Vienna String Sextet, Wigmore Hall, London; Alice Coote/Julius Drake, Wigmore Hall, London

Oh, Vienna... we'll miss you
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The Independent Culture

Last month the Wigmore Hall reopened. You may not have been aware of this because a) its closure coincided with the Proms, b) its restoration was completed on time, and c) it is not the kind of venue that likes to draw unseemly attention to itself. Nose freshly powdered, twinset and pearls in perfect order, the Wigmore is the Barbara Pym of British concert halls.

At first glance, little has changed. The murmur of cashmere-clad music lovers in the foyer is still tuned to a modest middle C. The new bar is as conducive to relaxed laughter as an operating theatre or, indeed, the old bar. But, if your contact lenses haven't dried up like prawn crackers from the new air-conditioning, it's worth a closer look. The lights in the auditorium are now blingtastically bright (more Harlesden than Cliveden), the seats as plush as the private cinema of an R'n'B impresario. Only, where's the long-promised rake? Without a spirit level to prove my point I cannot state with certainty that there is no rake. But if there is, it's the subtlest element in a very subtle restoration.

Attending a concert here is a salutory lesson in good behaviour. (Cough, wriggle or fidget and you're dead.) Especially if you're not tall enough to see the stage from the back of the auditorium. In the case of Alice Coote's French Song recital this Monday, which in every respect bar Coote's pronunciation would have been a more fitting entertainment for President Chirac than Les Miserables, it paid to sit up straight. In the case of the Vienna String Sextet, whose final performance of an illustrious 25 year career took place on Sunday, it paid to be silent. Sounds like these were always rare. Now, excepting this ensemble's discography, they are gone.

A more potent valedictory programme than Brahms's Sextet in G, Op. 36 and Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht would be hard to find. The rustle of leaves, the shift of light - in the Brahms, that of the sun, in the Schoenberg, the moon - the perilous vulnerability of love revealed, and the joy of connecting to the natural world bind both works. Here each was given an extraordinary depth of expression within a performance of absolute technical control. From the silver-green shadows of the first viola's opening two-note figure to the heady sunlit rush of the tutti - an effect akin to burying your face in bunch of fresh coriander - the colours, phrasing and tempi of the first movement of the Brahms were breathtaking: bell-like pizzicato from the cellos, stretti of astonishing clarity and energy, and long, lean, beautifully punctuated arguments from first violinist Erich Höbarth. The sinus-clearing slice of the scherzo's first high treble phrase opened out into what is perhaps Brahms's most delicious alchemy of plucked and bowed sound. The tuning of the octaves was perfect, the balance and blend of inner and outer voices sublime, the poco adagio almost Expressionistic in its spareness, the final movement's "I love everyone!" moment - that moment when Brahms does Beethoven minus the rage and the laughter - as exquisite as the hugging suspensions that led up to it.

When a reviewer wants to commend a symphony orchestra they might compare them to a chamber group. But in this performance the reverse was true. As in the Brahms, the core sound of Verklärte Nacht was pure chamber music. The imagination, however, was symphonic. True, the poem that inspired this work is a rotten poem. But Schoenberg's ecstatic soundworld transcends its lurid, dated source. And the connection between this and the Brahms - one a before-Tristan masterpiece, the other an after-Tristan masterpiece - was clearly demonstrated. Picking one beautiful moment from so very many is almost pointless, but Rudolf Leopold's voicing of the yearning cello melody is one I am keeping from this concert. The Vienna String Sextet will be sorely missed.

Mezzo soprano Alice Coote has shot up through the ranks of young British singers in the last few years. A commanding, sensual, leonine presence with a voice of copper silk, she has also acquired something of a reputation for cancelling her performances. Which probably explains why she went ahead with Monday's recital despite a husky knot of phlegm on her cords that was audible from her first breath - the Wigmore Hall has a very clear acoustic - and with a tissue tucked into her décolletage. A mistake in terms of vocal health (and etiquette) perhaps. But a small triumph in terms of artistry.

Though Coote's French is uneven, the lush, melancholy timbre of Berlioz, Bizet, Chausson, Debussy and Fauré is ideal for her voice. The seductiveness of her Chansons de Bilitis and, in particular, her Chanson d'avril and Adieux de l'hôtesse arabe - I'd love to hear her sing Djamileh - underlined the mezzo's professional advantage over other voice types in regularly playing both sexes on stage. Coote is not a passive singer. She reaches out to her audience with eyes and arms and uses her body well; managing to suggest a state of perpetual erotic arousal that is sometimes boyishly urgent, at other times as luxuriant as an odalisque. She didn't do innocent in this programme and I think that's wise. It wouldn't work.

The pianoforte version of Les nuits d'été is frustrating. The vocal lines soar and murmur and dip as persuasively as ever, but the reduction of the orchestral score is dire. Inner harmonies disappear, the listener is forced to rely on memory for colour, and Berlioz's disdain for traditional musical building blocks - such as bass lines - is evident. It's horrible to play, lies uncomfortably under the hands, and Coote's pianist Julius Drake made it no easier on the ear by hammering the off-beats. Nonetheless, this was a dramatic and absorbing performance. And if Coote can navigate the imprecatory extremes of Sur les lagunes and Absence as generously and thoughtfully as this while fighting a throat infection, she is an artist to be reckoned with.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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