songs in Schubert’s desolate cycle positively benefit from a female voice. ‘Der Wegweiser’ (The signpost), for example, favours the shadowy byways of Alice Coote’s rich palette better than it does many male singers, while in ‘Irrlicht’ (Will-o’-the-wisp) the character is as distracted as Ophelia.
Signs that Coote and Julius Drake will not be treading an easy path through these twenty-four Müller settings are apparent from the outset, as ‘Gute Nacht’ (Good night) is stripped of its melodic inflection and presented as a matter-of-fact narrative with little sense of the torment to come. Some singers dive straight into the Angst here – even though the text does not support any such thing as the protagonist is still in control of his emotions at this point. Only gradually does the listener gather that Coote and Drake’s Winterreise will be a slow-burning, forensically-charted study of a descent into psychological disintegration.
The final stanza of ‘Der Lindenbaum’ (The linden tree) marks the point at which, in this reading, dejection begins to turn rancid. During the ensuing ‘Wasserflut’ (Flood) the doomed fellow is beset by a burgeoning psychosis that was not evident in the opening quartet of songs, and hereafter things are never the same again. By the time we reach the tenth song, ‘Rast’ (Rest – the title is ironic), there may be a calm of sorts but the wanderer’s respite is plagued by sores both mental and physical.
Irony is even more marked in ‘Frühlingstraum’ – a ‘Dream of Spring’ indeed, but one fractured in Coote’s intense reading by the ghostliest of nightmares with Drake sending surges of pianistic adrenaline coursing through the sleeper’s restless veins. In ‘Der greise Kopf’ (The hoary head), one of the cycle’s most chilling settings, Coote’s horrors at the repetition of “Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre!” (How far still to the grave!) preface a deathly hush as singer and pianist all but grind to a halt. We’ve travelled a long way since that deceptively prosaic opening song.
Drake’s airborne piano in ‘Die Krähe’ (The crow), circling Coote’s nervy voice with uneasy serenity, provides an interlude of sorts before the downward trajectory resumes. The arc of the wanderer’s decline in the nine-song final ‘act’ can rarely have been more searingly rendered than here, and by the time we reach the penultimate number, the eerily surreal ‘Die Nebensonnen’ (The phantom suns), time appears to be standing quite still. All that remains is a final song of disintegration, ‘Der Leiermann’ (The organ-grinder), in which one can practically believe the singer and pianist to have shed their corporeal presence.
These two fine artists’ profoundly-considered account of this great cycle ends, inevitably, in silence; how unfortunate, then, that an extended bout of rapturous applause has also been captured in all its mood-shattering glory. The release’s only significant misjudgement it may be, but it’s a bad one. The recording is excellent and the booklet includes the German text and an English translation.