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Ian Bostridge [Photo by David Thompson courtesy of Askonas Holt]
23 Dec 2011

The Bostridge Project: ‘Ancient and Modern’

This latest instalment of Ian Bostridge’s ‘Ancient and Modern’ series juxtaposed the tender melancholy of the Elizabethan age with the modernist anxieties of the early twentieth century, revealing both a sensitivity to textual nuance and profound human sensibilities which transcend temporal epochs.

Song Recital Series: The Bostridge Project: ‘Ancient and Modern’

Sophie Daneman, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Mark Stone, baritone. Philippa Davies, flute; Nicholas Daniel, cor anglais; Elizabeth Kenny, lute; Julius Drake, piano. Heath Quartet: Oliver Heath, violin; Cerys Jones, violin; Gary Pomeroy, viola; Christopher Murray, cello. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday, 21st December 2011.

Above: Ian Bostridge [Photo by David Thompson courtesy of Askonas Holt]


We began with the master lutenist, John Dowland, whose distinctive blend of poem, melody and harmony was exquisitely celebrated in a sequence of ensembles, solo songs and lute dances. After a lively, euphonious opening — the trio ‘When Phoebus first did Daphne love’, in which the voices swelled and declaimed in joyful harmony — Ian Bostridge established a more intimate air, with ‘Daphne was not so chaste’. Seated, Bostridge struck a relaxed pose; the improvisatory flourishes and sense of spontaneous melodic growth reminding us that these songs would have been sung in intimate, domestic settings by whichever forces were to hand. Elizabeth Kenny’s lute was no mere substitute for voices, but an instrument in subtle dialogue with the melody, and providing telling harmonic nuance. Mark Stone’s rendering of the renowned ‘In darkness let me dwell’ seemed, in contrast, overly mannered and theatrical. The limited melodic range of these songs naturally highlights the centrality of the text and there is no need for the singer to excessively dramatise the words; indeed, to do so risks destroying the very simplicity and fluidity of line which encapsulates the understated sorrow — one merely needs to take each phrase as it comes.

The trio ‘Come again, sweet love doth now invite’ achieved a madrigalian lightness of spirit, with yearning intensity escalating through the breathy line, “To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die”, the Elizabethan euphemism beautifully coloured by Daneman. Here Stone provided solid foundations for the subtle textual nuances of the upper voices. Daneman revealed a rich lower register in ‘Flow my tears’, her eloquent phrases decorated with sensitive cadential elaborations by the lute. The three voices came together once more for ‘White as lilies was her face’, rhythmic vigour — when reflecting on the power of a woman’s wooing to undo the male — contrasting with a more subdued depiction of loss, and climaxing with an intricately assertive declared intent to “banish love with forward scorn”. Interspersed between these songs were two pieces for solo lute, the aptly titled ‘Semper Dowland simper dolens’ and ‘Mignarda’, in which Kenny relished the freedom of form and adventurous tonal palette.

Philip Heseltine, who assumed the name Peter Warlock (reflecting his interest in the occult), was deeply influenced by his Elizabethan predecessors and conducted much research into the idiom which had a marked effect on his own musical style. Six of his ‘Elizabeth songs arranged for voice and string quartet’ revealed a plaintive sound world; the Heath Quartet’s restrained, almost imperceptive vibrato recreated the undemonstrative yet acutely affecting timbre of the viol consort, the closely nestling voices further deepening the mood of concentration. In ‘Born is the Babe’ deft counterpoint between the imitative instrumental entries supported a sincere rendering of the text by Mark Stone; in particular, a tender cadence emphasised the solace of Christian faith: “The haven of peace when worldly troubles toss/ Who cur’d our care by suff’ring on the cross.”

