Alice Coote’s effortful French program lost in translation

Fri Jan 31, 2014 at 1:01 pm
Alice Coote performed a programs of French chansons Thursday night at Zankel Hall.

Alice Coote performed a programs of French chansons Thursday night at Zankel Hall.

There were no excuses given in Thursday’s introductory speech at Zankel Hall—no allergy attacks, no head cold. Alice Coote just was not at her best. Accompanied by the venerable Graham Johnson, she gave a recital of French art song that showed characteristic artistic refinement but failed to fire on all cylinders.

The very first song on the program, Poulenc’s “Les chemins de l’amour,” features a number of very difficult leaps directly from the lower register up to a high tessitura, and she executed many of these with an audible catch. In several of her selections she sat on the low side of the pitch, and she struggled to find a full tone in her middle register. Here and there, especially in faster songs such as Alfred Bachelet’s “Chère nuit,” she violently sucked in her breath, making her seem off-balance.

None of these problems was glaring on its own, but taken together they encumbered her singing, particularly on the second half of the program. The first selection after the intermission, Reynaldo Hahn’s “Fumée,” was the biggest struggle of all. Her tone at the beginning was thin, and her voice cut out for a moment on the high end of a glissando.

Of course, one of the defining characteristics of great artistry is the ability to cope when not everything is working, and her success in that regard was mixed. She simply wasn’t as captivating as she so often is on stage—her connection to the text was evident, but she never quite threw herself into the piece entirely. It may have been that she was being a little more careful than usual, shying away from whatever was troubling her vocally.

Part of it could have been a matter of programming, as well. An entire recital of mid-nineteenth-to-early-twentieth-century French song is an interesting project, but the resulting range of character is narrow. Even with twenty-four songs by twelve composers, most of the program fell somewhere between sober reflection and sentimental lyricism—of glee or spark there was decidedly little.

There were moments, though, in which she had total control and combined vocal and dramatic flourish. In Gounod’s “Sérénade” she rattled off flowing, gurgling melismas, and she nimbly dispatched “Au printemps” with a charming, alluring warble. In Chausson’s “Le temps des lilas” she varied contemplation and desperation, adding particular urgency to her sorrow as she sang through the end of a breath as she lamented “Las! que ton baiser ne peut l’éveiller!”

The most consistent element working in Coote’s favor was her tremendous musical intelligence and specificity of intention. Not one to gesture vaguely in the general direction of the line, made clear and confident choices, sculpting her phrases as though with a knife and bring rich character to her singing, even when she was not comfortable vocally.

She also took full advantage of the (comparatively) cozy environs of Zankel Hall to share intimate moments with the audience. In Charles Koechlin’s “Novembre,” she plainly imparted her regret, filling the hall with soft sound and lowering her voice to just above a whisper. At other times, though, the hall’s size worked against her, and she blared. In Satie’s “Je te veux,” Johnson kept a pleasant, waltzing gate, while Coote’s hefty sound seemed out of proportion.

Johnson’s considerable experience showed as he stayed in perfect time with her and followed the arcs of Coote’s phrases. There were little things amiss here and there—a few misplaced notes marred otherwise blooming passages, and he had a tendency to get heavy with both his hands and his right foot. On the whole, though, his playing was luminous and only added clarity.

Two encores were right in keeping with the romantic sentiment of the rest of the program—Poulenc’s “C’est ainsi que tu es” and Fauré’s “Adieu,” from Poème d’un jour.

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