By adding Schubert’s Winterresie to her repertoire Alice Coote joins a long tradition of female interpreters including the likes of Christine Schäfer and her own mentor Brigitte Fassbaender. In this performance of Schubert’s great song cycle, however, it was the piano playing of Julius Drake, rather than Coote’s singing, which penetrated to the heart of the work.

Julius Drake © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Julius Drake
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

There was a compellingly interior quality to Drake’s playing, particularly in the rapt pianissimos, which captured perfectly the sense of melancholy and loss contained in “Frühlingstraum”. Elsewhere, in “Auf dem Flusse” his sound had a biting edge to it and he hurled himself into the more tempestuous numbers with gusto. Coote, however, struggled to find a comparable range of registers and colours, her voice often sounding awkwardly restrained in all but the forte passages. The rare moments where she was able to match Drake’s level of sensitivity were among the most memorable of the evening; her ghostly, yet rich and centred, tone in the final verse of “Der greise Kopf” being particularly striking. “Das Wirthshaus” was another highlight; a daringly slow tempo lent the closing line, “Then onwards, ever onwards”, a sense of onerous weight and dread whilst the piano postlude was imbued with a searing intensity. The pauses between songs were judged to perfection by Drake; “Die Krähe” swooped down almost imperceptibly immediately after the final, leaden, chords of “Der greise Kopf” whilst the brazen emotions of “Mut” were allowed to completely dissipate before the strange and unnerving opening of the penultimate song, “Die Nebensonnen”.

Whilst Coote’s account displayed a close and detailed reading of the text, by stressing certain words too heavily she frequently compromised the sense of musical line as a whole. Unlike her partner, she seemed unable to let the music truly speak for itself, often feeling the need to fill Schubert’s introductions and postludes with all manner of affected gestures which hindered, rather than helped, the performance’s believability. Her portrayal was bold and darker than most, presenting an emotionally damaged wanderer whose madness was dominant from the very first song. This approach caused problems, however, perhaps most evident in “Die Post”, which opens the cycle’s second half. By muddying the opening stanza’s simple expression of hope and expectation with doubt from the outset, Coote denied the audience this moment of real hope – crucial to the structure of the cycle as a whole – and undermined the usually crushing modulation to the minor in the following stanza.

Although this Winterreise contained moments of great emotional power and musical insight, there was little sense of psychological journeying or development here at all, the sheer volatility of Coote’s manic wanderer creating a relentless sense of uniformity. Only in the cycle’s final two songs did one feel the dreaded pull of inevitability which, in the very best interpretations of this work, is sustained, slow-burning, from the very first note to the last.