BBC Radio 3 In Tune

11 February 2010

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote and pianist Julius Drake preview their forthcoming recital at Wigmore Hall, London. Presented by Sean Rafferty, with songs performed live in the studio

Alice Coote and Julius Drake, two rare exotic birds, have chosen English songs for their recital at Wigmore Hall tomorrow, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Gurney, Stanford, Quilter, and a few rarities which come now in Ms Coote’s quiver I see, to this very studio. Alice’s voice is one of immense beauty so anything is alright by us. We begin with a little piece by Graham Peel who was born 1870, died 1953, words by Hilaire Belloc


SR: Hmm. Short, absolutely delightful. Thank you very much indeed Alice Coote with Julius Drake and the Early Morning by Graham Peel from the Country Lovers song cycle, a setting of Hilaire Belloc. How lovely, where did you find that delight?

AC: Julius wanted me to sing another song by Peel actually, but I have to be honest and say that the great Graham Johnson introduced me to this one, we did some song last year and I fell in love with it, and then Julius suggested some other songs which I’ve come across which I’m now going to look at. He’s new to me

SR: Yes, well he’s new to me too, there’s quite a lot of them I think, really a lot of songs, and apparently he was one the first to set Houseman, so before anybody else did so there we are, maybe that’s worth looking at

AC: There’s some fantastic English songwriters including some of the ladies that I’ve got in my programme, that all during that period packed with these amazing poems, these lyrics that are astonishing, I found it very hard to find a programme to fit the poets that I wanted to put into them. It’s limitless. It’s marvellous

SR: Well it’s lovely you’re discovering all that. So the programme, I mean there are some well known pieces, obviously, Vaughan Williams and Gurney and people like that. So is it all 20th century, roughly?

AC: Roughly early 20th century appeals, but then we have our Dominick Argento which is English lyrics, it’s the Diary of Virginia Woolf lyrics, but he is still alive I think, so that’s our nod to contemporary music in as much as it seems to be, it’s atonal it’s 12 notes sometimes and then sometimes it’s very tonal, and I love it. I love that particular sort of semi-contemporary music where it has a reference point in what appeals to us as human beings [SR: Yes] which is a symmetry, and then it goes away, and I hope people will love that. The Argento I think is genius.

SR: Well, written for Janet Baker, who of course you’ve certainly been involved with, and she’s put her imprimatur on your voice and that’s not a bad thing to have is it.

AC: It could never be… but erm, one goes on one’s own journey. But she will always be a reference point for me and er the absolute height of what you could achieve which we all bow underneath, and I’m not trying to be disingenuous here, I really do mean it is quite a hard act to follow, plus her generation recorded so much of their repertoire. It’s a big sadness to me that I’m not living in that period, so I always have, with every bit of repertoire I’m ever likely to sing, I have her or some other great singer has already recorded it. So they’re bound to be very important, these previous artists.

SR: And someone like that, of course whom you’ve absorbed has got greatness but not flashness, in this day when there is a lot of glitter around with some international artists who are let’s say, promoted, mercilessly [AC: Yes], that’s a totally different thing?

AC: It’s a completely different thing. It’s about being an artist, it’s about the work coming first, the poetry coming first, the content coming first, which I think is very rare these days, and in the few people who are recording, all of us who actually sing operas, or who work, are loathe to say it but very few of them are doing the job itself, and the job itself is hard enough anyway, to do that very well is a life’s work, so to be seen doing anything less than that is galling. So to have somebody like Janet Baker, or any of that generation, makes you have faith in life, but then again you do get a bit depressed when you realise the age we’re living in sometimes.

SR: No don’t. I think one of the most exciting things is the strength and the integrity of an awful lot of young artists, yourself included, so you’re not to be downcast [AC: That’s a good story] There was always going to be in your stars because you were singing from the age of three apparently. You must have driven your parents mad [AC: laughs. I did!] on long car journeys you used the seatbelt clasp as a microphone

AC: I did. A Bakelite seatbelt clasp in a Morris Minor. We used to go from Cheshire to the East coast and I used to sing “Blue is the colour, Chelsea is the name” and Brotherhood of Man, all those songs, with-out re-mittance. It was appalling, but here I am and people have listen to me now

SR: Well I’m sure they are absolutely thrilled. There’s a wonderful quote from you somewhere saying that my parents have always supported me, sometimes weren’t quite sure what they were supporting, but they always supported me

