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Franz Schubert
19 Sep 2013

Schubert : Ian Bostridge at the Wigmore Hall

Scarcely had Julius Drake seated himself, when the piano’s turbulent stream of relentless semiquavers precipitously announced the opening of Schubert’s ‘Der Strom’ (The river), the opening song in Ian Bostridge’s recital series, Schubert Lieder.

Franz Schubert Songs

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Franz Schubert


During the next two years, the programme tells us, Bostridge plans to ‘chart the expressive depths, lyrical inflections and psychological insights of the composer’s work’.

Certainly this recital confirmed the seemingly unlimited expressive range of Schubert’s songs. The stormy energy of ‘Der Strom’ - in which Drake’s wonderfully light and even touch conveyed the barely contained power of the river as it rears and plunges - was followed by three songs by Johann Baptist Mayrhofer which spanned the emotional gamut from despondent pessimism, through elevated love and trust, to peaceful rest.

The tenderness of the sweet barcarolle with which ‘Auf der Donau’ (On the Danube) commences was challenged by the focused intensity which Bostridge injected into the opening vocal melody, as the boat glides past castles which ‘soar heavenward’ and pine-forests which ‘stir like ghosts’, the voice accompanied by tremulous right hand whispers. Ominous left hand trills punctuated the singer’s dark recollections of fallen heroes and shattered monuments of former glories, the tenor’s lower register rich with enigmatic shadows. A slight hiatus before the final verse heightened the mood of desolate resignation, as the voice plummeted through dark, hushed chromatic waters: ‘Wird uns bang -/ Wellen droh’n, wie Zeiten,/ Unterhang’ (we grow afraid -/ waves, like times, threaten/destruction).

With barely a pause, the rippling piano chords and hymn-like melodiousness of ‘Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren’ (Seafarer’s song to the Dioscuri) eased the mood of despair, the tenor’s voice gleaming as the twin stars lit the way and provided consolation. Bostridge found a radiant weightlessness as the seafarer gazed heavenwards with wonder, before the music of the opening verse returned and the journey resumed, Drake’s busy accompaniment never over-powering the vocal line but embodying the pull of the tide which impedes the sailor’s homebound voyage.

Drake’s polyphonic chromatic rovings at the start of ‘Nachtstück’ (Nocturne) served to underline the import of the aged harp-player’s song of farewell. Bostridge expertly crafted the expansive melody, heightening the minstrel’s urgent cry for the sleep that shall free him from affliction, injecting a quiet pathos when the forest of the night offers reassurance - ‘Die Gräser lispein wankend fort,/ Wie decken seinen Ruheort;’ (the swaying grass will whisper:/ we will cover his resting-place’) - the pathos intensified by the accompaniments dense, mysterious modulations.

Further Mayrhofer settings concluded the first half of the recital. Bostridge’s thoughtful enrichment of the opening lines of ‘Abendstern’ (Evening star), as the poet-narrator anxiously questions the single star whose isolation reflects his own loneliness, spilled naturally into the piano’s after-phrase. Voicing the star’s humble resignation, Bostridge’s tenor was beautifully distant and this almost translucent aloofness was complemented by the piano’s gentle closing chords, tempered by a brief shimmer of drama in the final cadence.

The propelling rocking rhythms of ‘Gondelfahrer’ (The gondolier) then swept us forward, an eerie inflection in the voice emphasising the presence of fleeting nocturnal spirits and momentarily clouding the piano’s enchanting dance. Twelve rolling chords tolled the midnight hour; Drake’s deep bass accompaniment, far beneath the voice, conveyed the profundity of both water and sleep, but while Venice slumbers the boatman sails on, and Bostridge’s final word, ‘Wacht’ (only the boatman is awake), was beautifully extended and sustained. After such motionlessness came the tumult of ‘Auflösung’ (Dissolution), Drake’s explosive introduction heralding Bostridge’s commanding address to the sun. Despite the rhetorical grandeur of the opening, the tenor turned the focus inward - ‘Quillen doch aus allen Falten/ Meiner Seele liebliche Gewalten;’ (For sweet powers well up/ from every recess of my soul) - impressively negotiating the relentless vocal line which offers few opportunities for breath, before stabbing bass rumbles dissolved into the silence of echoing ‘ethereal choirs’.

