Alice Coote’s Centenary Tribute to Kathleen Ferrier

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler: A Wigmore Hall Ferrier Centenary Celebration Concert Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano) and Graham Johnson (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 20.9.2012 (JPr)

Schubert: 5 songs
Schumann:Frauenliebe und –leben
Brahms:5 songs
Mahler:Five Lieder to texts by Rückert

I made a rare foray to the Wigmore Hall, attracted to this concert by the publicity that said ‘For this centenary concert Alice Coote and Graham Johnson pay tribute to the legacy of one of Britain’s greatest singers in a programme drawn from the core of Ferrier’s repertoire’. The fact that she was actually born in April made me wonder somewhat as did the almost total absence of any mention of the wonderful Lancastrian contralto in the printed programme. The recital was entitled as above and there was a small advert about a commemorative book and that was about all. There was no front cover photo or profile, which was the least that might have been expected.

At the end of the concert Alice Coote returned to the platform with a huge bouquet of flowers, I briefly wondered whether somebody had forgotten to present these to her out front. It soon became clear that these were a tribute to Kathleen Ferrier who died prematurely young almost 60 years ago … on 8 October 1953. Graham Johnson said he had asked about encores he would be playing but that Ms Coote had reminded him that the concert was ‘not about us, it’s about Kathleen.’ She went on to tell us how she ‘first heard her 30 years ago’, that she ‘penetrated’ her heart and it was ‘life changing’. The flowers were put on the piano and that was it, no encores, no minute’s applause (in the modern way), and no encore by Kathleen Ferrier’s recorded voice. Alice Coote and her accompanist just returned backstage. In my opinion it was a very downbeat ending and I thought this tribute to Miss Ferrier deserved a better send-off.

I think Alice Coote was burdened in this concert by her admiration for Kathleen Ferrier. I have always admired the plaintiveness and warmth of Ms Coote’s voice, her wonderful use of words and the way she always sounds the most German of current British mezzos. Kathleen Ferrier was strongest in that part of her voice where most singers are weakest, then and now – the chest tones. That part of Ms Coote’s voice particularly seemed to take time to gain its true focus – as evidenced by rather stilted versions of Schubert’s ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ and ‘An die Musik’ that opened the evening. By the time she sang Schumann’s Frauenliebe und –leben Alice Coote’s dramatic qualities in her rich deep mezzo – probably contralto – voice made compelling vignettes of each of the songs. I love the way she ‘wears her heart on her sleeve’ with everything she sings and mostly always makes the listener privy to the emotions inherent in both texts and music.

Frauenliebe und -Leben is not at all easy to put across. Adelbert von Chamisso’s eight poems are fairly short though very intense, even if they over-sentimentalise obsessive or unrequited love, courtship, marriage, childbearing and heart-wrenching loss. What redeems these songs is the elegant music and the artistry of an interpreter, such as Alice Coote, who can chart the movement from one stage to the next with enough feminine intensity to bring out all the ‘shades of grey’ in their meaning. I liked how in ‘Sußer Freund, du blickest’ when her pregnancy is revealed she ended with a poignant ‘dein Bildnis’ (your likeness) and with one hand resting on her abdomen. Graham Johnson’s accompaniment was supportive throughout the concert but rarely beautiful enough and here he never really gave this cycle the bleak, desolate ending it needs if the music is to truly resonate.

There followed a group of Brahms songs, of which the highlight was a movingly heartfelt ‘Sapphische Ode’, and then finally we heard Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. Alice Coote is a supreme interpreter of Mahler and I look forward to hearing these again when she sings with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican next month. Somehow my expectations on this occasion were not fulfilled. At last both Ms Coote and her accompanist found some longer melodic lines that seemed to elude them earlier in the evening – I doubt that was just due to Mahler alone. Even then I wanted something a bit more ‘operatic’ from the piano, I certainly missed the bees buzzing in ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’, and the longer phrases were rationed too much in ‘Um Mitternacht’ and ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, as were colour and drama. The final words of that final song – ‘In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied’ (In my loving, in my song’) that tells us more about Mahler than any psychoanalysis ever could – brought me none of the contentment or inner peace it often can … implied regret notwithstanding.

Kathleen Ferrier had merited no mention even in Richard Stokes’s programme notes that were more an essay about how the soloist and the pianist should approach each song, seeming to cast doubt on any artistic reinterpretation. For those who did not hear her live, it would have been good to read how Miss Ferrier approached the repertoire she sang. Brahms and Mahler etc. were all well and good but where was the Handel, Elgar, ballads and folksongs she was so famous for, a selection of these – as encores – would have been a much more fitting final tribute than flowers to end what was not a very long celebration recital.

Jim Pritchard

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The concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 23rd September and check for its availability on iPlayer.