Alice Coote’s Rebellious Recital showed that taking risks can pay off – handsomely

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various, The Rebellious Recital: Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano) and Julius Drake (piano). Wigmore Hall, London. 24.5.2023. (KMcD)

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano) accompanied by Julius Drake

Brave, audacious or foolhardy? For her latest appearance at the Wigmore Hall, acclaimed British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote went well and truly ‘off piste’. Billed as ‘The Rebellious Recital’, Coote and her ever-attentive accompanist, Julius Drake, presented the 25 songs listed below – as well as an encore of Lennon and McCartney – spanning the generations and, more importantly, mixing up the genres. Wagner stood next to Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, David Bowie was sandwiched between Wolf and Mahler. On paper it looked eclectic, to say the least. Yet, thanks to her consummate artistry as a performer of boundless talent and intellect, Coote managed to pull it off. It should not have worked – but it did.

When operatically-trained voices digress from the repertoire they were born to sing there is always the inherent danger that the results will descend into parody. Who can forget Sarah Walker’s hilarious rendition of Kylie Minogue’s ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ on the French and Saunders show in the late 1980s? I am not inferring that Coote fell into the same trap here, far from it, but when resonant, classically-trained singers choose to include popular songs, written for an entirely different kind of voice in their programme there is a fine line between doing it justice and inadvertently sending it up.

Coote is far too accomplished an artist to fall into that trap. And whilst one’s ears took time to adjust to some of the gear changes between songs – from Wolf’s ‘Denk’es, o Seele!’ to Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ for example, is quite a leap – after a while the programmatic flow seemed entirely natural.

The three songs in the programme that really pulled on the heartstrings were all German Lieder, and ones that Coote is long familiar with. Mahler’s ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ from the Rückert-Lieder, was achingly-beautiful in its simplicity, Coote drawing on a dizzying array of vocal colours, and inflecting the text with love and care. She made every syllable count – the overall effect was properly devastating. Similarly, in ‘Schmerzen’ (from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder) was infused with passion and a sense of abandonment. The autumnal feel to the proceedings was further emphasised by the last song on the programme – Richard Strauss’s ‘Morgen’. Again Coote mined the emotional depths, exquisitely, spinning Strauss’s long vocal lines to perfection on a thread of tone.

So how did the crossover items fare? Surprisingly well. For the most part Coote eschewed any exaggerated mannerisms that could have proved fatal to such numbers as Irving Berlin’s ‘You Can Have Him’, which she delivered with swagger and a twinkle in her eye, while the sense of unconditional surrender in ‘My Thief’ (Costello) was perfectly etched. Thanks in no small part to Ben Dawson’s perceptive arrangements, which Drake dispatched with his usual aplomb. Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ captured both artists at their communicative best – Coote really relishing the words while Drake provided the deft accompaniment.

The evening took a cabaret turn with an effervescent rendition of Jacques Brel’s ‘My Death’, its undercurrent of subversive humour nicely brought to life, while Joni Mitchell’s ‘Borderline’ saw Coote perfectly at ease with the song’s idiom. There was only one item on the programme that did not quite work, and that was John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. Out of all the ‘popular’ items Coote and Drake tackled, this song’s unique tinta eluded them, but in fairness there are few, if any singers, post-Lennon who can do it justice.

From the outset, Coote had made it clear that she wanted to programme a recital of songs that she liked singing: ‘We have tried to juxtapose music that says some of the things we all possibly feel, irrespective of “genre”. It’s perhaps an unusual challenge stylistically as we are used to music strictly being part of categories, each with received performance norms, or perceived inabilities to coexist. But maybe that ultimately matters less than sharing this music, here and now, all together?’

Given Coote is an artist very much at the peak of her considerable powers, she has surely earned the right to sing what she likes. And this recital showed that taking risks can pay off – handsomely.

Keith McDonnell

Elgar – ‘Speak, Music’ Op.41 No.2
Mozart – ‘An die Freude’, K53
Handel – Radamisto, HWV12: ‘Quando mai, spietata sorte’
Wagner – Wesendonck Lieder: ‘Schmerzen’
Elvis Costello/Burt Bacharach – ‘My Thief’
Fauré – ‘Fleur jetée’, Op.39 No.2
Weill – Knickerbocker Holiday: ‘It never was you’
Tchaikovsky – ‘My genius, my angel, my friend’
R. Schumann – Myrthen Op.25: ‘Sitz ich allein’
Wolf – Mörike Lieder: ‘Denk’ es, o Seele!’
David Bowie – ‘Life on Mars?’ (arr. Ben Dawson)
Mahler – Rückert-Lieder: ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’
Joni Mitchell – ‘Borderline’ (arr. Ben Dawson)
Bernstein/Sondheim – West Side Story: ‘Somewhere’
Graham Peel – The Country Lover: ‘The Early Morning’
Poulenc – ‘Les chemins de l’amour’
Hahn – Chansons grises:L’heure exquise’
Schubert – ‘Seligkeit’, D433
Arne – The Tempest: ‘Where the bee sucks’ (arr. Edmonstoune Duncan)
Liza Lehmann – ‘Love, if you knew the light’
Berlin – Miss Liberty: You Can Have Him (arranged by Nina Simone)
Bach – ‘Bist du bei mir’, BWV508
Brel – ‘My Death’ (arr. by Ben Dawson)
Lennon – ‘Imagine’ (arr. Ben Dawson)
R. Strauss – ‘Morgen’, Op.27 No.4

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