An Excellent Lieder Recital at the Wigmore Hall by Alice Coote and Julius Drake

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Strauss, Wolf, Wagner: Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Julius Drake (piano) Wigmore Hall, London, 13.9.2015 (RB)

StraussAcht Gedichte aus Letzte Blätter, Op 10
Wolf – Five Lieder to texts by Eduard Mörike
Strauss – Three Lieder, Op 27
Wagner Wesendonck Lieder

In the programme for this concert there was an engaging article by John Gilhooly, the Director of the Wigmore Hall, entitled, ‘Don’t let the song recital become an endangered species’. In the article Gilhooly points to the decline in audiences for song recitals across Europe and he encourages arts fora across the World to take the necessary action to connect modern audiences to song recital programmes. It was good to see a packed Wigmore Hall for this recital by Alice Coote and Julius Drake (clearly a step in the right direction!) but Gilhooly’s article is an important call to action, asking all of us to do our part in keeping this most important art form alive in the future.

Alice Coote and Julius Drake opened their concert of late Romantic German lieder with Strauss’ eight songs from Op 10 which the composer wrote when he was aged about 20. Zueignung which opens the set is the composer’s first published song and one of his most popular earlier songs. Coote and Drake captured the emotional resonance of the piece and allowed Strauss’ increasingly lush harmonies to build. Drake artfully brought out the humour in Nichts while Coote brought a carefree and light exuberance to the vocal line. Die Nacht conveys the onset of night and here Coote did a brilliant job sustaining the vocal line and in handling some of the exquisite modulations. In Die Georgine Drake made the most of Strauss’ crunchy expressive harmonies and Coote demonstrated enormous sensitivity to the language and the word painting. She also used an impressive range of dynamics and some of her quiet singing was very affecting. Both performers captured the bitter sweet quality of Geduld and its underlying sense of sadness. Both performers also captured the arresting and dramatic quality of Die Verschweigenen and the poison that lurks beneath beautiful flowers in Die Zeitlose. Allerseelen is one of Strauss’ most beautiful songs and it received an extremely sensitive performance with Coote bringing a sense of intimacy to the early stanzas and soaring passion at the climax of the song.

From Strauss we moved to Wolf’s Mörike Lieder which the composer wrote a few years after the Strauss collection, in 1888. Um Mitternacht has echoes of Schubert’s Nacht und Träume. Drake gave us crespuscular rumblings in the piano while Coote demonstrated once again what a fine singer she in the lower vocal register and how well she evokes dark colours. Denk es, o Seele! ends Mörike’s novel which describes the apocryphal journey of Mozart and his wife to Prague. I really liked the way Drake captured the fantastical elements in the song and both players did well in conveying the sense of unease. Coote brought an emotional directness and simplicity to Verborgenheit while Drake expertly conjured up the libidinous storm of Begegnung. The first half of the concert ended with Nimmersatte Liebe which both performers treated with a coy tongue-in-cheek humour.

The second half opened with three songs from Strauss’ Op 27 collection which were originally written as a wedding present for the composer’s wife, soprano Pauline de Ahna. Coote and Drake opened with Ruhe, meine Seele, regarded by many as one of Strauss’ greatest songs. There was much to admire in this performance but it did not quite capture consistently the magic of the opening section and I wondered if they might make even more of the sense of the threat in the song. The next two songs, Heimliche Aufforderung and Morgen!, are settings of poems by John Henry Mackay which have a homosexual subtext – Morgen! specifically looks forward to a time when gay men and women can live and love without persecution. Coote did an admirable job capturing the ecstatic quality and sense of rapture in Heimliche Aufforderung while Drake’s handling of the ripping accompaniment was exemplary. Morgen! is Strauss’ most celebrated song and many people know it from the orchestral version with its solo violin. Drake brought out the warm glow and luminous quality of the accompaniment while Coote’s handling of the vocal line was absolutely gorgeous.

The concert concluded with Wagner’s five Wesendonck Lieder which the composer wrote in 1857, immediately before the composition of Tristan und Isolde, for his lover Mathilde Wesendonck. Two of the songs were described by the composer as studies for Tristan and they inhabit the same unique harmonic world as that work. In Der Engel Coote sustained the line excellently and she soared through the phrases in a powerful and assured way. I wondered if she and Drake might have made a little more of the extraordinary colours in this song. Drake conveyed the “rushing, roaring wheel of time” in Stehe Still! while Coote captured the vastness and epic quality of the song. Im Treibhaus uses material from the Prelude to Act 3 of Tristan and both performers made the most of the composer’s chromatic harmonies with Coote bringing an extraordinary weight and intensity to the song. Schmerzen was intensely powerful and dramatic while Träume – which uses material from the great love duet in Act 2 of Tristan – was full of longing and rapture. I wondered if Coote might have made even more of the sensual elements in the song but the final section was exquisitely beautiful.

Overall, these were first class performances by both Coote and Drake and a timely reminder of why the song recital is so important and needs to be preserved and nurtured. Coote and Drake performed the third of Strauss’ Four Last SongsBeim Schlafengehen – as an encore.

Robert Beattie

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