Marian Anderson, the famed African-American contralto, once remarked of Kathleen Ferrier, “My God, what a voice – and what a face!” This concert was a Centenary Celebration of Ferrier’s art at the Wigmore Hall, and I reflected (not for the first time) how aptly Anderson’s words could also apply to Alice Coote, the evening’s distinguished soloist. Several approaches with regard to programming could have been taken to recall Ferrier’s repertoire, from a focus on English song and traditionals to German Lieder, or mixing the two. In this event though the emphasis was largely on the German repertoire that featured in Ferrier’s most famous recital, given with Bruno Walter in Edinburgh in 1949. Needless to add, this is also repertoire that Graham Johnson and Alice Coote have long excelled in.

Alice Coote © Ben Ealovega
Alice Coote
© Ben Ealovega

A group of five Schubert songs began the proceedings. Even if in “Gretchen am Spinnerade” Coote’s tone did not immediately establish itself, the reading was searching and anxious. “An die Musik” was aptly reverent, with the apparent simplicity of delivery against Johnson’s restrained accompaniment being a notable feature. “Du liebst mich nicht” was delivered with firmness of tone and such awareness of the textual inferences that the implied sense of solitude was readily apparent. Contrasts of vocal colour brought out the terror that lurks within “Der Tod und das Mädchen”, all the more starkly felt against the backdrop of Johnson’s deathly accompaniment. “Die junge Nonne” ended the selection in rather transcendental manner, as Alice Coote inexorably steered the narrative of inner emotion towards the final ringing “Alleluja!”

Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben is arguably the most personally felt of all song cycles for the female voice, charting the course of a marriage from a woman’s viewpoint. Spanning the pangs of first love, the subsequent mutual passions, childbirth, later heartache and, ultimately, the painful loss of widowhood, Schumann’s sense of narrative progression requires that each of Chamisso’s lyrics be contextualised effectively and discretely by the accompaniment. “Seit ich ihn gesehen” found the narrator reflecting almost in disbelief, the sparsity of the piano writing emphasising both the simplicity of vocal line and the singer’s wonder at the onset of love. The joy of “Er, der Herrlichste von allen” sparkled forth with the warmth of Alice Coote’s deliciously infectious wordplay and nobly projected tone.

The sense of disbelief within “Ich kann’s nicht fassen” was readily felt with Coote singing it from the heart, her vocal shading ever subtle, alert and appropriate to the text. Immediately this was contrasted with glimmering brightness in “Du Ring an meinem Finger”, as if to bring the engagement ring itself before the audience. Impetuousness in the accompaniment was subtly and deftly balanced with a slight vocal backward glance to the innocence of youth in “Helft mir, ihr Schwestern”. “Süßer Freund, du blickest” tantalised with the prospect of birth and the bitter-sweet pangs of motherhood, and with Coote’s innate gift for word-pointing the sense of mounting emotion verged on the painful. “An mienem Herzen, an meiner Brust” found the joys of motherhood proudly displayed. All the more shocking then was the contrast of widowhood: hollowness of voice and subdued simplicity of accompaniment amplified the text. Johnson’s playing of the postlude – recalling material from the first song – gave the cycle its much-needed unity as Coote fixed her eyes in the distance, as if contemplating eternity. The considerable sensitivity shown was not only musical, as the dramatic tale evolved on Coote’s face to create a performance that was both acutely sensitive to the Romantic style yet also remarkably modern and direct in its emotional impact.

The group of Brahms Lieder was given with clarity of purpose. Not for the first time in the evening, Coote’s confidence in singing with pianissimo restraint was brought to bear on “Sapphische Ode”. “Die Mainacht” was also delicately shaded vocally and supported with great poise by Johnson’s playing. The blacksmith in “Der Schmeid” swung his hammer with great impetuosity, showing an almost fiery temprament. “Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht” conveyed a certain sultriness of atmosphere with consummate vocal inferences, before a pliancy of sustained line and tone added nobility to “Botschaft”.

An undeniably special understanding of Mahler was displayed by both performers. The sentiments within five Rückert songs were masterfully captured. “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” was delicately fragranced both in tone and textual nuance. “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!” was nervous and intentionally defensive. “Liebst du um Schönheit” spoke the eternal truth of loving for love’s sake with warmth and generosity. An eternality of entirely another dimension and personal significance, for Mahler at least, was felt throughout Coote’s desolate reading of “Um Mitternacht”. The performance of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” extended the emotional palette still further, as it should, but in the moment of utmost loneliness there was also a sense of resolution.

Instead of an encore, Alice Coote spoke movingly of the “life-changing experience” that hearing Ferrier’s recordings had been for her. She then sensitively laid a large bouquet of lilies on the Steinway’s half-open lid. The ensuing applause was, I feel sure, equally appreciative of Ferrier’s art as well as the evening’s performances.

The 2012/13 concert season might only be weeks old but this is a recital I know I will still hold as a cherished memory for years to come.