Drawing names such as Sarah Connolly and Dame Felicity Lott to the dreaming spires, the Oxford Lieder Festival has defined itself as a leading musical exponent on an international level. It was fitting, then, that Alice Coote and Julius Drake should open the final weekend of the eleventh festival. Ranging from the romanticism of Berlioz to Poulenc’s sardonic humour, the recital encompassed an eclectic mix of French repertoire from the late 19th century into the early 20th. I was interested to see what Coote and Drake would bring to the programme.

Alice Coote
Alice Coote

The opening Fauré triptych, Poèmes d'un Jour, saw Coote unleash her glorious dark-hued mezzo. Beautiful as the depth of sound was, I found it hard to shake the feeling that her interpretation was overly fussy. The lack of sentimentality in Fauré’s setting invites a simple and direct performance. Although Coote’s innate dramatic sensibility brought out the subtleties within the text, it almost seemed too much at certain points.

A change of programme order saw the remaining Fauré songs positioned after the interval, so it was with Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été that Coote and Drake performed next. Coote’s rich tone seemed more fitting for the passionate romanticism of this cycle, her narrative attentiveness serving to illuminate the various facets of the frustrated lover who she was embodying. Coote exploited a wide range of dynamics and sound qualities, receding to a spine-tinglingly soft buzz at the end of “Le spectre de la rose”. Drake’s accompaniment in this mélodie was particularly fine, ranging from a soft halo of tremolo to a full climax.

Although both Coote and Drake gave strong performances of this repertoire, they seemed to be somewhat disconnected as a partnership. While they were technically perfect, I felt that each artist had envisaged a slightly different trajectory through the repertoire. The parts of the evening where both interpretations coincided were quite brilliant (this was the case in Berlioz’s “Au cimetière”), but at other points it felt like Coote and Drake were pursuing their own separate convictions.

The displaced Fauré songs followed after the interval. Once again, I felt that Coote and Drake’s Fauré was slightly too dense. In “Le secret” the balance was brilliant: the pair were particularly in tune with each other, and Drake’s tempo afforded the mélodie a spaciousness lacking in some of the other Fauré.

The pair certainly adapted well to the wide-ranging repertoire in the rest of the second half. Poulenc’s “Voyage à Paris” was given a straighter treatment than many other interpretations, and yet maintained a mischievous swagger. Although Drake gave the Gounod a touch of rubato, the Saint-Saëns would have benefited from a touch more shaping. Much of the Hahn seemed to require a touch more clarity in Coote’s diction, but “Dans la nuit” was another eureka moment for the partners (with Coote’s vibrato well placed to portray the emotional turmoil). The pair showed that they could easily adapt between extremes of style: Satie’s waltz was given a classy, refined treatment before Coote stretched her vowels to give a droll performance of the utterly trivial “Hôtel”.

The resounding applause which prompted Drake and Coote to give an encore showed that their recital was well received by the audience at the Holywell Music Room. There was certainly much to be commended in the evening’s concert, but it would have been elevated to an excellent performance if the rapport between the two had been slightly stronger.