|Julius Drake and Alice Coote
Winterreise! We know of no other piece of music that can keep us spellbound for well over an hour. Wilhelm Muller's poetry may have been meant to be satirical of Romantic era themes but taken up by Franz Schubert, it became art of the highest order. It is the kind of text that begged for musical setting. Schubert heard the call and answered by composing a cycle of songs that are unmatched in variety and depth of feeling. We are almost as fond of Die Schone Mullerin which keeps our interest by virtue of telling a story, whereas Winterreise relies solely on an inner journey of despair and madness in 24 shades of black.
Composed in 1827, shortly before Schubert's death, the work's exploration of the inner life of an isolated human being, tipped over the edge by a romantic rejection, is just as relevant today as it was then. Just as the poetry begged to be set, the composition begs to be interpreted by a singer and pianist of great artistry. Last night at Zankel Hall the work received just such an interpretation.
As the performance began we experienced two reservations, one of which disappeared within moments and the other remains one upon which we stand our ground. The first reservation was about a woman performing a work that we associate strongly with a youthful male voice. Still, famous mezzo-sopranos have tackled the work with varying degrees of success and the work received its first performance at Carnegie Hall 60 years ago, by a contralto. Within moments we lost all sense of gender.
Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, receiving superb support from collaborative pianist Julius Drake, conveyed every nuance of madness, loneliness and despair by means of widely varying dynamics and highly effective word coloration. Moreover there was an arc to the performance--not one of starting gently and building to a climax, but one of ups and downs--just as a depressed individual may achieve moments of hopefulness before crashing into despair.
Each song was a gem all on its own but the work as a whole was given a shape. Mr. Drake's participation was remarkable. He was always right there supporting the vocal line, but let loose when Ms. Coote was silent. He brought out every element of nature in the text and made the visual audible.
It is obvious that the pair invested a great deal of time and effort to make the performance seem spontaneous. And now we come to the reservation that just won't leave us. Regular readers will recall how we feel about singers performing on the book. Our experience was that every time Ms. Coote drew us in with a moment of deep connection, there was a downward glance, a flip of the page, and the spell was broken.
As an experienced recitalist performing for a Carnegie Hall audience, Ms. Coote might have considered committing the work to memory, as so many others have done before her. That would have made the evening perfect.
Of course, audience members are not expected to commit the work to memory and, therefore, projected titles would have been welcome for those who do not understand German. It was unfortunate to see so many people with their noses buried in their libretti and missing Ms. Coote's excellent performance.
And now, we are wondering if Schumann's Frauenlieben und Leben has ever been performed by a man. The idea does not particularly appeal to us but neither did the idea of a woman singing Winterreise. One never knows!
(c) meche kroop