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Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze (1789-1817) by Ernst Riepenhausen [Source: Wikipedia]
27 May 2014

Schubert Liederabende, Wigmore Hall

In this Schubert Liederabende — the second in Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake’s planned series of four recitals at the Wigmore Hall — dark, sombre worlds evoking the romantic turbulence of Death and the Maiden were only briefly alleviated by radiance and light.

Schubert Liederabende, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze (1789-1817) by Ernst Riepenhausen [Source: Wikipedia]


We began with five settings of Ernst Konrad Schulze. A tormented dreamer, Schulze delved into the world of folklore and fairy tales, reportedly remarking of himself, “I lived in a fantasy world and was on the way to becoming a complete obsessive.” The same might be said of his unrequited devotion to the sisters Adelheid and Cäcilie Tyschen which inspired the hundred poems of the Poetisches Tagebuch (Verse Diary), in which the volatile Schulze poured out his passion.

The impact of the early death of Cäcilie can perhaps be felt in ‘Im Frühling’ which depicts the poet-speaker’s love for an unattainable beloved. The hushed opening — Drake’s gentle quavers delivered with the merest touch of hesitant restraint — established a whimsical air, fitting for the nostalgic recollections which followed. Bostridge sang with tender fluency, but there was an ever-present intimation of unrest — moments of earnestness in stanza three when the poet imagines plucking a flower from a branch from which she has picked a bud, urgent off-beats in the minor key stanza, slightly unsettling rhythmic asymmetry in the final verse — which could not be quite assuaged by the beautiful shine that the tenor brought to the concluding wistful reminiscence: ‘Den ganzen Sommer lang.’

‘Über Wildemann’ was more turbulent, driven by obsessive love and the poet’s exuberant response to the mountain vista before him. The contained violence of Drake’s pulsing accompaniment was unnerving, left hand octaves and pounding triplets never overwhelming the voice. Bostridge made much of the contrast between the low register of the opening verse and the poet’s enraptured reflections on the natural beauty of his surroundings. Above Drake’s delicately shimmering starry reflections, the broad phrases of ‘Der liebliche Stern’ were wonderfully mellifluous and the pianissimo close magically floated, translating the poet deep into imaginative realms: ‘Dem lieblichen Sterne mich nah’n!’ (Let me draw near to that lovely star!)

‘I have lost all peace of mind’ (‘Ich bin von aller Ruh geschieden’) mourns the poet in ‘Tiefes Leid (Im Jänner 1817)’, and Bostridge did indeed seem almost overwhelmed by the depth of the speaker’s sorrow. The piano’s withdrawn dynamic at the start of the final verse created a troubled expectancy; the tenor used the text with characteristic rhetorical judiciousness to convey the chasm between the poet’s suffering and the beloved’s silence. Drake brought clarity and spaciousness to the moto perpetuo of ‘Auf der Brücke’, (On the bridge), and stylishly articulated the details embedded in the accompaniment, such as the low trill which hints at the young maidens’ twinkling eyes. Bostridge’s wide-ranging phrases spoke of the poet’s confidence although the climactic rise in the final verse suggested underlying disquiet and doubt.

Schubert’s settings of two of Johann Mayrhofer’s ‘Heliopolis’ poems followed. The low unison between voice and piano at the start of the first song perfectly captured the cold stillness of the ‘rauhen Norden’ (raw north), before a wonderfully consoling blossoming with the move to the major tonality upon the poet’s vision of the flower. Bostridge’s lyricism beautifully conveyed the speaker’s honest simplicity, supported by Drake’s steady crotchets, at times sensitively enriched. After the brief rhythmic fury and heroic energy of ‘Heliopolis II’, ‘Abendbilder’ (Nocturne) painted a broader dramatic canvas, from the gentle, breezy undulations of Drake’s opening triplets, to the elegance of the nocturnal raven’s flight through fragrant airs, to the rhapsodic outpouring of Philomel’s magic song. Drake led us through the night-time land, from tolling bells to starry skies; there was a certain weariness in the inevitable return to the opening melody, underpinned by the diminished harmony of the piano’s rocking triplets. Tenor and pianist mastered the technical and interpretative challenges of the final verse, Bostridge exhibiting impressive control through the extremely long lines and Drake convincingly delivering the declamatory postlude.