‘O Death, rock me asleep’ was more Stygian in mood, plangent suspensions complementing the dark richness of Bostridge’s lower register as he called for death to “rock me asleep,/ Bring me to quiet rest”. In contrast, Daneman soared with piercing clarity above the dense string texture in ‘Abrahad’, recognising her husband’s death — “Alas, alas, alas, alas, lo, this is he!” — before calling dramatically for death to embrace her too, in elaborate echoes between voice and strings in dynamic variation. Maytime celebrations brought more joviality to the end of the first part of the programme, Stone’s declamatory bon esprit in ‘When May is in his prime’, being followed by Bostridge’s sweet delight in the through-sung, ‘No more, good herdsman, of thy song’. Bostridge’s ability to subtly colour an individual word, assimilating detail and overall meaning, was evident in the forward momentum he brought to repetitions in the song’s conclusion: “Your pipes to me but harsh do sound/ Wherein such sweetness erst I found/ Well may the nymph then ever fare,/ For she, for she, for she is she without compare.” The vigorous string lines underlining Daneman’s “chirping notes” in ‘In a merry may morn’ brought the first half to a joyful end.

Warlock dexterously imitates Elizabethan counterpoint and textures in many of his own songs, such as ‘Sleep’, where meandering vocal and piano lines climax in cadential flourishes of a distinctly Tudor flavour. Pianist Julius Drake enjoyed the gradual enriching of harmonic vocabulary in the second stanza, and in the piano postlude tenderly recalled the falling fifth of the opening vocal phrase, “Come, sleep”. In ‘Rest, sweet nymphs’ Bostridge achieved a remarkable gentility of tone, the dulcet softness gradually expanding through the vocal rise, “Lullaby, lullaby,/ Hath eas’d you and pleas’d you,”; typically Bostridge pointed the rhyme before subsiding to a surprisingly quiet sweetness in the concluding line: “And sweet slumber seized you,/ And now to bed I hie.” Drake’s rocking dissonances in ‘Cradle Song’ gradually became an unsettling chromatic bed above which Daneman soared expansively to reassure that “Thy nurse will tend thee as duly as may be”. The syncopated rhythms and off-beat accents of ‘Jillian of Berry’ allowed Stone to indulge in more light-hearted sentiments.

Though similarly taking his inspiration from the Elizabethan, Ivor Gurney gives voice to a more restless, modernistic yearning, and Drake profitably explored the doubts and fears conveyed in the shifting, exploratory accompaniments and postludes to the songs presented here. In ‘Even such is time’ the imminence of death was conveyed by the low piano chords which begin the song, and the desperate hope, “My God shall raise me up, I trust” (Stone), with its ringing piano octaves was unsettled by the searching postlude. Drake conjured a rippling lute texture in ‘Orpheus with his lute’ (Daneman), and a sprite-like effervescence in the impish counterpoint of ‘Under the greenwood tree’ (Stone). In ‘Brown is my love’ Stone’s honeyed tone and arching phrases aptly captured the lover’s rapture. The concluding Gurney song, the well-known ‘Sleep’, provided a striking contrast to the preceding setting by Warlock: Daneman’s soaring melodic lines struck just the right balance between anxious restlessness and musical completeness.

The recital concluded with a profoundly moving performance of Warlock’s The Curlew. The instrumental interludes were astonishing affecting: the colourings of Daniel’s rich cor anglais and Davies’ pure flute timbre were exquisitely beautiful; the individual members of the Heath Quartet expertly articulating their solo melodic fragments; and the various strands formed a dialogue of bitter-sweet elegance. Bostridge’s innate feeling for the text was evident throughout, but most powerfully felt in ‘The withering of the boughs’, with the repetition of the refrain — “No boughs have withered because of the wintry wind;/ The boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams” — achieving first a mysterious magic and then, when spoken, a more disillusioned stoicism. Through ‘He hears the cry of the sedge’, an almost unbearable intensity amassed, with chromatic clusters underpinning instrumental fragments, and the voice rising achingly as, in a Yeatsian vision of apocalypse, the axle breaks and stars “hurl in the deep/ The banners of East and West”; eventually the voice slipped into resigned release, as the low tenor proclaimed: “And the girdle of light is unbound,/ Your breast will not lie by the breast/ Of your beloved in sleep.” The height of anguish, perhaps, but also heart-breakingly beautiful.

Claire Seymour

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