Alice Coote/Julius Drake review – restless soul-searching and piano anxiety

Wigmore Hall, London
With reference to Jung, Virginia Woolf and John Clare, Coote’s velvety mezzo-soprano song recital explored mental illness with increasingly disruptive tuning

Not for Alice Coote the regular song recital. This one, with pianist Julius Drake, came freighted with a Jungian title: “I myself am the enemy who must be loved? What then?” It was a characteristically soul-searching evening, all three works involving composers or writers who had experienced mental illness.

Nico Muhly’s brand new Strange Productions, written for Coote, is intriguing though not as eccentric or inventive as the title promises. It conflates poetry by John Clare with a 19th-century asylum doctor’s observations of his patient, beginning with a few bars of sweeping piano anxiety before the doctor’s calm voice enters. Muhly’s vocal lines, harnessing the velvety gleam of Coote’s mezzo-soprano, are restless, unwilling to settle on a definite harmony; the piano part, often rippling or rocking, found Drake taking a back seat. Coote made the words tell.

The texts set by Dominick Argento in his 1974 song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf were even more striking, though part of that was context: Woolf’s 1940 diary entry about feeling humanity pouring “to the edge of a precipice” felt horribly uncomfortable. There were fleetingly lovely moments in this, and in the Schumann that followed: the Kerner Lieder and, as encore, Meine Rose. Yet Coote’s tuning was increasingly disruptive, her colouration of words tending to take over her whole voice, pitch included. Sometimes, frustratingly, the harder Coote tries to create intensity, the harder it is to feel it with her.

Contributor

Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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