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Gustav Mahler c. 1907 [Color enhanced photo by Armando Bravi courtesy of International Gustav Mahler Society]
11 Apr 2013

Mahler Lieder, Wigmore Hall

In the first of pianist Julius Drake’s three-part series, ‘Perspectives’, our gaze was directed at Gustav Mahler’s eclectic musical responses to human experiences: from the trauma and distress of anguished love to the sweet contentment of true friendship, from the agonised introspection of the artist to the diverse dramas of human interaction.

Mahler: Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen; Five Rückert Lieder; Lieder from

Dorothea Röschmann, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Julius Drake piano.

Above: Gustav Mahler c. 1907 [Color enhanced photo by Armando Bravi courtesy of International Gustav Mahler Society]


Mahler composed the deeply autobiographical poems of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in the midst of a harrowing relationship with soprano Johanna Richter, and Ian Bostridge adopted a persona of intense and at times surprisingly assertive self-absorption, drawing us into the spurned protagonist’s journey to despair and death. These songs contain surprising contrasts - effervescent joy is supplanted by languid despondency, which in turn may be superseded by a violent anger; and, such tensions were apparent from the first, the fleeting springiness of Drake’s accompaniment contradicting the earnest ardour and anger of Bostridge’s avowals, “Weine! Wein’! Um meinen Schatz” (“I’ll weep, weep! For my love”), in the opening song, ‘Wenn Mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’ (‘When my love has her wedding-day’). Tempi and moods were exaggerated, and characteristically the tenor’s expression closely followed the shades and nuances of the text, but the result - emphasising the volatility of the poet-speaker’s emotions, and the cruel precariousness of human experience - was never mannered.

In ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’ (‘I walked across the fields this morning’), Drake’s staccato polyphonic pulse conjured a folk-like ease and insouciance, but the poet’s fresh delight in the simple beauties of the natural world was challenged by the surprisingly forceful assertion of Bostridge’s question, “Wird’s nicht eine schöne Welt?” (“Isn’t it a lovely world?”). An almost bitter retort, this question transmuted to become a tentative grasping for confirmation, “Ei, du! Gelt? Schöne Welt?”, Bostridge finding, throughout the recital, an extremely expansive expressive palette. Drake’s terse postlude refused to indulge the poet-speaker’s final poignant but self-regarding introspection.

A driving energy propelled ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ (‘I’ve a gleaming knife’), Bostridge’s fevered opening cry almost literally slicing through the air, culminating in a violent outburst, “Nimmer, halt er Ruh’,/ Nimmer halt er Rast!” (‘Never at rest,/ never at peace’), which mocked the sentimentality of the close of the preceding song: “Mir nimmer, nimmer blühen kann!”

‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ (‘The two blue eyes’) was not overly funereal in tempo to begin, but the swinging pendulum of Drake’s bass and the discomforting alternations between major and minor modes became increasingly foreboding. Describing his journey through the still night, across the dark heath, Bostridge employed a rich and penetrating lower register, the clarity of the melodic lines creating a narrative intensity which was enhanced by the delicate countermelodies of the piano accompaniment. Yet more disturbing juxtapositions concluded the cycle, the pained intensity of “Da wußt’ ich nicht, wie das Leben tut” (‘I was not aware of how life hurts”) tentatively overturned by a delicate sweetness as “alles wieder gut!” (“all was well once more”).

In the following five Rückert Lieder, Dorothea Röschmann took a little time to settle; in general approach, she shared Bostridge’s intensity but lacked some of the anguish. In ‘Blicker mir nicht in die Lieder’ (‘Do not look into my songs!’) Drake summoned an unflagging mischievous energy, culminating in an insouciant final gesture, but Röschmann did not fully or convincingly inhabit the strong ‘I’ persona initiated here. A more confident engagement with the text and a diversity of vocal colour marked ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (‘I breathed a gentle fragrance’); Drake’s light running accompaniment coupled with a far-reaching melodic vocal line created a mellifluousness which affectingly contrasted with some unusual harmonic progressions - the sharpness of the lime (‘der Linde’) beneath the delicacy of the ‘gentle fragrance’ (‘linden Duft’), perhaps.

‘Um Mitternacht’ (‘At midnight’) found Röschmann more composed; with well-centred and beautifully coloured tone, she shaped the modulations of mood from bitter resignation, through despairing anger to spiritual transcendence: “hab’ cih die Macht/ In deine Hand gegeben” (“I gave my strength/ into Thy hands). Seeming to inhabit the persona of the poems with ever more assurance and clarity of vision, Röschmann imbued the ecstatic, floating lines of ‘Liebst du um Schöntheit’ (‘If you love for beauty’) with a warm, glistening shine, finding much emotional drama in the simple lyric. In the concluding song, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world, the soprano issued a supremely beautifully melodic outpouring, culminating with a luminous translucence, complemented by Drake’s rippling countermelodies, as the protagonist becomes at one with God: “Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel/ Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebeit” (“I am dead to the world’s tumult/ and rest in a quiet realm”).

