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01 Jun 2010

Ian Bostridge at the Wigmore Hall

One very tall and gaunt,one short and stocky, one introspective, one effusive : Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano, Music Director of the Royal Opera house make an odd couple, but they've partnered each other musically for many years. It's a good relationship, as this recital at the Wigmore Hall demonstrated.

Franz Schubert: Schwanengesang and other songs

Ian Bostridge, Antonio Pappano. Wigmore Hall, London, 29th May 2010


The heart of the programme was Schwanengesang, D957 (1828) which Bostridge and Pappano recorded in 2009. For this recital, they chose only three extra songs (different from those on the CD), which made for a short evening. We exited the Wigmore Hall while it was still twilight. Whether this was planned or not,it was appropriate. The songs in Schwanengesang were written in Schubert’s own twilight. They were collected and titled posthumously.

All music, almost by definition, is dramatic, but there are many forms of drama. Lieder is quiet and introspective, “inner” drama. where truth comes from other than voice depth matters. That’s why I have so much respect for Ian Bostridge. Lieder is an intellectual genre, and he’s unusually sensitive to meaning. There’s nothing safe or bland about his singing, but Lieder isn’t bland or safe.

Bostridge performances can be unpredictable. Sometimes he holds back emotionally, which is understandable, but when he ignites, he can be amazing. In this performance, he seemed more relaxed than usual, which was an interesting compromise. Pappano has a stabilizing influence which can pay dividends as their recording of Hugo Wolf songs shows. Bostridge thrives when he has a supportive pianist, but sometimes his finest work comes when the support pushes him creatively.

Widerschein D949 began with a flourish, Bostridge creating a soaring arc on the phrase “Die Geliebte säumt”,but became more restrained after that first outburst. In Winterabend D938, heavy snow muffles the sounds of the busy world outside, but the poet has internalized the relentless snowfall. “Sinne, und sinne”. Pappano’s playing caught the muffle well, but the danger is that the mood can turn soporific.

This muted spirit carried over through Die Sterne D939 and into the first few songs of Schwanengesang. Understatement can work well with Schubert, even in Kreiger’s Ahnung, where the images are of battle, but the message is of rest, possibly eternal.

Nonetheless, there are other moods in this collection. For Ständchen, Bostridge quickened the pace, because the poet is quivering with anticipation that his lover might appear. Chances are that Schubert knew, and Rellstab knew, that she won’t show. In Lieder, love is usually unrequited.

The Heine Settings provide sterner material. In Der Atlas, Bostridge’s voice broke out of repose, taking on a harder, more violent edge, which fits the song, and made a nice change from the refinement that had gone before. In contrast, Der Fischermädchen was deliciously free, Bostridge making clear the erotic mischief in the last stanza.

By this stage, the contemplation in Schwanengesang starts to darken, eerily. Bostridge was now much more in his element. The strange, clarinet-like quality of his voice is ideally suited to evocations of the surreal. Die Stadt and An Meer felt mysterious, as they should be. Heine doesn’t do landscape for its own sake. In Der Doppelgänger, Bostridge used the extreme dynamic range to heighten the sense of mounting horror. No peaceful contemplation here. He spat the words out, emphatically. “Du, Doppelgänger! du bleicher Geselle!” No need to build beauty or softness. It’s a song of violent accusation. Bostridge’s lips curled, horrified loathing etched in his features.

Anne Ozorio

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