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The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David
27 Feb 2012

“Figures from the Antique”, Wigmore Hall

Modern and historic responses to classical tragedy and myth formed the unifying focus for this latest stage of Ian Bostridge’s year-long ‘Ancient and Modern’ project at the Wigmore Hall.

“Figures from the Antique”

Angelika Kirchschlager, mezzo-soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor. Aurora Orchestra. Nicholas Collon, conductor. The English Concert. Laurence Cummings, director and, harpsichord. Nadja Zwiener, solo violin. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday, 20th February 2012.

Above: The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David


One mild criticism levelled at Bostridge in the past has been that his repertoire range is rather limited, but this recital series is convincingly dispelling that censure; here, an intriguing assemblage of chamber cantatas proved that he is as comfortable, and accomplished, in styles as disparate as baroque seria and French mélodie.

Bostridge was partnered by the Austrian soprano, Angelika Kirchschlager, and, opening the recital with Handel’s O numi eterni, she immediately established her striking dramatic presence, launching with unrestrained emotional force into an anguished account of the rape and suicide of Lucrezia. La Lucrezia is a truly ‘operatic’ work. Except for the admixture of recitative and aria, it has very little resemblance to the standard Baroque cantata; rather it is a complex scena in a multifaceted and unique form. Such complexity is integral to the development of Lucrezia’s agonising responses: pain, fury, doubt, resignation and revenge. Kirchschlager maximised the transitions — often unpredictable and unsettling — from recitative to aria, powerfully revealing the volatility and extremity of Lucrezia’s emotional states. Histrionic outbursts characterised by abrupt, jarring shifts of register were juxtaposed with calmer episodes where a reflective ‘cello accompaniment (sensitively played by Jonathan Manson of the English Concert) intimated the underlying sadness beneath the outpourings of aggressive vengeance. With a wild energy, Kirchschlager absolutely inhabited Lucrezia’s destabilised, damaged psyche. Yet, while not lacking in dramatic impact, her projection of the text was less impressive; and, it was a pity that her performance was so bound to the score throughout.

In contrast, Bostridge’s rendering of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Io son Neron, l’imperator del mondo was most definitely ‘off the book’. Bostridge’s unmannered delivery — and the intermingling of flamboyant posturing and imperious flourishes with traces of ironic insinuation — revealed a dramatic and emotional range far beyond the internalised, tormented modes with which he established his reputation. In the first aria, in which a supercilious Nero challenges even the gods, Bostridge demonstrated both vocal strength and flexibility as he arrogantly declared, “I want Jove to tremble before the magnificence of my presence”. With fitting irony, the rejections of the notion of compassion in the second aria draw forth the tenor’s most beautiful, seductive tone. The recitatives conveyed the tempestuousness of the deluded, unbalanced emperor, demonstrating his extreme cruelty and his delight in the suffering and slaughter he causes. The last aria 'Veder chi pena' is set as a tarantella, a southern Italian folk dance, and Bostridge enjoyed the paradox that this light-hearted form is in fact the ultimate demonstration of Nero's malignity as he sings: "To watch those that suffer and sigh is my heart's desire, evil since birth.”

The ‘modern’ half of the recital began with Eric Satie's little known “La Mort de Socrate”, a quiet, reflective account of the great Greek philosopher’s final moments before he is poisoned. Impressively performing the ceaselessly unfolding declamation from memory, Bostridge demonstrated his profound musical intelligence, appreciating both the understated manner and charm of the early twentieth-century French idiom and the underlying sincerity and affectivity of the sentiments expressed. With poise and elegance he related the French text — fragments from Plato’s Dialogues translated by Victor Cousin — his even tone and graceful delivery unaffectedly revealing its simple poignancy. Bostridge’s reading was sympathetically supported by some accomplished playing by the Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon, who drew sharply defined textures from his ensemble.

Kirchschlager closed the recital with an impassioned performance of Benjamin Britten’s late masterwork, Phaedra, a ‘dramatic cantata’ written for Janet Baker. In contrast to the tragic nobility with which Baker reportedly imbued the role, Kirchschlager went for an unrelenting, full-throttle approach; and while she undoubtedly conveyed the neuroses and instability of Theseus’s unfaithful wife, by emphasising Phaedra’s sexuality and fickleness she neglected the quieter, internalised guilt and remorse that Britten’s music suggests. Certainly, in the ‘Presto to Hippolytus’ Britten sets explicitly sexual imagery from Robert Lowell’s translation of Racine: “Look, this monster ravenous/ For her execution, will not flinch,/ I want your sword’s spasmodic final inch.” And here Kirchschlager’s dazzling timbre together with striking rhythmic incisiveness from the instrumentalists of the Aurora Orchestra powerfully conveyed her adulterous lust and intimated her insanity.

But, Britten’s music is never frantic; the heights of Phaedra’s obsession are depicted by a chilling passage for stratospheric strings accompanied by untuned percussive strikes which suggest a pulsing, diminishing heartbeat, both serenely beautiful and poignantly prophetic of her imminent death. In the final ‘Adagio to Theseus’, Phaedra shows calm acceptance of her fate — “A cold composure I have never know/ Gives me a moment’s pause.” — her resignation underpinned by the orchestra’s gradual modulation towards C Major harmony and ‘resolution’. Superb instrumental playing — cellist Oliver Coates deserves especial mention — brought some emotional variety to the performance, to counter Kirchschlager’s remarkable but unremitting frenzy.

Claire Seymour


Handel: O numi eterni (La Lucrezia) HWV145

Corelli: La Follia for violin and string ensemble

Scarlatti: Io son Neron, l’imperator del mondo

Satie: “The Death of Socrates” from Socrate

Britten: Phaedra Op.93

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