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Ian Bostridge [Photo by Ben Ealovega]
30 May 2011

Ian Bostridge, Wigmore Hall

“Music, music for a while/ Shall all your cares beguile,” vowed Ian Bostridge at the opening of this recital with his regular accompanist, Julius Drake.

Ian Bostridge, Wigmore Hall

Ian Bostridge, tenor; Julius Drake. piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 23rd May 2011.

Above: Ian Bostridge [Photo by Ben Ealovega]


But despite the promise of the text, and the rapt lyricism of Tippett’s arrangement of Henry Purcell’s compelling air, the evening’s intriguing sequence of songs in the English language seemed, on the contrary, to demonstrate music’s power to dramatise the darkest, despairing aspect of human life.

Indeed, much of the selected repertoire drew upon the shadier regions of the low tenor register, and it was interesting to hear Bostridge calling on a grainier, rougher-hued tone at times. The contrast between weighty lows and bright high phrases emphasised the sudden changes of mood in Tippett’s setting. The intricate interplay and imitation between voice and accompaniment was sensitively delivered, suspensions subtly emphasised by Drake, scalic passages flowing smoothly.

Even in this opening song Bostridge’s delivery and physical manner conveyed dramatic tension and angst which, as the recital proceeded, rose at times to a quite disturbing intensity. Always fully committed — musically, dramatically and physically — here one feared for his well-being! With frowns and contortions, he tensed his body, twisted and almost stumbled across the stage, gripping the piano as if quite literally in need of physical support.

Such mannerisms aptly matched the astounding rhetorical force of Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s ‘The Queen’s Epicedium’. Just two days previously, the Wigmore Hall audience had been stirred by James Bowman’s moving rendition of Purcell’s original elegy. Britten’s setting is much more overtly theatrical and pained. The emotional range is vast, and calls for a far wider array of vividly expressive gestures, from the melismatic flourish of the opening challenge, “do you require a song?”, to the gentle dotted rhythms of the image of quiet pastoral mourning — “See, see how ev’ry nymph and swain/ hand down their pensive heads” — to almost hysterical cry of desolation, “The Queen! the Queen of Arcadie is gone!”, enhanced by piquant switches between major and minor. Bostridge emphasised the physical effort required to express such sorrow, seeming at times to have to force the words from his body, while Drake flamboyantly offered a glimpse of the eternal in the song’s astonishing final cadence: “her star is fixt, and shines beyond the skies.”

The poems by William Soutar which form Britten’s last song cycle, Who are these Children? recall the fierce juxtapositions of violence and innocence found in William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’. However, the four songs chosen by Bostridge and Drake focus not on the purity of the child’s word, but rather expose the transience of childhood tranquillity and joy as the purity of youth, and youthful imagination, is corrupted by an unforgiving adult world. The spare linearity of much of the writing, coupled with surprising muscular rhythms, reminds us of the composer’s interest in Purcell’s approach to word-setting. Drake discerned much meaning in the harmonic subtleties and melodic nuances, from the eerie right hand line of the first song, ‘Nightmare’, to the ambiguous close of ‘Slaughter’: “The phantoms of the dead remain/ And from our faces show.” Elsewhere he evoked a terrifying and unstoppable force as, relentlessly, “Death rides upon an iron beast/ And tramples cities down”. Bostridge’s bitter rage in ‘Who are these Children?’ where “A wound which everywhere/ Corrupts the hearts of men: The blood of children corrupts the hearts of men” was frightening in its intensity, made sharper still by the deafening silence which followed. In this song, which depicts children watching a gentrified fox hunt, Britten’s ability to conjure a precisely drawn world through musical means was powerfully demonstrated, the staggering rhythms recalling the syncopated lurchings of Tarquinius’ night-time ride to the home of the virtuous Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia.

The following Whitman settings by Kurt Weill did little to dismiss the lingering sense that “The earth is darkened with a darkening stain”. Although there is much irony in Weill’s use of jazz idioms and pastiche, it is a black humour — the cynical wryness found in Britten’s own Cabaret Songs — and Bostridge and Drake conveyed the incongruity between style and sentiment perfectly through their control of rubato and dynamics in the lament, ‘Oh Captain! My Captain!’ There was some relief, however, in the tender ache of the closing lines of ‘Come up from the fields Father’ — in which a mother receives news of her son’s death in battle — and the warm opening of ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’, as the last rays of sun and hours of summer pass to silvery autumnal evening.

In the first half, the titles of Haydn’s ‘Five English Canzonettas’ seemed to promise some lightening of heart, but the gloom was only partially allayed, for after the rollicking ‘Sailor’s song’, a boisterous glorification of the British navy , the Shakespearean text of ‘She never told her love’ returned us more to a mood of wounded renunciation, most poignantly conveyed by Drake’s expressive introduction and postlude. ‘The wanderer’, in both text and idiom, is the closest of these songs to the spirit of Schubert’s lieder, and it is not surprising that this drew the most affecting performance from Bostridge. But, it was J.S. Bach’s ‘Five Spiritual Songs’ which presented the most consoling moments of the evening, for even though they speak of death, it is the eternal peace of the Christian soul which is portrayed not the throbbing agony of human loss.

‘Come soothing death, come sweet repose’ Bach declares: a major key cadence concludes this song as the poet’s “eyelids close, come sweet repose!”, both confirming Bach’s own faith and reassuring the listener of the possibility of transcendence. However, while Bostridge and Drake certainly convinced the audience that music has remarkable expressive potential, there were few demonstrations of its power to beguile human woes and terrors on this occasion.

Claire Seymour


Purcell/Tippett: Music for a while
Bach/Britten: Five Spiritual Songs
Haydn: Content; Sailor’s song; She never told her love; The wanderer; Fidelity
Purcell/Britten: The Queen’s Epicedium
Britten: From Who are these Children? Op. 84; Nightmare; Slaughter; Who are these Children?; The Children
Weill: Beat! Beat! Drums!; O captain! My captain!; Come up from the fields, father; Dirge for two veterans

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