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Ian Bostridge
06 Jun 2010

Bostridge and Pappano at Wigmore Hall

Bringing their recent recording of Schubert’s late songs to the concert stage, Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano swept through a sequence which ranged from bitter-sweet regret to angry self-reproach, from hesitant hope to turbulent despair, in this the second of two performances at the Wigmore Hall.

Bostridge and Pappano at Wigmore Hall

Ian Bostridge, tenor; Antonio Pappano piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Monday 31st May, 2010.


Serious, earnest, meticulous, intense … such qualities we have come to expect of any Bostridge performance. Some may find his cool, even severe, stage presence and arch gestures, occasionally distracting or overly mannered; but there is no doubting his commitment to the music and, equally, to the emotional drama of the texts. As ever, his diction was crisp and clear; the desire to convey every nuance of the poetry at times took precedence over pure vocal beauty or melodic lyricism, but was evidence of absolute dramatic integrity.

Although there was no continuous ‘narrative’ running through this recital, which was performed without an interval, two archetypal Romantic themes to which the texts repeatedly returned provided unity — unattainable love and alienation. The opening song, ‘Widerschein’ (‘Reflection’), established a subdued mood. Coloured by the lower registers of piano and voice, a halting, melodic line tells of the fisherman who waits ‘sullenly’ on the bridge for his absent love; as he dreams, a radiant vision is reflected in the water — a fitting metaphor for the unfulfilled yearning revealed in so many of the songs that followed. Here, Bostridge’s placement of the faltering vocal line was precise and controlled, but in ‘Der Winterabend’ (‘The winter evening’), his tone was more melancholic above restless semi-quavers in the right hand of the accompaniment. The melismatic close, ‘Seufze still, und sinne und sinne’ (‘Sign in silence, and muse and muse’), plaintively conveyed the old man’s ceaseless meditations as he awaits the coming of night and death. It is such attention to textual and musical detail that reveals Bostridge’s immersion and genuine involvement in the world of each song.

‘Die Sterne’ (‘The stars’) was more assertive, driven by the piano’s dactylic rhythm which mimics the stars’ heavenly shining. At times, however, Pappano’s boisterous accompaniment overwhelmed the voice; indeed, throughout the recital his playing, while undoubtedly committed, often lacked discretion and restraint, and was marked by over-use of the sustaining pedal and some cloudiness of texture.

‘Schwanengesang’ (‘Swan Song’), gathered into a collection — and shrewdly titled — by the Viennese publisher, Tobias Haslinger, comprises seven settings of Rellstab and six of Heine. This was an anguished account: not a ‘story’, rather variations on the theme of emotional vulnerability. Extreme contrasts characterise the Rellstab songs. The subtly shifting modulations of ‘Liebesbotschaft’ (‘Love’s message’), matched by a perfectly understated dialogue between the voice and the inner lines of the accompaniment, were followed by Pappano’s turbulent drum rhythms at the opening and close of ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ (‘Warrior’s foreboding’), where dreams of his beloved disturb the soldier’s intimations of imminent death. Bostridge and Pappano highlighted the inner contrasts too, underlining affective harmonic movements, drawing out the lyricism of the soldier’s bitter-sweet recollections, “How often have I dreamt sweet dreams/ resting on her warm breast!” Such melancholy brooding was deftly swept away by the feverish questioning of ‘Frühlings-Sehnsucht’ (‘Spring longing’); Pappano’s tremulous triplets precipitated a frenetic rush to the poet’s last passionate plea, “Who shall finally quell my longing?” The answer, “Nur Du!”, (“only you!”) was an exhausted cry of despair.

‘Ständchen’ (‘Serenade’) was fittingly more restrained; and here Pappano did sustain a deft staccato throughout, underpinning the gentle nocturnal imploring of the poet’s song, which rise to a suggestive final call, “Komm, beglücke mich!” (“Come — make me happy!”). ‘In der Ferne’ (‘Far away’) was a sombre rendition of the Romantic wanderer’s alienation: the voice sank to its lowest registers, a desolate pianissimo revealing that “alas, no blessing follows him/ on his way!” Bostridge balanced detailed attention to individual words — “Nirgend verweilender” (“you who never linger”) — with carefully shaped melodic arches, bringing a fleeting warmth to the protagonist’s memories of whispering breezes and sunbeams. ‘Abschied’ (‘Farewell’) was a jauntily ironic conclusion, with its tripping accompaniment rhythms and deceptively nonchalant “Farewells!”

The Heine songs are more concentrated in their intensity, and as the performers moved swiftly from one song to the next, there was a disturbing accumulation of dramatic tension. The misery and self-pity of ‘Der Atlas’ (‘Atlas’) was shocking in its honesty; the oppressiveness of ‘Die Stadt’ (‘’The town’) — with its diminished harmonies and bare, profound close — overwhelming. Bostridge brought a gentle tenderness to the major-key second verse of ‘Ihr Bild’ (“Her likeness”), striking after the cold unisons of the opening, and dashed away by the forceful admission in the last line, “I have lost you!” The stillness at the opening of ‘Am Meer’ (“By the sea”) seemed to offer the hint of some repose and consolation, but rapidly declined into a pained and angry revelation of a woman’s betrayal. But it was the closing song, ‘Der Doppelgänger’ (‘The wraith’), that brought forth the most remarkable display of emotional catharsis, building from veiled beginnings to tormented self-castigations. With astonishing courage, Bostridge relished the free declamations, interpreting every detail, fully becoming the man “wracked with pain” in both voice and body.

Seidl's 'Die Taubenpost' was performed as a brief encore, momentarily alleviating the anguish but not fully dispelling the darkness as we exited the Hall, into the fading evening light.

Claire Seymour

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