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30 Jul 2012

Exquisite Juxtapositions : Ian Bostridge, Wigmore Hall

Although John Cage’s Seven Haiku for piano are all about chance and accident, this final concert in Ian Bostridge’s Ancient and Modern series was a masterpiece of meticulous planning and execution.

John Cage : Seven Haiku for piano, Franz Schubert: Four Rückert Lieder arr. Xuefei Yang, Benjamin Britten : Songs from the Chinese, Hans Werner Henze: Six Songs from the Arabian

Ian Bostridge,(tenor), Julius Drake (piano), Xuefei Yang (guitar)

28th July 2012, Wigmore Hall, London


Throughout the series, Bostridge has revealed some thought-provoking juxtapositions and connections between old and new, as well as his own aptitude and discernment in wide-ranging repertoire - from Monteverdi to Satie, Scarlatti to Stravinsky - extending far beyond what many may think of as the tenor’s ‘natural’ material. Here, there was not only a dialogue between past and present but also an assimilation of east and west.

The first vocal work, though, was ‘home territory’ - Franz Schubert’s Four Rückert Lieder, albeit in an arrangement for tenor and guitar by the Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang. The delicate tracery of the guitar figuration bestowed an airy gracefulness on the first of Schubert’s settings of Rückert’s Östliche Rosen (‘Oriental Roses’), ‘Du bist die Ruhe’ (‘You are repose’); and, seated throughout the first half, Bostridge matched this grace with a lightness of tone which soared translucently in the poet-speaker’s final eulogy to his beloved’s “radiance”.

While, in these arrangements, some of the intensity of the dialogue between voice and accompaniment may have been lost, the performers captured the intimacy of the traditional Viennese salon where Schubert himself first presented his lieder before a select audience. Bostridge, poised and restrained, did not miss an opportunity to subtly colour the text, wryly portraying the rapid alternation of the youthful poet-speaker’s tears and laughter in ‘Lachen und Weinen’, building the yearning repetitions of “ "Sei mir gegrüßt!! Sie mir geküßt!” (“I greet you! I kiss you”) to an ardent climax in the central stanza of ‘Sei mir gegrüßt’.

In the final song, ‘Daß sie hier gewesen’ (‘That she was here’), the singer was joined by pianist Julius Drake and the change of timbre brought about an expansion of the inherent dramatic depth of the song, as Drake picked up the vocal melody at the conclusion of the second stanza, sweeping expansively into the final stanza and underpinning the poet-speaker’s earnest avowal that “Düfte tun es und/ Tränen kund, Daß sie hier gewesen” (“Fragrance and tears/ will make it known/ that she was here”).

Benjamin Britten’s Songs from the Chinese were written in 1957 following a concert tour undertaken by the composer with the tenor Peter Pears which took in the Far East. Pears had recently begun a recital partnership with the young guitarist, Julian Bream, and they premiered the work at the 1958 Aldeburgh Festival. Concentrated and terse, the forms of the individual songs are simple - employing stanzaic or straightforward ritornello forms - but each has a distinct character. Although there are no facile ‘orientalisms’, the sparse guitar timbre, perhaps reflecting the spirit of the Chinese lute or pipa, enhances the exoticism of Arthur Waley’s translations of ancient Chinese texts in which the narrator, in mid-life, reflects upon the coming of old age - possibly reflecting the forty-four year old composer’s personal narrative.

In the first song, ‘The big chariot’, the speaker rejects fame and fortune - “You will only make yourself dusty” - and warns against taking on the sorrows of the world, although Bostridge’s poignant repetition of the final line, “You will only load yourself with care”, suggested the stoical resignation of the careworn composer. Xuefei Yang articulated the contrasting accompaniment textures - a rhythmic chordal element and a more linear independent line - with clarity. In ‘The old lute’, Bostridge crafted an elegantly expansive line reflecting the timeless beauty of the “cord and cassia-wood” of the lute which has been superseded by the flute and zithern; the dignity of the nevertheless neglected lute was suggested also by the guitar’s elegant, spare polyphonic accompaniment. Sad acquiescence in the face of approaching age was tenderly conveyed in ‘The autumn wind’, most especially by a perfectly judged pause after the recollections of former amours, “Amidst revel and feasting sad thoughts come”.

