01 Oct 2020

Dreams and delusions from Ian Bostridge and Imogen Cooper at Wigmore Hall

Ever since Wigmore Hall announced their superb series of autumn concerts, all streamed live and available free of charge, I’d been looking forward to this song recital by Ian Bostridge and Imogen Cooper.

Providing an opportunity to hear Bostridge perform some of the lieder included on his recently released disc of Beethoven’s songs and folksongs alongside Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.39 of 1840 - settings of Eichendorff which are sometimes over-shadowed by the other cycles of Schumann’s ‘year of song’, Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und Leben - this recital promised to hearten my soul and mind as the autumnal nights draw in and portentous gloom enshrouds us.

But, ‘streaming’ comes in diverse forms and in the event that of the autumn head-cold variety forced me to take my musical pleasures via the digital kind. Sneezing and spluttering in a mask is neither easy nor pleasant, and to avoid alarming my fellow Wigmore Hall patrons I forewent my chance to sink into the familiar comfort of a Wigmore Hall seat and donned my headphones instead, grateful that I could still be part of the ‘audience’ for this performance but also aware that what I would hear, and subsequently describe, was not what precisely that which those in the Hall itself would experience.

The concert began with three songs by Beethoven. I was surprised by the way Imogen Cooper shaped the image which opens ‘Resignation’, sustaining the terse motif through the written rests. “Lisch aus, mein Licht!”, the poet-speaker pleads, and I hear the initial rocking fall as that metaphoric light being gently snuffed. Bostridge, who sang with a calm firmness indicative of inevitability and acceptance, shaped the imagery with pointedness, enrichening his tenor and dramatically rolling the ‘r’ of “irregehet” to depict the spluttering flame, then softening to a tender head voice as the flame dissolved. The different moods of Beethoven’s four settings of Goethe’s ‘Sehnsucht’ were finely drawn, the simplicity of the varying tempi and forms allowed to speak for themselves. In ‘Ich liebe dich’, Bostridge used the strength of his lower register to convey the poet-speaker’s self-certainty, quietly retreating to re-create a remembered moment of shared distress and tears.

In ‘Auf dem Hügel’, the opening song of An die ferne Geliebte, the protagonist seemed more ‘present’ on the hillside, above the distant meadows, than in Bostridge’s recording with Sir Antonio Pappano, less lost in his solipsistic imaginings, and this served to make the nuanced heightening of his avowal, “Singen will ich, Lieder singen,/ Die dir klagen meine Pein!”, (I shall sing, sing songs/ That speak to you of my distress!), all the more touching and vulnerable. I found Cooper’s accompaniment a little heavy at the start of ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ and then a trifle uncoloured when the voice recites on a monotone, but it’s difficult to know what the listeners in the Hall heard, and, flexibly shaping the changing tempi, the duo certainly captured the restlessness of the protagonist’s longings.

The piano’s racing triplets in ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’ were wonderfully crystalline though, sparkling like the glinting brook and as light as the airy vaults of heaven wherein the poet-speaker imagines his image will appear to his beloved. Bostridge varied his vocal colour to convey first hopefulness, then intensity of suffering and finally earnestness as he pleaded with the winds, sun and brook to reveal to the distant beloved his pain and his tears, which are never-ending - unlike the written repetition, “ohne Zahl”, which Bostridge did not sustain into the next song. The piano’s syncopated animation and tight trills conveyed the easeful delusion of the confidence that the protagonist draws from the natural world, in ‘Es kehret der Maien’, but Bostridge increasingly suffused the vocal line with energy and drama, pushing forwards to the honest admission, “Nu ich kann nicht ziehen von hinnen” (I alone cannot move on), which was enunciated with bitterness, and closed in frenetic despair. With ‘Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder’, the circle was closed and though there was a lethargic weight in the image of the fading sun’s rays, and vulnerability in the yearning, it was with a desperate urgency that the cycle closed, as if by sheer force of will music could reconnect two hearts.

If narrative and musical ‘continuity’ characterise An die ferne Geliebte, then Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.39, with its diverse poetic sources and personas, offers no such coherence - though that hasn’t stopped commentators from seeking and purporting to find in these twelve songs a consistent emotional trajectory, one that journeys from the despairing alienation of the ‘In der Fremde’ to the perceived fulfilment of ‘Frühlingsnacht’.

Bostridge and Cooper did not seem to seek to impose order and logic on Eichendorff’s phantasmagoric imagery and enigmatic twists, emphasising instead the hallucinatory, quasi-improvisational quality of Schumann’s settings which is conjured by harmonic ambiguities and introspective motivic echoes. That’s not to suggest that the sequence lacked shape or persuasiveness. Cooper’s controlled, pure accompaniments perfectly complemented Bostridge’s characteristically immersive and discerning engagement with Eichendorff’s strange worlds and disorientating time-shifts. His diction ever immaculate, as Bostridge lived the unidentified protagonists’ experiences he drew the listener with him into the moonlit forests and murmuring woods, with their lonely nightingales, silent castles, glittering stars, white and red roses, and mysterious enchantresses - the shuddering trees, dungeon cells and weeping brides casting a patina of menace and unease.