Dividing the Mayrhofer poems was Franz von Schober’s ‘Viola’ (Violet), and it was this song more than any other that confirmed Bostridge’s willingness to look afresh at every nuance of text and music, to surprise us, to manipulate our expectations. The opening tempo was slow, Drake deliciously lightening the second of his paired introductory chords, before Bostridge heralded the arrival of spring with a firm brightness accompanied by the piano’s crisp, sprightly staccato. Throughout the ballad, tempo, texture and tonality were thoughtfully interpreted and their ‘meaning’ communicated; never was the rondo structure allowed to lull us into complacency, and the dialogue between voice and piano was probing. The violet’s urgent terror when she realizes her isolation was chillingly contrasted with a moment of stillness; her fretful torment was coolly, disconcertingly swept aside by the return of the sweet refrain. An accelerando towards the close was halted by a pause before the final statement of the refrain, and the return of the slow tempo of the opening made a requiem of the closing verse.

Following the interval, ‘Widerschein’ (Reflection) saw Bostridge casually leaning on the piano, the brooding fisherman awaiting his tardy beloved, whose belatedness was neatly reflected in the merest of delays which the tenor occasionally inserted - most tellingly, holding back the final line, as the fisherman, infused by the sweet radiance of his lover whose face is reflected in the water, grips the rail, ‘Sonst - zieht’s ihn hinein’ (for fear of falling in). The folky rhythms which open the nocturnal serenade ‘Alinde’ (Alinde) were interrupted by the tenor’s urgent search for his love, the unassuming melodic shapes given weight and form, each cry of ‘Alinde’ tinted with a different hue, as the simple elements were built into a dramatic whole.

The first of three Goethe settings, ‘Rastlose Liebe’ (Restless love), was an impetuous whirlwind of passion and pain, suffering and exultation. The incessant driving accompaniment, with its challenging combination of legato right hand semiquavers and a staccato scalic bass, powered the music forward. The declamatory force of the first verse gave way to introspection in the second, as the poet-narrator seeks respite from the forces of nature; in the final verse he is transported back to a moment of love, and the rhetorical impact of his cry, ‘Alles vergebens!’ (All in vain!), was unnerving. ‘Geheimes’ (A secret) was delivered with coy elegance, Drake’s repetitive sighing motif wonderfully controlled, the major/minor fluctuation of ‘Weiß recht gut was das bedeute’ prepared by a guileful lull, the harmonic vacillations of the close sweetly flirtatious, the final diminuendo fading with wistful longing into the imagined future ‘sweet hour’.

An energetic reading of ‘Versunken’ (Immersed) - in which Drake demonstrated his technical assurance in mastering Schubert’s fiendish, unbending accompaniment - was followed by a lengthy pause before ‘Der Winterabend’ (The winter evening), the first of two settings of Karl Gottfried von Leitner, in which the mystery of the midwinter dusk gradually unfolded, Drake’s gentle patterings as soft as the snow which drapes the streets. This was an exquisitely understated performance by Bostridge, as he welcomed the moonlight into his chamber, the most delicate of emphases intimating the intensity of feeling: ‘Freut’s ihn nimmer, so geht er fort’ (If the pleasure palls, it can move on). In ‘Die Sterne’ (The stars) Drake’s dactylic rhythm was wonderfully fluid, inflected with subtle rubato. In the final song, ‘Strophe aus “die Götter Griechenlands”’ (Verse from ‘The Gods of Greece’ (Schiller)), we were tantalised with a trace of the magical land of song, while all that remained for us was the dry staccato of ‘deserted fields’ and godless shadows.

So many of Schubert’s perennial preoccupations were here: water, the night, stars, dreams. Bostridge knows this repertoire inside out; he does not simply interpret these songs, he lives and breathes them - here, sympathetically and suggestively accompanied by Drake’s intelligent support and interchange. This recital was recorded for release under the Wigmore Live label; and, concerts in this series will continue in May 2014 and during the 2014-15. Don’t miss them.

Claire Seymour


Ian Bostridge, tenor; Julius Drake, piano; Schubert - ‘Der Strom’, ‘Auf der Donau’, ‘Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren’, ‘Nachtstück’, ‘Viola’, ‘Abendstern’, ‘Gondelfahrer’, ‘Auflösung’, ‘Widerschein’, ‘Alinde’, ‘Rastlose Liebe’, ‘Geheimes’, ‘Versunken’, ‘Der Winterabend’, ‘Die Sterne’, ‘Strophe aus “die Götter Griechenlands”’

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