AC: i was only thinking about that a few days ago when I left the Guildhall I’m sorry to say before I had any qualifications, which I’m sorry to say I don’t have any qualification, and I worked in offices and in shops and had marvellous experiences, but I went off so the rails in so far as what they had invested in, sitting outside singing lessons, and oboe lessons, and piano lessons, and they always stuck with me and right now they’re listening and sticking with me, so it’s a thread through my life that I’m so grateful for, I have no words for it

SR: Everybody makes their own journey, and it’s all worked out. It’s wonderful to have you with us, and you’re going to sing the Argento you talked about, Dominick Argento, and it’s a setting from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, which I should think rich pickings indeed from that.

AC: I just find these words just extraordinary, erm, I find them a bit too personal to comment on really, but it is the most extraordinary thing to have such amazing music, such tonal music, and then as I said it just goes to places where you’d never imagine words and lyrics can go. I think you just need to hear it.

SR: Right. This is “Parents” from the Diary of Virginia Woolf setting by Dominic Argento, live in the studio, Alice Coote and Julius Drake


SR: Hmm, well we just listened and it was wonderful. Alice Coote and Julius Drake, with “Parents” a setting by Dominick Argento from the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Very beautiful, incredibly touching

AC: It’s extraordinary, I just don’t know why I hadn’t heard it as a student in former years, until now. Julius and I have fallen in love with it.

JD: Yes absolutely.

SR: It’s beautiful. Are the rest of the settings as lovely?

JD: They’re as powerful, I mean they really are absolutely wonderful. It seems like a little masterpiece to us. I’m ashamed to say I know absolutely nothing about Mr Argento, but we’re going to find him, we’re going to find out lots

AC: I’d like to find him in America, where he still is I think, in his 80s [JD: Is he?] and tell him he’s a genius

JD: We’re going to America with this programme, so we’re going to winkle him out

SR: Dominick if you’re listening, get in touch with us [laughter] OK, don’t be shy [AC: I’d love to meet him] you’ll get on with this pair very, very well. Send us an email

AC: To meet a great composer would be marvellous, I don’t have that privilege

JD: It’s very nice… I was in New York with Gerry Finley singing Ned Rorem songs, and Ned Rorem came, so I think they are probably contemporaries and it would be very nice to meet Dominick Argento too

SR: Well I think he would be very pleased with you singing that, it sounds wonderful

AC: It’s an amazing juxtaposition of something that’s so central to us with our culture of Virginia Woolf, of that period, of those thoughts and of those ideas, and actually quite brutal some of it, and then for him to illuminate that, is quite profound as being an American

JD: He was obviously very moved by the words she wrote in that diary entry

SR: Well you’re off to America as you say, so let’s hope Mr Argento is somewhere between New York and San Francisco. It covers quite a lot doesn’t it [JD: yes]

AC: He might run screaming from the hall when he heard us sing saying “that’s completely wrong, you’re not doing it right at all”

SR: I doubt it somehow. Anyway, it’d be wonderful to meet him. So that’s quite something, Carnegie Hall New York isn’t it

AC: Yes and San Francisco, it’s very exciting it’s such an iconic place to be singing

SR: Well Carnegie Hall still has that resonance about it doesn’t it [JD: Yes] you mention Carnegie Hall and people will always know what it is somehow, it’s a stamp isn’t it

JD: Yes that’s right

AC: Well if you’ve made it in New York you’ve made it anywhere

JD: How do I get to Carnegie Hall? “Practise, practise, practise” [laughter]*

SR: There’s an amazing sandwich bar beside it but don’t go there before a performance as they have the most obscene, huge things you cannot get in your mouth as they’re so enormous, anyway Alice don’t go there beforehand

AC: Golly, I really want to go now [JD: laughter]

SR: They have cheesecakes the size of this table. Ridiculous

AC: Oooooocccccchhhhhhh! If we arrive late on the platform, everyone will know what’s happened now.

SR: Do you have to be very careful about what you do, and what time of day, and how you cosset your voice?