The freedom of the piano’s rolling, low arpeggios captured the inner unrest of the protagonist of ‘In der Fremde’ (In a foreign land) which is driven the paradoxical tension between his desire for and fear of eternal rest, “Wie bald, ach wie bald kommt die stille Zeit,/ Da ruhe ich auch” (How soon, ah! how soon till that quiet time/ When I too shall rest). This tension was enhanced by Bostridge’s darkening nuance, a slight shiver vivifying the repeated final image, “und keiner kennt mich mehr hier” (and nobody here remembers me anymore). The smoothly extending vocal phrases seemed to embody that glance into an unknowable future. If the sentiments of ‘Intermezzo’ seem more consoling, then the piano’s tugging syncopations seemed to threaten the image of the beloved held deep within the poet-speaker’s heart.

The inscrutability of the conversation with the wondrously fair bride riding her steed through the forest, in ‘Waldesgespräch’, was evoked by the dreamy gentleness of Bostridge’s delivery of the Lorelei’s grief, following the dark strength of the young man’s ebullient exclamations. The spitting anger which propelled her final warning and prophecy, “Es ist schon spät, es ist schon kalt,/ Kommst nimmermehr aus diesem Wald!” (It It is already late, already cold,/ You shall never leave this forest again!), was a reminder of the perils within the enchantress’s forest. Indeed, the slow restraint of the final section of ‘Die Stille’, which repeats the opening profession of happiness, seemed to belie the protagonist’s blissful self-belief.

‘Mondnacht’ (Moonlit Night) was beautifully expressive. Cooper’s celestial glimmer sparkled while the slow tempo again created an expansiveness suggesting the silver spread of the moonbeam over the earth. Bostridge used his head voice tenderly, to contrast the whispers of the forest with the strength and clarity of the stars in the night sky. In the piano postlude, Cooper gently resolved the open-ended vocal line, suggesting that the outspread soul might indeed have reached its imagined ‘home’, but the incessant rustling oscillations and Bostridge’s twisting distortion of the vocal rises in ‘Schöne Fremde’ (In a beautiful foreign land) seemed to deny the promise of rapture to come.

‘Auf einer Burg’ (In a castle) was a masterful union of poetry and voice. With deathly languor Bostridge introduced us to the ancient knight, driving with pained intensity towards the image of the centuries-old chevalier in his silent cell, enhancing Schumann’s rhetoric by turning the extended musical phrase into a piercing, slanting sneer, “oben in der stillen Klause.”, and thereby emphasising the temporal disorientation of the poem. Withdrawing to a shivering whisper to describe the forest birds’ lonely songs, the tenor then blanched his voice of tone and colour to depict with terrible irony the merry music of a wedding party on the sunlit Rhine, beside which the bride weeps. Bending forward, peering threateningly, Bostridge delivered the final line from the corner of his mouth, spitting out the final consonant with startling ferocity: “und die schone Braut, die weinet.”

The sparse urgency of ‘In der Fremde’ conveyed the poet-speaker’s bewilderment, as Bostridge twisted and squirmed across the Wigmore Hall platform, the song’s energy dissipating with the final recollection of the beloved’s death, “so lange tot” (so long ago), and collapsing into Cooper’s dark, exhausted chordal conclusion. The less dramatic delivery and sustained phrasing of ‘Wehmut’ (Sadness) aptly captured the ‘deep sorrow’ at the heart of the song, while ‘Zwielicht’ was beautifully lyrical, diminishing to a whispered but pointed image of the voices of distant hunters that ‘to and fro’ through the forest, “Stimmen hin und wieder wandern.” Bostridge employed a fraught, tense quasi-Sprechgesang for the final warning, “Hüte dich, sei wach und munter!” (Be wary, watchful, on your guard!). The softening of the final phrase of ‘Im Walde’ - “Und mich schauert’s im Herzensgrunde” (And deep in my heart I quiver with fear.) - drew the listener within the consuming blackness of the forest, and if the entire natural world - nightingales, moon and stars - seems to confirm the protagonist’s consoling conviction, “Sie ist Deine, sie ist Dein!”, then the pressing piano triplets seemed designed to shore up his self-belief rather than complement his joy. After all, the cycle closes with the young man alone, in darkness, in a ‘dreaming forest’.

In their encore, Bostridge and Cooper retreated from the unknown and infinite, returning to more mundane matters, with a vocally and pianistically visceral portrait of the suffering inflicted upon the lords and ladies of the court by the King’s debonair flea, in Beethoven’s setting of Goethe’s ‘Song of the Flea’. A different type of fantasy, but no less magical.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Imogen Cooper (piano)

Beethoven - ‘Resignation’ WoO.149, ‘Sehnsucht’ WoO.134, ‘Ich liebe dich’ ( Zärtliche Liebe) WoO.123, An die ferne Geliebte Op.98; Schumann - Liederkreis Op.39

Streamed live from Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 30th September 2020.