The second half of the recital was devoted to songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Many of the folk verses collected, often from oral sources, by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano have an inherently dramatic character and, cast as dialogue, they can be sung as duets, creating immediacy and impact. In the opening ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’ (‘The Sentinel’s Night Song’), Bostridge found himself in what was to become a recurring role of soldier/prisoner; here, a sentry who is tempted from his duty by the alluring song of a girl who appears to him in a vision. Drake’s strident energy underpinned the tenor’s martial verses which contrasted effectively with Röschmann’s softer episodes. Similarly, in ‘Trost im Unglück’ (‘Consolation in sorrow’) Bostridge’s Hussar resisted the enticements of a young maiden, the piano’s sprightly rhythms conveying the soldier’s buoyant attempts to convince himself that he can live without his love. Röschmann’s dismissive denials of dependency grew to a thrillingly defiant outburst: “Ich lieb dich nur aus Narretei;/ … Ohn dich kann ich wohl sein.” (“I love you but from foolishness … I can exist without you.”) Drake’s galloping conclusion carried forth into the start of the following ‘Lied des Verfolgten im Turm’ (‘Song of the prisoner in the tower’), an impassioned duet between an imprisoned soldier and his lover, in which Bostridge summoned both a proud swagger and a more honest mode of quiet reflection: “Es beliebt dabei,/ Die Gedanken sind frei” (“So shall it always be, thoughts are free”).

Röschmann was at her best in ‘Das irdische Leben’ (‘Life on earth’), demonstrating moving expressive power, through voice and physical gesture, as she solemnly communicated the grave tale of a starving child who cries pitifully to his mother for bread, “or I shall die”; Drake’s hollow piano figuration and low pianissimo left hand at the close piercingly captured the poignancy of the final image: “Lag das Kin auf der Totenbahr” (‘the child lay dead upon the bier’). But, the soprano showed a lighter spirit too, relaxing warmly in the humorous ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’ (‘Who made up this little song?), capturing the Ländler charm in ‘Rheinlegendchen’ (‘Little Rhine legend’), and enjoying the comic gestures of the ironic ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’ (‘In praise of high intellect), in which a donkey, judging a competition between a cuckoo an a nightingale, becomes confused by the beauty of the latter’s song and lets out a raucous “Ija! Ija!” (“Hee-haw!”.

In yet another military-themed song, ‘Revelge’, (‘Reveille’) Ian Bostridge spun a gratifyingly focused, at times searing tale, wonderfully embodying the drummer boy who sets out to battle and is wounded, must endure while his agonies are ignored by his fellow soldiers, who then succumb while he is unable to aid them. Accompanied by Drake’s stark, staccato octaves and chilling, diabolic trills, Bostridge built from initial martial robustness to a brutal climax, before a magical switch to a third-person narration describing how the drummer boy will lead a funeral procession past the house of his sweetheart; all the chaos and rage of war was unleashed in Drake’s dissonant piano pedals, concluding a drama of almost operatic impact. In ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt!’ (‘Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes’), by contrast, Bostridge adopted an ironically insouciant stance, his nonchalant air enhanced by Drake’s tripping, chromatic streams. Then, in ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’ (‘The drummer-boy’) the tenor found a strange optimism - a lightning of tempo and timbre - in the moments before his execution, creating an almost unbearable pathos before the veiled, sombre horror of the conclusion: “Vor euch ich Urlaub nimm,/ Gute Nacht” (“I take my leave of you,/ good night”). Drake’s rattling death trills underpinned possibly the most affecting moment of the evening.

After the schmaltzy twists of ‘Verlone Müh’ (‘Wasted effort’) Röschmann and Bostridge brought the evening to a moving close with ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ (‘Where the splendid trumpets sound’), a surprisingly tender duet between a maiden and her dead soldier-lover, which faded into inevitable obscurity.

There was much to enjoy in this tightly planned Mahlerian sequence, but guiding and shaping each miniature drama in a way which the individuality of each song and produced a coherence whole was Julius Drake. The Wigmore Hall audience are fortunate that they have two more opportunities to enjoy the pianist’s intelligent artistry: on 1 June Drake performs with baritone Christopher Maltman in songs by Eisler, and on 20 July he is joined by Sarah Connolly and Fiona Shaw in a programme entitled, ‘A Music Of One’s Own: From The Diary of Virginia Woolf’.

Claire Seymour


Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen: ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’, ‘Ging heut' Morgen’, ‘Ich hab' ein glühenden Messer’, ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’; Five Rückert Lieder: ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’, Ich atmet' einen linden Duft’, ‘Um Mitternacht’, ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’; Lieder from Des Knaben Wunderhorn: ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’, ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’, ‘Das irdische Leben’, ‘Trost im Unglück’, ‘Lied des Verfolgten im Turm’, ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht’, ‘Revelge’, ‘Rheinlegendchen’, ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’, ‘Verlorne Müh’, ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’.

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