This song recital presented itself as an exploration of themes surrounding mental health. This was particularly true of the subjects of the first half of the programme, which took texts either about or written by those with some form of mental illness. Nico Muhly’s new song cycle Strange Productions (which felt more like a set of recitatives and arias than a true cycle) set poems by John Clare and passages from G. Mackenzie Bacon’s On the Writings of the Insane. Together, they formed a searching look at the mind of one such as Bacon’s patients. The settings of the two poems, ‘Invite to Eternity’ and ‘I Am!’ by Clare, who spent several years in an asylum himself, used the text well, and Coote brought out every word with careful shading. The final Clare poem was particularly effective, with Drake and Coote working well together to bring out the lyricism and emotional impact. Dominic Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf in some ways proved to be the true highlight of the evening. Coote brought a striking intensity and sense of character to these dramatic adaptations of diary entries ranging from 1919 to 1941. The performance was filled with vivid life, encompassing a wide range of moods, from the anxious to the meditative, with a share of the bleakness that filled both Woolf’s life and the world around her towards the end.
In the second half, we heard Schumann’s Kerner Lieder, which gave us an exploration of character and once more highlighted the ability these two musicians have to convey a huge amount of emotional heft. The range of colours throughout the songs was beautifully managed, from the Teutonic vivacity of the wandering songs to the moments of melancholic peace, particularly towards the end of the sequence. Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud was also a highlight, with Drake making the most of the organ-like accompaniment. Unfortunately Coote’s generally lovely vocal tone was occasionally slightly unnaturally coloured with some odd vowel sounds, which marred the flow. Mostly, however, these songs, and their encore, Meine Rose, were effectively and powerfully wrought.