02 Aug 2020

Beethoven's Songs and Folksongs: Bostridge and Pappano

A song-cycle is a narrative, a journey, not necessarily literal or linear, but one which carries performer and listener through time and across an emotional terrain. Through complement and contrast, poetry and music crystallise diverse sentiments and somehow cohere variability into an aesthetic unity.

Listening to Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, which sets six poems by Alois Jeitteles and is considered a ground-breaking innovation in the development of the genre, I usually find myself seeking and relishing that narrative and unity, reflecting on the strophic simplicity of the songs, the single, focused affect of each being alleviated through subtle variations of the stanzas; on the piano’s inter-song connecting phrases that create the sense of evolving thoughts and feelings; on the harmonic structure which takes some twists and turns but arcs back to its starting point; on the binding derivation of songs two to six from motives drawn from the first song, ‘Auf dem Hügel’; and on the ‘return’ effected at the close of the last song, ‘Nimm sie hin, den diese Lieder’, through rhyme-scheme echoes, melodic restatement and the reprise of certainty, “Und ein liebend Herz erreichet/ Was ein liebend Herz geweiht!” And a loving heart will attain what a loving heart has blessed! Thus, is distance overcome, a union of hearts realised.

However, when I listened to Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano perform An die ferne Geliebte at the start of the duo’s new recording of Beethoven’s songs and folksong arrangements it was not so much the unity of the whole but rather the diversity within it that struck me. And, this changefulness seems to enhance the fanciful nature of the protagonist’s imagined fulfilment, making the moments of reality that occasionally overpower the subjective dreaming all the more powerful and poignant.

‘Auf dem Hügel’ is the sort of song to which Bostridge’s tender, warm tenor is perfectly suited. The tempo here is a little slower than I expected, and the effect is to heighten the sense of illusion as the poet-speaker looks down from the hill where he sits, across the misty blue countryside, seeking his distant beloved beyond the mountains and valleys which separate them. The expressive touches are gentle but telling: the warming propulsion of the piano’s off-beat bass quavers as the poet’s fiery gaze wings its way; the enrichening of the anguished question, “Will den nichts mehr zu dir dringen?” (Will nothing ever reach you again?); the flinch of pain - “Die dir klagen meine Pein!” The poet puts his faith in his singing: songs will put to flight all space and all time. Bostridge makes this feel just a youthful dream, the impetuous acceleration in the closing lines conveying a deluded belief in an impossible consummation.

The piano’s strange harmonic swivel, from Eb major to G major, thus seems more disconcerting than comforting, the major tonality itself unnerving, even ironic, and the repetitive small rises and falls of the vocal line in ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ a self-deceiving hypnotist’s trick. The beautiful, light melodiousness only serves to make reality seem even further away, and the voice’s monotone murmurings in the central section of the song carry the protagonist still further into his own introspective meditations. Bostridge suggests that the protagonist is vivified by his intensity, his “Innere Pein” (inner pain) quickening and quivering like a candle flame, and the ensuing song ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’ duly darts forwards, Pappano’s rippling triplets evoking the brook, clouds, birds and winds which the poet-speaker urges to carry his love towards his chosen one. Bostridge’s breathless staccato quavers are the pulsations of a burning heart.

The final line of this song, “Mein Tränen ohne Zahl !”, is sustained into the ensuing ‘Diese Wolken in den Höhen’ and lifts the poet further into flights of fancy. Here, the decorative mordants and trills of the piano’s high-lying echoes tease and mock the blithe dreamer whose absolute conviction Bostridge brilliantly conveys. But, ‘Es kehret der Maien’ brings the shock of blunt reality. Initially the protagonist ignores the warning latent in the piano’s syncopations, sforzandi, trills and fragmentation, and instead accepts Pappano’s invitation to join in delighted imaginings of the blissful union which will come as surely as the warmth and rebirth of spring follow winter. Bostridge does not employ excessive heightening or mannerism to reveal the poet’s disillusionment. Instead, directness and simplicity are more powerful expressive tools. First, a slight ritardando indicates the growing realisation that, unlike the forward-flowing bubbling brook and the returning swallow, the poet is trapped in the lonely, unchanging present: “Nur ich kann nicht ziehen von hinnen.” All the ever-increasing hope and belief of the preceding songs here dissolves, and the vitality dissipates from the vocal line, “Und Tränen und all ihr Gewinnen”. Tears are the only prize that their love will bring confirms Beethoven, preceding the repetition of the final poetic phrase with a sombre, stark, ‘ja’, the sentiments cruelly underlined by the slow slippage into the minor key.

