sat 15/06/2024

Coote, Blackshaw, Fiennes, Wigmore Hall online review – lonely hearts club band | reviews, news & interviews

Coote, Blackshaw, Fiennes, Wigmore Hall online review – lonely hearts club band

Coote, Blackshaw, Fiennes, Wigmore Hall online review – lonely hearts club band

Tchaikovsky songs and Russian poems harmonise in a melancholy magic

Trio of troubles: Christian Blackshaw, Alice Coote, Ralph FiennesWigmore Hall

Why, in Lieder singing above all, should an outpouring of deep feeling so frighten critics? Alice Coote’s unabashed emotionalism as a recitalist can sometimes bring out the worst in the stiff-upper-lip brigade, as reactions to her high-impact Winterreise (last given at the Wigmore prior to the current lockdown) revealed.

At least with Tchaikovsky’s song output, no one can plausibly claim that they really ought to be delivered with strait-laced placidity. Yet what struck me about this ambitious programme of his songs, interspersed with Russian poems spoken by Ralph Fiennes, was Coote’s ability to dramatise the composer’s own struggle between self-revelation and self-restraint. It helped that Fiennes so often stars in roles that pit passion against repression. That made him a fitting partner for Coote’s untamed voice. 

Christian Blackshaw accompanied, which meant luxury casting all round. It made for a drama-packed, as well as a star-spangled, 80 minutes. Coote (pictured below) took a dozen songs (sung in her finely articulated Russian) from the different volumes of “romances” that Tchaikovsky composed throughout his career. They came enriched not only by eight poems delivered by Fiennes, but by four selections from Tchaikovsky’s letters. Together, the items built into a kind of portrait of the musical artist as an anguished, yearning soul, in thrall to both unrequited love and restless creativity, with the poems as a choric commentary on themes embedded in the songs. The event’s title, Tchaikovsky and his Poets, did perhaps sow a little confusion. Some of the songs set other lyrics by the poets Fiennes read (Pushkin, Lermontov and Afanasy Fet) but most did not. For instance, the reliably show-stealing “None but the Lonely Heart” (which, by the way, none but Frank Sinatra absolutely nailed in his late-1940s heyday) comes from verse by Goethe. 

It goes without saying (or it should) that Coote’s mezzo is an all-terrain vehicle of awesome powers. It scaled every peak and trough of feeling on Tchaikovsky’s map of longing, regret and desolation with accomplished ease. In the absence of a physical audience in the Wigmore, she hugged the virtual public close, enlisting a spectrum of gestures and a generous dynamic range to conjure the intimacy that our performing circumstances still forbid. Though often wistful, mournful and unbearably tender, Tchaikovsky’s writing for the voice seldom goes in for outright melodrama. And Coote’s passages of subdued yearning and weary resignation, in “Do not believe, my friend” or “Not a word, my friend”, proved just as affecting as the relentless snowball of anguish in “Why?” or the fortissimo climax of “Love of a dead man”. 

Phrase by phrase, line by line, these were strongly shaped performances that recruited Coote’s prowess and control across her range to refine the emotional palette of the songs, rather than just overwhelm them. Many of the pieces, such as the gorgeous “The mild stars shone for us”, trace an aria-like curve of feeling. Coote knew how to plot each point along it with quietly reflective as well as splashily declamatory moments. Oddly, it was in “None but the lonely heart” itself that her phrasing and intonation once or twice sounded mannered and over-emphatic (Frank, of course, stays heart-breakingly cool). Amid the love-lorn solitude and abandonment, there was however scope in this selection for a few spells of a sunnier lyricism. In a piece such as “I bless you, forests”, Coote made them properly shine.

The rippling, sparkling piano part to that song gave Christian Blackshaw a conspicuous opportunity to dazzle in his supremely tasteful way. Throughout, he sprinkled the accompaniment with touches of grace that avoided any sense of doomy portentousness: the passions here need no clumsy underlining. Across the stage, Ralph Fiennes punctuated the music with five iconic Pushkin lyrics, in addition to poems by Lermontov and Fet. The four chosen letters broadly traced the outlines of Tchaikovsky’s famously tortured inner life: his suppressed same-sex longings; his catastrophic, loveless marriage; his crippling self-doubt and morbid depression, allied to “an awful desire to compose”. Sometimes urbane, sometimes stricken, and never actorly in an obtrusive way, Fiennes (pictured above) made a sensitive, congenial third member of the impromptu trio. He spoke his Pushkin pieces with a particular relaxed authority. However, I had serious doubts about the stage Mockney he employed for the accent of the philistine masses who tease the bard in “The Poet and the Crowd”. These days, the voice of the sneering, bone-headed bigot who demands of true artists “Where’s the gain?” should surely belong to an offshore media billionaire – or, better, an Eton-schooled government minister. 




I really do wish that people would dispense with the characterization of Tchaikovsky as "morbidly depressed," as though he swooned around all the time in gloom. He didn't, and probably wasn't any more depressed than any other artist trying to make a living in a world that doesn't appreciate artists as much as they should. He was thwarted in love (who hasn't been?) but he was noted for his sense of humor, his playfulness, his kindness and generosity. Yes, he was sensitive, but again not "morbidly" so. Any good, up-to-date biography, steeped in the latest scholarship (see Alexander Poznansky, and Roland John Wiley) will show you a Tchaikovsky beyond those old, 19th-20th-century legends and myths about him. He deserves better.

Not by any means all the time, and he wrote some of the most joyous music ever, but there were undoubtedly times when he was 'morbidly depressed' - you only have to read his letters. Driven to attempt suicide over his disastrous marriage to cover up his homosexuality (if that's what you mean by 'thwarted in love'), and as for the end - jury's still out on that one. It doesn't do to cover up the depressive condition in creative artists any more than it needs to serve as a definition of who they were.

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