United Kingdom Prom 48: Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 18.8.2012. (JPr)
Weber: Der Freischütz – overture
Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony
What on paper was a typically unvarying BBC Prom (overture, a vocal work or something new, followed by a tone poem or symphony) ended as one of my highlights (so far) of my limited forays to the 2012 season. In an almost full auditorium that also helped to make it more of an occasion, there were admittedly a lot of probable Prom ‘virgins’ (tourists left over from the Olympics?) – because many were seen taking their obligatory ‘Here I am at the Royal Albert Hall’ photos for their friends and family.
For me Alice Coote’s rendition of Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen was a revelation and the perfect antidote to those who have tried to persuade me over the years that singing songs like these requires a different type of performance to operatic arias. It is possible that such a dramatic and forthright performance might not fit the more intimate surroundings of the Wigmore Hall but here Ms Coote’s intensely emotional account of these ‘Songs of a Wayfaring Lad’ filled the Royal Albert with a strong, radiant sound. Hers is a strong and characterful voice, warm and communicative in the middle and low ranges, and capable of comfortable excursions into soprano heights, as well as, some delicate pianissimos. Ms Coote fully explored these four songs – which Mahler set to his own words – with vivid individuality to bring out their sharply contrasting moods.
There was a transformation from the sunny optimism of ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’ to the rage of ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ where the repeated cry, ‘O weh!’ was almost heart-breaking. As wonderful as Alice Coote was throughout the entire cycle she was at her strongest in this song and I don’t think I have heard such vocal despair as she displayed during the final lines when the grief of a lost love turns to thoughts of death. Ms Coote’s characterful voice was warm and communicative in her contralto depths but clearly capable of comfortable excursions into soprano heights. She reminded me somewhat of Petra Lang and although Alice Coote has made her name in many ‘trouser roles’ I am sure she would be capable of any number of ‘grown up’ parts in Wagner, for instance, should she wish to develop her career in that direction. At the start I wondered if Vladimir Jurowski’s guidance of the excellent orchestral accompaniment was a touch reverential, however as evidenced in the final song ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ – together with his soloist’s contribution – everything moved onto an even higher plane. From the funeral march of ‘Ich bin ausgegangen in stiller Nacht’ to the reflective ‘Auf der Strasse steht ein Lindenbaum’ and the final melting into total despair at the concluding ‘Alles! Alles! Leib’ und Leid, und Welt und Traum!’ I doubt there will be any better Mahler heard at the 2012 Proms than this.
Once again can I mention to the Proms printed programme editors that it is not good enough to have Stephen Johnson writing: ‘We don’t need to know anything about Mahler’s life at this time to sense that he identifies with the young hero of poems’. Oh yes, the audience does need some such knowledge to enhance the understanding of what they are listening to! In fact this song cycle was inspired by the ending of Mahler’s youthful affair with soprano Johanna Richter who he met while he was conductor of the opera house in Kassel, Germany.
This Prom concert opener was a stately yet suitably sepulchral overture from Der Freischütz with an eloquent clarinet solo from Tim Lines. Considered to be the first German Romantic opera – and because of its engaging melodies and dramatic portent – it is as good a ‘curtain raiser’ to a concert as any overture. Throughout, Jurowski and his London Philharmonic Orchestra showed an unfailing sense of its structural drama.
After the interval came Tchaikovsky’s Manfred, described as a ‘symphony in four scenes after a dramatic poem by Byron’. Berlioz had first wanted to compose this but during a visit to Russia suggested it to Mily Balakirev who eventually passed it to Tchaikovsky. Through his hero Byron magnifies the moral suffering brought on by remorse possibly inspired by his incestuous affair with his half-sister Augusta – which Tchaikovsky may have translated to his own homosexuality. In his poem Manfred – another wanderer – becomes a demigod, a titanic figure. I knew this work only through Nureyev’s choreographic adaptation in the 1970s. Nureyev was passionate about this subject and identified to some extent with the poet as accursed Romantic and restless stranger in the world.
With Jurowski and the LPO their reading often revealed how suitable for ballet this music is and also Tchaikovsky’s indebtedness to Wagner especially in the passages involving the appearance of the Alpine witch in the second movement’s rainbow. The anguished first movement opened with a theme from the bassoons and bass clarinet that dominates the whole symphony. That second movement is a charming depiction of nature in music. Then the following movement is delightful in its pastoral simplicity but we occasionally hear a gloomy motive that represents Manfred’s longing for forgetfulness. The final movement brings us an ‘infernal orgy’ in which Manfred participates. The ghost of his lost love, Astarte appears to foretell his death and this eventually happens during the powerful climax that in this performance involved the Royal Albert Hall’s thunderous Grand Organ. Jurowski and his orchestra handled all the changes of pace and mood impressively; the pacing was apt, the phrasing clear and the all climaxes well-built. The LPO and its principal conductor deserved the ovation they received and this concert is well worth watching when broadcast on BBC Four on Friday 24 August.
For more information about the 2012 BBC Proms season visit www.bbc.co.uk/proms.