AC: [Sigh] Well, one starts one’s career thinking that one is going to be able to (there’s a lot of “ones” in that sentence) do that [laughter] but one soon finds out that you can’t, life just doesn’t work like that, especially in the modern age, you find yourself on a plane, we were on a plane, we did this programme in Amsterdam not two days ago, and then you find that your voice doesn’t want to work or play, and you just have to get on with it. There’s nothing you can do about it apart from getting a lot of rest, and if you’re getting a lot of rest you’re probably not working, so…

JD: I love it in the 20s when artists went to America, for instance, of course they crossed in an ocean liner…

SR: It took two or three weeks

JD: … and then people would stay, people like Rachmaninov and Rubenstein, they would go… or Paderewski, and if they were celebrated enough they had to have their own railway carriage, and they’d go for five, six, seven, eight months, touring, just all around America

SR: Extraordinary, some of them did have their own pianos in the carriages didn’t they?

JD: Yes, oh yes I’m sure they did

SR: I can see a gleam of longing in Julius’s eyes… [JD: laughter]

AC: I was going to start talking about women and the time of the month and the hormones and how it affects your voice, but I thought “Radio 3” people might start crashing their cars, so I’d better not.

SR: I don’t think so. It happens to people on radio 3 apparently [laughter] though I’m sure they would never talk about it. But you’ve got some female composers in your programme haven’t you?

AC: Yes. What a link that was… [SR: That was just me moving smartly sideways] we have. And that’s another frustrating point, I don’t know why, these contemporaries of Peel, who everybody knows about, and these phenomenal songs, they get a bad press because some of them are unashamedly ballads, but they have written some other… Maude Valerie White and Liza Lehmann have written operas, they’ve written some marvellous, marvellous things, so I’m very proud of that

JD: They’re both marvellous composers I think

SR: Well that’s coming up in a second. But what do people think, for instance in Amsterdam, think of an evening of English song?

JD: Well I was just saying to Alice – Alice didn’t come out for the drink after the concert because she was being very sensible and preserving her vocal resources [SR: She was lying on a chaise longue.] but they were absolutely raving about the… they were raving about Alice I can tell you that, but they were also raving about the repertoire and saying, because the programme is unashamedly devoted to composers from turn of the 20th century and the end of the 19th century, and who have long been out of fashion as we know, and are very, very little performed. The only composer I think out of all the composers we performed in Amsterdam, that any of them had heard of, or had heard the music of, was Elgar. And everybody else they didn’t know at all and they were absolutely gobsmacked by the quality of the music, and what gorgeous music there is there. I think we need to take more pride than we do [AC: I think we do, it’s very rare] in these composers who have so long been out of fashion, even the likes for us of such well known composers as Quilter or Gurney

SR: They set words so beautifully don’t they

JD: And the music is so often so beautiful

AC: I think it has a bad press because people think of “Hey nonny no” and lots of pastoral things and bees buzzing and things, but the poetry, the legacy of the poetry in these songs does need to be explored, it’s so rarely you hear a programme entirely of English songs these days and there are so many fabulous songs out there

JD: We do two songs for instance by Stanford, and I actually think both are complete masterpieces, A soft day, and Keats’s La belle dame sans merci, I mean absolute masterpieces

AC: We are very reticent as English people in our culture, we need to blow our own… vocal chords a bit more

SR: Stanford was born in Dublin, never mind, and “a soft day” is how we describe the weather in Ireland [laughter] but never mind, both of you are all right, we will allow that. Listen, thank you both for being with us, and you are going to sing something for us by Maude Valerie White, was she… did she stride France and England with a name like Maude Valerie?

JD: Research will be done…

AC: I don’t think she did actually…

SR: She was much travelled, I know that, she was much travelled and the first woman to win the Mendelssohn scholarship, influences went on to Vaughan Williams so that’s very good. So No more we’ll go a roving, an old Scottish ballad, think it’s by Byron… [JD: Mmm it’s Byron, yeah]

AC: She was much respected in her time, and quite rightly so

SR: That’s telling me [laughter] I’m convinced. Thank you very much indeed, Alice Coote and Julius Drake live in the studio with a setting by Maude Valerie White, So We’ll go no more a roving, words by Byron


SR: So We’ll go no more a roving, words by Bryon of course in a setting by Maude Valerie White brought to life by Alice Coote and Julius Drake live in the studio, and lovely it was too, thank you, I could listen to you all night, if you want to sing more now we’ll just cancel everything else OK? There’s going to preserve some excitements for tomorrow night where one of those little rarities will be performed alongside Warlock, Gurney at Wigmore Hall in London tomorrow at half past seven.

Alice Coote and cocktails in Frankfurt
Photo courtesy of

[*A joke in NY i.e. when a tourist asks “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”]

Send us a message