sat 25/10/2014

Coote, Vinke, Philharmonia, Maazel, Royal Festival Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Coote, Vinke, Philharmonia, Maazel, Royal Festival Hall

A great mezzo plumbs Mahler's profound meditations; her conductor seems less engaged

Alice Coote: greatness in (nearly) every phrase of Mahler's profound farewellBen Ealovega

It was bound, in vocal terms, to be a case of Beauty and the Beast. Stefan Vinke, though useful for killer heroic-tenor parts like this one in Mahler’s Song of the Earth, has made some of the ugliest sounds I’ve heard over the past few seasons, ineffable mezzo Alice Coote many of the loveliest, and with great communication, too. The wild card was fitfully engaged old-master conductor Lorin Maazel: would he stop dragging the Philharmonia behemoth-like behind him and let it be the bird of paradise Coote needed to share her deepest meditations?

At first, that seemed unlikely. Maazel (pictured below by Bill Bernstein) is one of those Mahler cyclists - his symphonies series soon draws to a close - who doesn't believe in Deryck Cooke's orchestration of the complete 10th and last Symphony; his loss, say I, but every conductor has his or her reasons. From the evidence of the one movement everyone includes, the opening Adagio, the rejection of Mahler's real last thoughts might have been a relief. This monument was more like a venerable ancient who knows the end is near but can't shuck off coquetry and affectation, while remaining testudinal of movement and cold as ice. The strings larded the lean earth as they plodded sclerotically along; even the big, brass-capped scream which breaks up valedictory hymns and purgatorial wanderings somehow pulled its punches.

Lorin Maazel So it continued with the initial "Drinking Song of Earth's Sorrow" in Das Lied von der Erde. Where were the swagger and the disgust? Vinke winged it with singular unloveliness of line, hardly ringing out the golden top of Mahler's desperate Brindisi (he was better, surprisingly, in the porcelain delicacy of Mahler's third-movement chinoiserie); the trombone snap on the last chord had more energy than the rest of Maazel's laid-back approach.

Then began the magic for "The Lonely Man in Autumn" - not just with Coote, but from the very first bars of desolate, distant violin mists and the most heart-piercing oboe imaginable in this piece (Christopher Cowie, freest of all with the seemingly improvised turns of the even more isolated piper in the last farewell). A slip stapled to the programme told us the mezzo was suffering from a viral infection, but you'd only have known it, perhaps, from her nervous rushing of the two climactic phrases in the two greatest songs (Maazel certainly didn't help here). Breath control is never usually a problem for this most committed of singers; nor, otherwise, was it. Elsewhere, Coote coloured and inflected every phrase to perfection: the silver-bark moon simply lit up as it soared through the farewell's blue-lake heaven, and in Mahler's profound setting of Wang-Sei's wisdom, the opening-up on the words "lonely heart" nearly broke ours.

Above all, this is a voice that gleams in the deep register of the ode to beauty, and can truly shine over the billowing waves of the great catharsis. If Mahler had thought a mezzo capable of singing pppppp on the final "ewig" ("eternally"), he'd have written that implausible dynamic into the score as Tchaikovsky occasionally did - and Coote could. Although vocally this was the ideal incorporation of facets in the last two fine mezzo soloists I've heard live in the piece - the heart of Christianne Stotijn with the poised technique of Sarah Connolly - it still needed a bit more collegial support from the man on the podium; though Maazel knows exactly how to master the difficult oscillations of the last movement's desponds and optimisms, and though his woodwind were always superlative, this was not a partnership like Stotijn's with the much more democratic Ivan Fischer to leave us totally speechless. Still, Coote made sure that we had our visions. And if you can sing Mahler's Abschied like that, there's nowhere higher to go.

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