Alice Coote's debut recording for EMI was one of the outstanding vocal releases of last year. Much of the mezzo-soprano's Wigmore Hall recital with pianist Julius Drake - Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben, Haydn's Arianna a Naxos and Mahler's Rückert-Lieder - replicated the programme on that disc in a performance of equally rapturous poise and beauty. The songs that she added as introduction, also by Schumann, were much less familiar, yet formed a perfect prologue to the well-known cycle.
In fact, the Heine settings of the three Traödien form a mini-cycle on their own, welded into a virtually continuous sequence and tracing the same arc from the ecstasy of love to the despair of bereavement as Frauenliebe und Leben, yet managing it all within barely 10 minutes. The emotional territory is certainly much more familiar than that of the bizarre, ballad-like Die Löwenbraut, also composed in Schumann's "song year" of 1840, and a rather lengthy setting of a strange poem about a jealous lion that eventually kills the girl it loves.
Despite its strangeness, Coote presented the song as a straight, unexpectedly touching drama, and throughout the Frauenliebe songs, too, she let her unerring sense of musical line and vocal colour provide the intensity. Here and in the Haydn cantata, there were phrases that would have profited from a bit more emphasis, a sharper sense of what the words were actually saying.
But that is picking at the smallest nits, and certainly in the Mahler cycle, arranged in an order that ended with an utterly serene account of Ich Bin Der Welt, there could be no complaints: every phrase was perfectly weighted, every fleck of emotion carefully registered, and the whole song was floated on an effortless, cushioned tone, to which Drake provided an equally sensitive accompaniment.
When Coote sings as superbly as this, there is no other British mezzo-soprano in her league, nor that many elsewhere in the world.