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Briefly Noted: Alice Coote Schubertiade

available at Amazon
Schubert, Songs, Alice Coote, Julius Drake

(released on May 6, 2022)
Hyperion CDA68169 | 71'36"
At the end of March here in Washington, Alice Coote was the best part of the National Symphony Orchestra's performance of Mahler's Second Symphony, led by Michael Tilson Thomas. The British mezzo-soprano recorded this selection of twenty-one Schubert songs, back in December of 2017, in All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, in London. The program is a mixture of rather simple strophic songs and more complex pieces, some relative rarities alongside some of the most often heard songs in performances with new ideas to recommend them.

Coote's wheelhouse is in the dramatic songs where she can open up her considerable vocal power, as in "Der Zwerg," which sets a truly bizarre poem about a dwarf who murders his mistress, a queen, by lowering her into the sea from a ship. Drake supports her with technical assurance, releasing from the Steinway under his fingers a broad swath of sound. Similar examples include a truly thrilling "Rastlose Liebe" and an equally restless "Der Musensohn."

Drake often works with singers to devise ingenious recital selections. In this case the program is a sort of chiasmus in structure, opening with one setting of Goethe's "An den Mond" and ending with another. This quasi-palindromic pattern is extended with other songs or themes heard at the opening of the recital and then in reverse order at the end: Schubert's "Wandrers Nachtlied I" and "Im Frühling," second and third in order, are balanced by "Frühlingsglaube" and "Wandrers Nachtlied II" in antepenultimate and penultimate positions, and so on. Coote's sometimes active vibrato is perhaps less effective in softer, less dramatic songs like these, but she is so musical that they all work.

This clever construction is not as exact beyond that, but the plan does put two famous songs in opposition to one another, yielding interesting results in comparison. In "Der Tod und das Mädchen," Coote summons up radically different vocal qualities for the terrified maiden and the comforting specter of Death. The latter features her extensive and shadowy low register (similar in some ways to her striking "Urlicht" in the NSO's "Resurrection" symphony). "Erlkönig" also involves the confrontation of a young person with the fear of death. Of the multiple vocal characterizations in this dramatic song, the haunted child is the most striking, for whom Coote lightens her tone straightens her vibrato a bit. Drake's accompaniment is not the most steady in those difficult repeated octaves, a rare shortcoming.

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