Eerie guitar glissandi, recalling the mysteries and dreams of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, underpin the ruminations on the body’s grim mortality in ‘Depression’, and Xeufei Yang’s languid shifts and slides certainly conveyed the dispiriting lethargy of approaching age, matched by Bostridge’s own falling swoop, “my body sinks to decay”. After the weighty rhythmic cadence of this brief but explicit song, energy was restored in the final ‘Dance song’, recounting an energetic hunt for a unicorn - a traditional symbol of chastity. With the capture of the unicorn Britten dwells on the word “Alas!”, the glissandi now in the voice, and Bostridge’s affecting laments were a moving expression of the destruction of innocence, the final whispered “Alas!”, accompanied by an ethereal rising arpeggio from the guitarist, fading weightlessly into the air.

Surrounding these two sequences were three renditions by Julius Drake of John Cage’s Seven Haiku for piano - a Webernesque chance-determined work reflecting Cage’s interest in oriental culture and philosophy. Each of the ephemeral movements is devoted to a particular individual in Cage’s life, and is structured around the haiku form, consisting of three units in a length relation of 5-7-5. Drake emphasised the surprising contrast of spaciousness and succinctness, and dramatised the varied nuances of articulation and attack. The fragments of nascent melody grew more tantalising with each varied repetition of the piece, the economy of means belying a deeper resonance and emotional reach.

The second half of the recital was devoted to a performance of Hans Werner Henze’s Six Songs from the Arabian, written for Bostridge and Drake in 1997-98. This was an immaculate performance, both tenor and pianist rising effortlessly to the virtuosic, and at times unpredictable, demands of the harmonic and melodic writing. Bostridge’s plangent, yearning tone is perfectly suited to the wandering melodic idiom and to the texts’ elusiveness, and he missed not a single opportunity to respond to the shades and nuances of the text.

Henze - who wrote both music and texts (excepting a few quotations from Goethe and the final song which is a setting of Hafiz, translated by Rückert) - suggests in a preface to the score that the work is “not only peopled by pirates sea monsters and other monstrosities, but it also contains ‘moments of beauty’ in the form of love and love's pleasures, even if those pleasures are constantly marred by the ocean salt and spray”. Such a moment might be epitomised by ‘Die Gottesanbeterin’ (‘The praying mantis’) which depicts the murderous mating ritual of the female praying mantis. Drake’s flirtatious flurries accompanied a nonchalant vocal line which gradually grew in intensity to a rapturous climax, “I bite hard and consume you, you who are consumed by your longing for me”, before the aggressive, pounding of the deathly conclusion: “I bite through your heart and tear it in two, my bridegroom, my darling, alas, my dead mate.”

The third song, ‘Ein Sonnenaufgang’, (‘A sunrise’) evokes a Bergian romanticism as it paints a gaudy picture of sea, shore and sky. Bostridge saved a heroic tone for the “grand entrance” of Helios, and the ecstasy of the sun’s exultant celebrants, giving thanks for the “new day’s glory”, was developed further in Drake’s excited, exuberant piano postlude.

Henze has been a frequent visitor to the East coast of Africa for several years, and the songs are peopled by real-life characters - such as the adventurous seafarer, Selím, and the tragically abandoned Fatuma. Bostridge and Drake endowed these large dramatic movements with a personal, passionate quality. At the conclusion of ‘Selím and the wind’, the sailor’s sail is in shreds as the ship slowly sinks among “algae, medusas and vermin from hell”. A turbulent uproar in the piano’s bass register conveyed the horror of the plummeting vision, while the spoken last line, “Selím, ah! Selím, ah! what have you done?” was chillingly unambiguous. In ‘Fatima’s Lament’, Bostridge’s affecting melisma sighs were paradoxically both emotionally tense and melodically supple. The dramatic range of the song is vast, from Fatima’s angry, gleaming protestations against her assailant, whose “cool flesh [that] glowed so resplendent in the shadow of lust”, to her quiet acquiescence in the face of inevitable death, “It is here, then, that I must die, where each rock exudes poison and torment”. Leaps, scales and trills were effortlessly despatched; and, Bostridge’s emotional commitment was total and consuming, nowhere more evident than in the closing image of the vanquished Fatima, “soon to be entrusted to a chalk-white old lecher”, the tenor’s tall, willowy form bowed over the music stand in defeat.

‘Das Paradies’ (‘Paradise’) concludes the sequence, the piano’s slow, steady line conveying the unalterable end of the earthly journey and the still timelessness of eternity. In the final moments, rising to a strikingly ethereal head voice, Bostridge conveyed the narrator’s acceptance of his fate: “I ascend to your castle, fair moon.” I suspect many in the Wigmore Hall audience shared the journeyer’s “tear-moistened eye”.

Claire Seymour

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