Winterreise – Alice Coote & Julius Drake

Winterreise, D911

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano) & Julius Drake (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 28 March, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Alice CooteAlice Coote is already well on the way towards a glittering career, if that is an appropriate adjective for the possessor of such a mellow mezzo-soprano voice. She has already tackled some highly demanding operatic roles, including Carmen, and is rapidly expanding her theatrical and concert-hall repertoire. Now she turns to Schubert’s “Winterreise”, that pinnacle of European solo-vocal music, arguably of European art in general, Schubert’s unrelenting narrative of human disillusionment and frustration, setting Wilhelm Müller’s poetry.

I approached this recital with some misgivings. Surely this is a work which can only fully yield up its secrets to performers with the wide life-experiences which go with age. One can think of parallel examples from the operatic field. Sopranos leave studying the Marschallin until approaching middle age; while dramatic tenors almost always delay their first Otello until psychological maturity and vocal development coincide. Then there is the question of gender: Müller’s traveller is unquestionably male. Can a woman truly enter into a man’s psyche?

Examining the career of the supreme master of Lieder-singing, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, offers telling evidence on the age question. The baritone made his recital debut with this work in 1943 at the age of only 17. He then went on to perform it countless times in a career which did not end until 1992, and to record it at regular intervals with different pianists. His relationship with the work teaches us that “Winterreise” can be undertaken at any age with different but equally valid results.

The singing of the work by a number of distinguished female singers is a parallel counter to the instinctive resistance to a woman essaying “Winterreise”. Elena Gerhardt was the first to undertake the task, while more-recent interpreters have included Margaret Price, Christa Ludwig and Brigitte Fassbaender. Their performances have gone far towards validating a transgender interpretation. Perhaps Lotte Lehmann embodies the best intellectual case for the practice in her book “More Than Singing”. She argues that for a woman to perform “Winterreise” involves a process no more radical than that of an actor immersing him- or her-self in a character.

The mezzo-soprano active in opera is in any case likely to appear en travesti as a matter of course. Indeed the operatic roles already chalked up by Alice Coote include Gluck’s Orpheus, Handel’s and Mozart’s Sextus, as well as Cherubino, Octavian, The Composer in “Ariadne auf Naxos” and Hansel. Plenty of practice in impersonating male characters there.

Julius DrakeThe appearance on the platform of the two performers dressed entirely in black was a statement of their intention to present a powerfully theatrical account of the cycle. Julius Drake began the prelude to ‘Gute Nacht’ briskly. When his partner entered it was with a decisive thrust in her delivery. The resignation of the protagonist’s opening verses was soon dispelled in the third verse as she turned to defiance, clearly determined to take control over the traveller’s destiny. The second song ‘Die Wetterfahne’ introduced in Coote’s demeanour a prima donna-like character which was to be the defining feature of her overall approach. The opening lines of ‘Erstarrung’, treated as a cry of angry protest, confirmed this. ‘Der Lindenbaum’ was traversed like an operatic scena, with warm affection in the memory of past happiness balanced by the succeeding dream sequence, before an abrupt fortissimo from the pianist indicated the icy gust of wind that jerks the narrator back to reality.

Soon one began to notice Coote’s liberal use of physical posturing. She spent much time hunched forward in a stance of desolation. This was effectively varied – such as at the beginning of ‘Frühlings traum’ where she opened up her body, simultaneously clearing her tone as a temporary shaft of light entered the narrative. In ‘Die Krähe’ she turned her eyes upwards to the circling crow, only to cower back again under the bird’s threat.

Vocally the low keys chosen emphasised her powerful chest register, while allowing her to remain in the comfort-zone above, with plenty of tension but no pressure on her high notes. Occasionally she released a flood of glorious tone, notably in the second stanza of ‘Wasserflut’, while the final phrase of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ was particularly effective in contrast with the colourless tone with which the immediately preceding lines had been delivered. Elsewhere the combination of hard chest-tones and a dense, vibrant middle range made me think of the (mainly Verdian) operatic roles that might lie in store for her: Amneris, Eboli, and even Lady Macbeth.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) aged 16 in a drawing by L. KupelwieserAs the cycle progressed it became clear that the two artists envisioned their journey as ending not in death but in madness. The bizarre dance of ‘Täuschung’, including a screeched “es verlockt den Wandersmann”, followed by a manic ‘Mut’ bore witness to the traveller’s decline in sanity. There were surprises in the three slower-tempo songs around them: no protest by the traveller at the rejection of a place in the graveyard in ‘Das Wirtshaus’ but a willing acceptance of ‘his’ fate and an almost triumphant crescendo in the final lines, while the true end of the journey seemed to come in the penultimate song ‘Die Nebensonnen’. I have never heard the organ-grinder’s notes played as softly as they were in ‘Der Leiermann’, with Coote reverting to her motionless stoop and delivering the text in a disembodied, robotic tone. Operatic madness was again not far away.

Throughout, Julius Drake was a willing partner in this approach to investigating new properties of the work. With the final verse of the opening song interestingly treated as an afterthought, he brought the pianist’s short melodic phrases in both left and right hands close to the surface. The contrast in ‘Irrlicht’ between the heavy falling phrases and the skittering upward ones had more edge than I ever recall hearing, while the use of the sustaining pedal in ‘Rast’ contributed to the depiction of the traveller weighed-down by tiredness. The skill with which he seamlessly moved in and out of the central reflective section of ‘Rückblick’, surrounded as it is by hectic movement, was masterly. The cycle was given with minimal gaps between songs, though audience-members turning their pages foiled this on occasions.

There will be different conceptions and different executions of the cycle at various stages of Alice Coote’s life and career. This was hardly her last word on “Winterreise” and I would not care to guess what the next could be. Currently, if there are some moments of exaggeration, of archness and, surprisingly, of intonation on the flat side, and the operatic approach betrayed her into occasionally employing dubious emphases and portamentos, this was a constantly arresting reading of a great work, which will only enhance the singer’s reputation.

  • Second performance on Sunday 30 March at 7.30 p.m.

  • Wigmore Hall

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