Alice Coote has had an interesting season in New York. First the ever-pensive British mezzo-soprano brought some much needed light to the dismal premiere platitudes of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at the Met. Then, as a late addition to a rusty Rosenkavalier revival, she tried, valiantly if often in vain, to make Octavian’s mock-masculine ardour amusing. And on Thursday, in the intimate environs of Zankel Hall, she treated a sadly non-capacity audience to a strenuous, uncompromisingly elegant survey of the French art song. She traced emotive evolutions from rapture to despair gently here, assertively there, and always exquisitely, with equal parts precision and pathos.
It was a daring exploration. Coote steadfastly resisted any concessions to hum-along popularity. This was her noble experiment, and she handled it her way.
Of course, she eschewed operatic manners and mannerisms, and she ignored the cutesy folk-indulgences favoured by many a colleague. Still, she emerged compellingly vivacious in the joyous passages, and, even more impressive, magnetically moving in the tragic utterances.
Probably simulating spontaneity, she sustained basic moods, also intricate mood variations, focusing valour with verbal point, enhancing sympathy with telling facial and physical gestures. She savoured the power of understatement, carefully gauging the acoustical quirks of the subterranean auditorium that flanks Carnegie Hall. She demonstrated the impact of a delicately floated whisper, reserved forte outbursts for climactic necessity, offered ongoing lessons in legato phrasing and dynamic subtlety. She sang as if her primary job was to share secrets.
A critical ingrate might argue that a little esoterica, no matter how exquisitely calibrated, goes a long way, that ultra-serious sophistication can eventually exert the danger of preciosity. Somehow, however, Coote managed to evade the obvious traps. She met disparate challenges of a dozen 19th- and 20th-century composers – from Berlioz to Gounod to Chabrier to Poulenc to Satie, plus notable others in between – with the sort of affection that enhances intelligence.
The pianist Graham Johnson served as her sensitive, self-effacing partner at every virtuosic turn.