Only dreaming will provide relief and salve, and so another harmonic swivel takes the final song back to its starting place. Again, the performers’ restrained tempo and Bostridge’s vocal tenderness convey retreat from painful reality into the consolation of song, and the tenor rises to a wonderful pianissimo peak above the smudgy softness of the piano’s chordal sextuplets as the red evening sun fades behind the mountain heights, and then again, with his heart full only of longing: “Nur der Sehnsucht sich bewußt.” In the final bars, musical echoes and repetitions bring about the transformation of such longing into fulfilment: no matter that is imagined and illusory, music makes it real and unquestionable.

I don’t intend, readers may be relieved to hear, to treat all of the songs on this disc to the same detailed dissection, just to say that the other twelve art songs are explored by Bostridge and Pappano with equal thoughtfulness and perspicacity, the moods and ‘meaning’, emotions and experiences nurtured through music and sensitive music-making. ‘Adelaide’ brims with barely contained rapture, and Bostridge sustains a strong line as the melodic arcs peak and shimmer. It’s interesting to hear Beethoven’s four settings of Goethe’s ‘Sehnsucht’ side by side, with their different expressive effects arising from choices of tempo, phrase structure and tonality. The first, Andante, quivers with tremulous agitation, while the asymmetrical phrases of the second, Poco Andante, deepen the feeling of incompleteness. The major key of the Adagio version, and Bostridge’s fluent vocal line, create a calmer mood, while the final Poco Adagio is the most intense, the melody twisting around itself within a narrow tessitura and reaching a pained chromatic climax, “Mein Eingeweide” (My body blazes). These are straightforward strophic settings, but I feel that there is detail in the piano accompaniments that Pappano does not always exploit.

There is more Goethe. The duo have fun with the ‘Song of the Flea’ from Faust, Bostridge’s consonants and patter as spiky as Pappano’s itchy staccatos. ‘Mailied’ sparkles with vivacity and joy at the magic of nature’s glories. In contrast, ‘Ich liebe dich’ (Karl Freidrich Wilhelm Herrosee) has the serenity and certainty of a prayer; ‘In questa tomba oscura’ (Giuseppe Carpani) truly does seem to come from ‘the other side’, Bostridge’s veiled whisper occasionally shuddering as it conveys the pained memories of one betrayed, and then exploding with an anger incarcerated that can never find release. The question which runs through ‘Andenken’ (Friedrich von Matthisson), “Wann/Wo/Wie denkst du mein?” (When/Where/How do you think of me?) captures the exquisite paradoxes of Romantic solipsism. ‘Resignation’ (Paul von Haigwitz) is not an easy song to perform, or understand; its structural disjunctions seem to convey a desire to banish not just the fire of unrequited love but also its own creative light - “Lisch aus, mein Licht!” - representing an abandonment of the faith in art’s transfiguring power expressed in An die ferne Geliebte. Bostridge, characteristically, takes painstaking care with both text and phrasing.

Alongside these lieder Bostridge and Pappano present some of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh folksong arrangements that Beethoven made for his friend, the Scottish publisher George Thomson, following in the footsteps of Pleyel and Haydn, but - ever the astute businessman - earning considerably than his predecessors for his trouble. Beethoven began supplying these folksong arrangements (sometimes not genuine folk song melodies and often with texts supplied by Burns, Byron and others), to satisfying burgeoning markets for domestic music-making in both the UK and Vienna, in 1809 and by 1820 had composed more than 170 such song, mainly with piano trio accompaniment.

Bostridge and Pappano are joined by violinist Vilde Frang and cellist Nicolas Altstaedt in eight songs. Bostridge doesn’t seem to be quite in his comfort zone here, unsure occasionally whether to employ idiomatic Celtic accents - ‘The pulse of an Irishman’ is rather inconsistent in this regard - or how far to indulge the songs’ comedy, eccentricity and boisterousness. Some seem to lay rather low, too, and as the voice falls the piano tends to dominate, especially in the faster songs. Beethoven achieves a sensitive balance between the four musical elements, but here the string players are not served well by the engineers, and Frang’s commentaries in particular struggle to make their mark. Some songs, such as ‘The lovely lass of Inverness’ and ‘The Return to Ulster’ feel a bit ‘effortful’: the melodies need to be allowed to spin their own spell. The Scottish song ‘O Mary, ye’s be clad in silk’ communicates its sentiments with directness though, and ‘The Parting Kiss’, a Welsh melody, has a touching truthfulness and gentle wistfulness.

An early Goethe setting concludes the disc: ‘Marmotte’, composed in 1790, which depicts a travelling Arab troubadour and his trained pet, entertaining street-passers for their supper. The song has a folk-like simplicity and here Bostridge proves a compelling scene-painter and storyteller.

I was a late learner when it comes to recognising Beethoven’s achievement as a composer of song. My first experiences of Beethoven came through playing his symphonies and learning the violin sonatas; then, as a student, through analysing the piano sonatas and string quartets. I wish I’d had this disc when I was a young violinist, as it would surely have helped me to appreciate how Beethoven ‘sings’, in whatever medium or genre.

Claire Seymour