Alice Coote and Julius Drake: "SCHUBERT: Winterreise"
Text and translation. Wigmore Hall Live 0057
In our over-documented age, can there really be anything substantially different about a singer's interpretation of Winterreise? As it turns out, there is something remarkable about Alice Coote's performance, and it isn't that Coote happens to be a woman. (One of the finest of all recorded Winterreises is Brigitte Fassbaender's, and the discography of the work would be far poorer without the contributions of Christa Ludwig, Lotte Lehmann and Elena Gerhardt.) Rather, Coote has a singular way with a song, and it can best be appreciated at the midway point of the cycle. In "Die Post," many other singers make a choice: does the narrator really want to receive a message, or does he demand one, or does he feel unworthy of one? For Coote, the answer is each of these possibilities. And she doesn't toggle between them. She gives us everything all together, the spectacle of a man who thought that he had closed up his heart but finds that it is now full of conflicting feelings. Similarly, is the crane in "Die Krähe" threatening, or symbolic, or companionable? For Coote it's yes — all of those. Moreover, in this song pianist Julius Drake adds yet another idea, his disembodied tone suggesting that the bird is merely an apparition.
This accumulation of layers at the center of the cycle would be wearying to the listener if it were applied to the whole piece, but Coote and Drake embed it in a larger shape for the evening. Their traveler sets out in the first song at the quickest pace I've heard, as if storming out after a quarrel. (Nobody does wounded pride better than Coote.) But by the twentieth song, the tread, though still regular, has turned to pointless forward motion. The fourth song, "Erstarrung," still presents us with an agitated, energetic youth, but the fifth song ("Der Lindenbaum," the one song to have a life outside of Winterreise) is used as an unusual pivot point. Drake makes the foliage ripple more gently than we often hear, and the performers make an unwritten, enormous slowing of tempo for the middle section. The tree, like the brook in Schubert's Schöne Mullerin, becomes a presentiment of a tragic ending. For a time, the journey then contains extremes of tempo, the adolescent theatricalization of grief, but by the sixteenth song, "Letzte Hoffnung," Coote's narrator shakes himself into the present tense. Although Coote is perfectly willing to go to the absolute limits of what she can do in this live performance from Wigmore Hall in 2012, the last four songs bring yet again something new. "Das Wirtshaus" is the point at which Coote's narrator realizes that there is no way back. There is no fight left, and Coote shows us how well the song responds to pure, seemingly uninterpreted singing. And then the inscrutable "Die Nebensonnen" gets the purest singing of all. The exhaustion of the character becomes the distillation of song.
Coote has a reliable vocal technique, but it is always in the service of the music. She is capable of a flawless diminuendo, but she carefully aligns it with the image of the light going out in "Die Nebensonnen." She has a beautiful legato, but she doesn't apply it as an all-purpose expressive condiment. And her partnership with Drake is complete. He tosses her an unusual articulation in "Irrlicht," half zither and half "Auf dem Wasser zu singen," and she imitates it in the next song. He knows the power of resisting an obligatory ritard at the end of a song (most acutely at the end of the cycle), and he knows when it is suitable to throw his singer around a bit. Most interesting of all is his use of a parlor-piano phrasing for part of "Frühlingstraum," to show how the sections of the song are trying to pull away from each other. This Winterreise is greeted with a loud, sustained bout of cheers and applause, which is not ideal for home appreciation, but which could not have been more honestly earned.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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