United Kingdom Recital of French Songs Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Julius Drake (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 20.4.2015 (RB)
Mélodies by Poulenc, Hahn, Fauré, Gounod, Chabrier, Chausson, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Bachelet, Debussy, Satie and Koechlin
This recital included a wide selection of songs from many of the major French composers of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Alice Coote is due to release a new recording of French songs next month for Hyperion entitled L’heure exquise (after a song by Reynaldo Hahn) so this recital provided a welcome preview of many of the performances on that disc.
Coote’s voice has a rich dark timbre that seems ideally suited to this repertoire. She deployed a wide range of tone colour and dynamics, artful phrases and embellishments and subtle vocal inflections throughout the recital. Her singing was uniformly good throughout the vocal range and there was also a gorgeous texture to her voice particularly in the lower vocal register. Like the greatest exponents of Lieder, there was an emotional directness and honesty to her singing which allowed the music to come to life in a very immediate and affecting way.
The concert was split into four discrete sections, all looking at different aspects of love. Coote and Drake opened and finished with Poulenc’s song, Les chemins de L’amour which was originally taken from a play by Jean Anouilh and described as a “pseudo-Viennese waltz”. With its lilting waltz theme it reminded me of some of the popular Parisian café songs of Piaf. Coote gave us exquisitely shaped phrases, effortless beauty of tone and glorious changes of vocal colour. Drake captured perfectly the rhythm and lilt of the Viennese waltz while blending perfectly with the vocal line. We moved from Poulenc to two late Romantic songs by Hahn. L’heure exquise is based on a poem by Verlaine and describes the rapture and intimacy of love in the moonlight. I loved the husky, smoky quality Coote was able to bring to the lower vocal register and the elegant line spun around the singer by Drake. Hahn’s Les Étoiles opened with artfully shaded tremolos from Drake while Coote brought a sense of yearning and rapture. Solemn and perfectly weighted chords opened Fauré’s Le Secret while Coote invested the vocal line with honesty and simplicity – I wondered if she might have brought a little more weight and intensity to this song. There was a shift to more sunny and optimistic material with two songs by Gounod. Both performers brought an easy flowing lyricism to Sérénade and I loved Coote’s elegant and deft handling of the florid vocal line and the way in which she was able to move between vocal registers in such a seamless and effortless way. Drake brought a rhythmic vibrancy to the piano part in Au printemps while Coote sang with elegance and ease.
The second selection of songs opened with Chabrier’s Toutes les fleurs which seemed to vacillate between passionate and tender feelings. Both performers did a fine job in navigating their way through the fluctuating feelings described in the song although I found this particular piece rather uninspiring. There was some nice interplay between Coote and Drake in Chausson’s Le temps des lilas and Coote gave us some ardent and passionate singing. There was heightened dramatic singing in Fauré’s Fleur jetée before we moved to the more subtle and artful beauty of Berlioz’s Le spectre de la rose (the second of the songs from Les Nuits d’Été). There was some gorgeous caressing of the vocal phrases while the transitions were well judged by both performers. Coote’s final pianissimo was absolutely breathtaking. The first half concluded with a poised and dignified account of Saints-Saëns’ Aimons-nous.
The second half of the recital opened with a glittering, ravishing account of Chabrier’s l’Ile heureuse – like Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse, the song is also inspired by Watteau’s L’Embarquement pour Cythère. Coote showed us her operatic credentials in Bachelet’s Chère nuit moving from soul searching and quiet reflection to soaring ecstasy. Drake did an excellent job depicting the boat charting its choppy course through the waves in Saints-Saëns’ Soirée en mer. Coote did a wonderful job sustaining the narrative thread of the poem while at the same time giving us some sublime and heartfelt singing. The subtle and delicate sensations in Debussy’s La grotte were evoked beautifully although I felt Coote gave slightly too much emphasis to the harmonic shifts in the second stanza and I would have liked to hear more of the subliminal shimmering sensuality. Coote and Drake concluded the third part of the recital with Satie’s immortal Je te veux. Coote sang with a mixture of seductive beguilement and bitter sweet desire, her voice soaring in the final moments of the song, while Drake artfully wove Satie’s enchanting waltz around the vocal line.
The last part of the recital opened with Hahn’s La chère blessure which depicts the masochistic feelings associated with the inconsolable heartbreak of unrequited love. I loved Coote’s depth and richness of sound and the resonance which she brought to the piece. Koechin’s Novembre was wistful and the bleak final stanza had enormous poignancy. Coote and Drake ended the recital with four short songs by Poulenc based on texts by Apollinaire. Voyage à Paris provided some sparkling wit and light relief while La Grenouillère was airy and highly atmospheric. Encores by Poulenc and Faure brought this evening of exceptional music making to an end.
Overall, this was an outstanding recital and I very much hope Alice Coote’s forthcoming recording receives the attention it deserves.