Alice Coote & Graham Johnson

Speak, Music
Five English Love Lyrics, Op.24 – There be none of Beauty’s daughters
Now sleeps the crimson petal; Love’s Philosophy
A Charm of Lullabies, Op.41
La belle dame sans merci
The Voice of Desire
A Soft Day
Late Summer
Vaughan Williams
The House of Life – Silent Noon
The boat is chafing; Lights out

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano) & Graham Johnson (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 16 July, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

This was the first of this season’s Proms Chamber Music recitals at Cadogan Hall. There were some administrative problems concerning the validity of Royal Albert Hall season tickets but I doubt if the indignation of a few patrons who suffered from this lasted long, given the quality of the experience they were offered by two supreme artists lavishing their skills on a selection of British song (not English, as it was promoted).

The programme differed substantially from that advertised: Britten, Gurney, Stanford and Warlock were added, at the expense of reduced contributions from Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Strangely, the BBC website failed to register these changes even after the concert had taken place!

Alice Coote and Graham Johnson began in the Victorian age with Elgar’s tribute to the power of music (words by Arthur Benson, the author of “Land of Hope and Glory”). Coote immediately deployed diminuendo and pianissimo as expressive instruments, without either impairing the audibility of the words. I did not feel that this song did Elgar much credit, whereas Quilter was well represented by his three songs. The almost symphonic setting of Byron’s poem “There be none of Beauty’s daughters”, with its harmonically distant middle section, is far more than the Edwardian salon piece that announcer Christopher Cook had led us to expect.

“Now sleeps the crimson petal” seems to me to have one of the most pretentious texts of any major poet set to music; fortunately Quilter left out the reference to Danaë in his curtailed version of the original lyric. Johnson also forestalled the potential feeling of perfumed sensuousness in this song by providing it with a sturdy prelude. His partner balanced that with a rapt, intense account of the voice part, with the volume turned right down for the opening of the last stanza. Her eliding of the last two lines was a triumph of breath control. “Love’s Philosophy” found her capable of changing the mood in the manner of a great singer of Art Song. Shelley’s rather specious argument about natural linkages applying to himself and the object of his affections being made for each other is set light-heartedly by Quilter and both performers here found the right energy and elated flippancy.

That other English poet of the early nineteenth-century, John Keats, was represented by Stanford’s setting of his “La belle dame sans merci”, the English “Erlkönig”, as it were. There was total unity between singer and pianist in this eerie ballad, literally so at the start, where for the early stanzas the piano is in unison with the vocal melody before becoming more and more independent, though still vividly illustrative. The passage where the narrator has his dream of the fairy’s previous victims was thrillingly frantic but each artist put the brakes on simultaneously at the point where he awakes with the realisation of his doom.

Coote’s use of her physical resources was not exclusive to this narrative song, indeed it was a notable and fruitful part of the whole recital. Other conspicuous features were the clarity of her enunciation, allied to absolute identification with the text. In Vaughan Williams’s “Silent Noon”, where the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti rejoices in the tranquillity and security of the lovers’ fleeting hour of rural isolation, one felt that she was inventing the words about the dragonfly which “hangs like a thread loosened from the sky” herself. She capped her interpretation of this sublime song with the merest thread of sound for the conclusion about “twofold silence”.

Nobility of tone, a seamless legato, eloquent phrasing, musical imagination and, as already suggested, a creative response to words were evident in Coote’s treatment of the other lyrical songs by Peter Warlock and Ivor Gurney but there were more rewards as far as I was concerned in her and Johnson’s performance of Britten’s “A Charm of Lullabies” from 1947. This requires contrasted characterisation and musical treatment in each of the five songs. In Blake’s ‘A Cradle Song’ sustained soft singing was backed by a soft tracery of piano sound, in sharp contrast to the vigorous iambic rhythm which dominated the accompaniment in the Burns setting. There was more drama in ‘Sephestia’s Lullaby’, where bitter times are forecast for the child and in Randolph’s ‘A Charm’ the baby is sent to sleep with blood-curdling threats. This varied traversal of English poetry from sixteenth- to nineteenth-century ends with ‘Nurse’s Song’, in which the nurse’s voice, unaccompanied at start and finish, assures the child of her protection. Coote showed added creative imagination to her intensity here with a strong crescendo at the appeal to the gods to support her.

Coote gave a brief interview before her (second-ever) performance of Judith Weir’s “The Voice of Desire”. She admitted to feeling flattered by the composition of the work as a vehicle for her personally and attested to the astute way in which the composer had correctly identified the individuality of her voice. She had found it uniquely rewarding to develop an interpretation of the work with the chance to consult its composer. I was a little surprised, given that Coote had referred to the non-operatic quality of her voice, that the first song contained some fast runs. Perhaps Johnson thought in terms of the stage here as well, as he played too loud, obscuring the words. Elsewhere, while I found the music less endearing than I expected, the singer revealed the profundity of the texts, hinting that they might be parables for the state of the contemporary world.

The hall was by no means full; those who were absent missed one of the major musical events of 2007 but, fortunately, have seven days to listen to it via BBC Radio 3’s “Listen Again” service. They will presumably also be able to hear the two touching, if old-fashioned encores which the two artists gave: “Love, if you knew the light” by Liza Lehmann and Graham Peel’s “The Early Morning”.

One thought that has been at the back of my mind throughout the process of listening to and reviewing this concert is that in Alice Coote we have a mezzo-soprano who in many respects resembles Janet Baker. Her accompanist’s career straddles the two generations, that in which Dame Janet was active and the current one. I hope he feels, as I do, that the golden line of great mezzo singing, in the concert hall at least, to which Dame Janet belonged with such distinction, is being continued by Alice Coote.

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