This haunting intimation of mortality at eventide was followed by just a single verse of the intimate ‘Ins stille Land’ (To the land of rest) which perfectly expressed the Sehnsucht that Schubert instructs. ‘Totengräbers Heimweh’ (Gravedigger’s longing) brought the first half to a close. Nicolaus Craigher de Jachelutta’s somewhat melodramatic poem describes a gravedigger increasingly seduced by the lure of the burial places he digs for others. But, while there was force and anger in Bostridge’s frustrated cries at the start, there was no undue exaggeration in the performer’s depiction of mental distress and decline. The weaving semiquavers of the second stanza were skilfully controlled, the mood first elegiac then more restless and exposed. Drake’s transition to the slower third stanza was eerie, an apt prelude to the mysterious, mournful unison which follows, the latter disturbed by the piano’s rustling ornaments. As the gravedigger’s energy gradually dissipated, Bostridge increasingly withdrew: indeed, so introspective was his longing for release — ‘O Heimat des Friedens,/ Der Seligen Land!’ (O homeland of peace, land of the blessed!) — that there was a rare rhythmic error which Drake subtly resolved. A remarkably hushed sense of heavenly yearning infused the arcing lines, the piano’s diminished harmonies suggesting an unearthly transmutation. Bostridge’s final cries had an uncanny, sweet lightness; the extreme registral contrasts of the piano postlude evoked the expanse between man and celestial realms.

We returned to the mountaintop after the interval, with ‘Auf der Riesenkoppe’ in which the poet Theodor Körner reflects with pride on the highest peak in the Riesengebirge range. Bostridge and Drake were suitably operatic in approach to the song’s dramatic contrasts of mood and manner, the concluding verse possessing an especially translucent beauty reflecting the ‘sacred longing’ with which the homeward-bearing poet is seized. Two Rückert settings, ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’ (I greet you!), and ‘Daß sie hier gewesen’ (That she was here), were among the highpoints of the evening. The soporific sway of Drake’s introduction to the first song built persuasively and progressively to the vehement yearning of the conclusion: ‘Ich halter dich dieses Arms Umschlusse’ (I hold you closely in my arms). The almost imperceptible pianissimo of the second song conveyed the pain of absence and elusiveness, while Bostridge’s eloquent declamation brought expressive structure to Schubert’s fragmented lines culminating in a soothingly warm cantabile at the reassuring ending.

The well-known ‘Die Forelle’ (The trout) had a delightfully swaggering lilt, while the strophic ‘Des Fischers Liebesglück’ (The fisherman’s luck in love) communicated the emotional complexity and range of Leitner’s verse, the successive verses moving from glimpses of hope to blissful fulfilment. Drake’s attention to detail did much to convey the narrative, while Bostridge demonstrated excellent control of breath and security at the top. ‘Fischerweise’ (Fisherman’s song) was a rare moment of unambiguous ease, the hearty energy of the counterpoint and busy accompaniment conveying the cheerful ebullience of the working fishermen.

‘Atys’, the first of three more Mayrhofer settings, returned us to more sombre territory. Inspired by Catullus, the poem depicts the tragedy of the eponymous shepherd who, abducted by the goddess Cybele longs to return to his homeland and, in despair, throws himself to his death from the top of Dindymus, the mountain of the goddess. Bostridge and Drake struck a plaintive note in this reticent song, the accompaniment dreamily rocking, the vocal line softly swooning. The recitative-like central section injected agitated drama; here Bostridge demonstrated his impressive vocal range, while the ensuing chromatic wanderings showed a sure intonation. Drake’s long postlude was a superb delineation of the composer’s intense emotional engagement with this strange myth. ‘Nachtviolen’ (Dame’s violets) possessed a more simple elegance; ‘Geheimnis’ (A secret) effortlessly passed through the evolving melodies, Drake’s ornamentations evoking a Mozartian grace.

The pictorial and prophetic vastness of Schubert’s setting of Friedrich von Schlegel’s ‘Im Walde’ brought the recital to an imposing end. Full of tension and surprise, the song was richly suggestive of the diversity of the forest’s mysteries, but always propelling forwards, swept onwards by Drake’s unceasing semiquaver flow. Bostridge revealed the operatic vivacity of Schubert’s writing for the voice, ever responsive to the nuances of the arioso qualities of the melody and the sensitive text-setting. The boldness of this song was thrilling. Often in this recital Bostridge’s voice took on a baritonal quality as the lieder roved through the lower realms of the tenor’s range; here the plummeting lines — ‘Tief in dunkler Waldesnacht’ (deep in the dark night of the forest) — matched the woodland’s shadowy depths. This most astonishing of Schubert's longer songs was a fitting conclusion to a programme of audaciousness and commitment.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Ian Bostridge, tenor; Julius Drake, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 22nd May 2014.

Schubert: ‘Im Frühling’, ‘Über Wildemann’, ‘Der liebliche Stern’, ‘Tiefes Leid (Im Jänne 1817)’, ‘Auf der Brücke’, ‘Heliopolis I & II’, ‘Abendbilder’, ‘Lied (Ins stille Land)’, ‘Totengräbers Heimweh’, ‘Auf der Riesenkoppe’, ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’, ‘Daß sie hier gewesen’, ‘Die Forelle’, ‘Des Fischers Liebesglück’, ‘Fischerweise’, ‘Atys’, ‘Nachtviolen’, ‘Geheimnis’, ‘Im Walde’.

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