Proms Chamber Music No.4 (11 August)

Arianna a Naxos
The Voice of Desire [BBC commission: world premiere]
Im Frühling
Um Mitternacht
Denk Es O Seele
Heimliche Aufforderung
Die Nacht

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

Reviewed by: John T. Hughes

Reviewed: 11 August, 2003
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The mezzo-soprano Alice Coote has garnered praise for performances both on the operatic stage and the recital platform. Her voice is warm and smooth, though in this recital she did not sound at her best. The tone was sometimes breathy, even wheezy, as if he she had a cold.

Haydn’s cantata Arianna a Naxos began the programme. It is an unbalanced work, with the recitatives too long for the arias. Coote rather overdid those recits, with much breathy tone deliberately imparted: too obviously artful. She was much better when she sang out, for then one could hear the tone fresh and unsullied. The interpretation carried too much angst.

The Haydn was followed by the world premiere of Judith Weir’s song-cycle The Voice of Desire, written for Alice Coote. It consists of four poems in the form of conversation between birds and people. The opening song, ’Nightingales’, had one thinking that here was just more post-melodic music, but the second item, ’White Eggs in the Bush’, has a catchy setting, with some emphatic chords from the piano. Even more interesting is Thomas Hardy’s ’The Darkling Thrush’, which has a fascinating eerieness about it, set as it is against an initially stark accompaniment appropriate to a Hardy poem, though as the song progressed, the piano part becomes more intricate. ’I Had a Dove’, the fourth and last song, is a short and attractive lament with a rather perky accompaniment, It was sung again as the single encore. I must listen to the repeat of the broadcast to see if I can gain more from the first song. Alice Coote differentiated sufficiently among the songs but was again rather wheezy in places.

There followed four Hugo Wolf Lieder, with too much breathiness also in Im Frühling. Is Coote overdoing it for effect? If so, I wish she wouldn’t for ’dead’ notes are often the result; notes with no tone, no music. Alice Coote is too good a singer to have to resort to such artifice. When she employed full tone in Abschied, with her rich lower-middle range on display, one could hear the voice properly.

The ’arty’ approach also marred the opening few bars of Die Nacht among the Strauss songs. A varied treatment is to be welcomed, but not if tone is being sacrificed in the achievement. There becomes a danger of preciosity.

Are not British concertgoers fortunate in having so many fine accompanists around? Here Julius Drake was the welcome partner, whether prancing exultantly through the amusing postlude of Wolf’s Abschied or the sparser phrases in the Weir cycle. How caressingly gentle was his playing in Strauss’s Morgen, the final chord of which was allowed to die away before the audience applauded.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Sunday 17 August at 1 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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