Alice Coote, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

When a singer of Alice Coote's temperament and artistry embarks upon the disillusionment and heartbreak of Schubert's "winter journey", she defies and transcends gender. But can a woman access something more from a work that is essentially written within a masculine emotional framework? Is Winterreise, the world's saddest song cycle, richer for that feminine "awareness"?

For sure, it felt as though Coote and her wonderful pianist Julius Drake were able to view the songs from the male and female perspective simultaneously, and that made for extraordinary inner tensions. We sensed this might be a special experience; just how special proved startling.

In her black, belted evening coat, Coote set off into this long, dark night of the soul with a full heart. Already the first song, "Good Night", was rich in detail. The masculine rasp in the bottom of the voice brought icy blasts; "the shadow in the moonlight" passed over the second stanza in a phrase suddenly shaded to a whisper. And the unexpected modulation into the realms of dreams in the final stanza looked forward to delusions to come.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Coote's performance was the way it teetered precariously ever closer to the edge of reason, and yet, in doing so, grew ever more lucid. The reassuring shade of "The Linden Tree" brought phrases of melting serenity, but the pain concealed beneath the calm surface was palpable, reflected in the rustlings of Drake's pianistic restlessness. Remarkable, too, was the relationship of Coote's character to the landscape of the songs, her departures into "white" sound as visual as they were suggestive of emotional numbness and fatigue.

Her physical and mental exhaustion was ours, too. But then, at the heart of the cycle, there was the "Dream of Spring", in which Coote caught both the consolation and terrible irony: "Are you mocking the dreamer who saw flowers in winter?" In "In the Village", the line "I'm finished with all dreaming" could almost have been the last word, so resigned was Coote to the heartbreak of its reality.

But "The Signpost" pointed towards the road from which there was no return, and not even Drake's exquisite solace in the introduction to "The Inn" could deflect us from the cruel irony of the final songs. The emotional breakdown in the final stanza of "Phantom Suns" was such that I wondered if Coote could continue. But with "The Organ-Grinder" came confirmation that we were in the presence of a very special talent.