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Reviews

11 Oct 2015

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Benjamin Britten met Mstislav Rostropovich in 1960, in London, where the cellist was performing Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. They were introduced by Shostakovich who had invited Britten to share his box at the Royal Festival Hall, for this concert given by the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra. Britten’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter reports that a few days before Britten had listened to Rostropovich on the radio and remarked that he ‘“thought this the most extraordinary ‘cello playing I’d ever heard”’.

Now, during the concert, Shostakovich saw Britten ‘bobbing up and down like a schoolboy, even nudging him with happiness’. Rostropovich later explained that after the performance, through an interpreter, he ‘“attacked Britten there and then and pleaded most sincerely and passionately with him to write something for the cello”’. So began the life-long friendship and musical partnership between composer, cellist and Peter Pears, and it was the remarkable performing legacy of the three musicians which was recalled and celebrated in his concert by cellist Steven Isserlis, tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake at the Wigmore Hall.

At the heart of the programme was Britten’s Cello Suite No.3 Op.87. Written in 1971, it was due to be premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival the following year, but Rostropovich’s open support for Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, resulted in the cellist being denied permission by the Soviet authorities to travel to the West, and the Suite was not heard until its dedicatee gave the first performance at Snape Maltings in 1974.

The multi-movement Suite clearly derives its form from J.S. Bach’s solo cello suites. Playing with freedom and absolute sincerity, Steven Isserlis conveyed the deep spiritual core which Britten’s work also shares with its baroque predecessors, showing how after the troubles and doubts intimated in the early sections, a calmer faith emerges. The drama and conflict of the Introduzione, announced by a resonant drum-beat pizzicato, grew in intensity as the presence of Isserlis’s sound also swelled, culminating in the yearning lyricism of the Canto. After the rocking Barcarolla and erudite dialogues of the Fuga, the melodic beauty of the Andante espressivo assuaged before the passionate climax of the Passacaglia. Isserlis journeyed compellingly through the highly manipulated and diverse textures, allowing melodic fragments to emerge, seemingly with spontaneous invention. Britten drew his thematic elements from three Russian melodies that he had found in Tchaikovsky’s arrangements of folk-songs, as well as the Russian Kontakion - the Byzantine chant, ‘Hymn for the Departed’ - and with elegiac tenderness these were finally stated in plainer form in the coda; in the closing moments, the low C with which the Suite began diminished into silence, bringing a sense of acceptance and rest.

Fittingly, Britten’s Suite was framed by music by J.S. Bach. Three arias for tenor with obbligato instrumental part were remarkable for the symbiosis of voice and cello, supported by Julius Drake’s understated, unwavering accompanying flow; the mood was one of certainty and consolation. In ‘Es dünket mich, ich seh dich kommen’ (It seems to me I hear Thee coming) from the NaCantata Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen, the gentle, even melody unfolded with ease, transferring effortlessly between voice and cello. Bostridge’s high-lying line was soft and tender, imbued with warmth in the statement ‘Ich kenne deine holde Stimme,/ Die voller Lieb und Sanftmut ist’ (I recognise Thy gracious voice, so full of love and gentleness). ‘Geliebter Jesu, du allein’ (Beloved Jesus, you alone shall be my soul’s wealth; from Herr Gott, dich loben wir BWV16) was similarly earnest, Isserlis playing with a full vibrato and richness of tone which, though it might have irritated those wedded to notions of ‘authenticity’, captured the aria’s strong spirit of sincerity and conviction. The brightness and vigour of ‘Woferne du den edlen Frieden’ (Just as Thou hast granted noble peace) from the Cantata Jesu, nun sei gepreiset conveyed a more dynamic faith.

Bostridge and Drake returned to Bach after Britten Suite, performing the Five Spiritual Songs which Britten arranged for performance at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1969. I thought that Bostridge struck just the right balance between allowing the melody to carry the meaning and drawing attention to, and enrichening, particular details of the text.

Thus, the instruction which closes ‘Gedenke doch, mein Geist, zurücke’ (Consider then, my soul unwary) - ‘Gedenke, daß du sterben mußt’ - was tinged with darkness, while the opening line of ‘Kommt, Seelen, dieser Tag (Come, celebrate this morn) shone with a glow which likewise brightened the closing salutation to ‘God, the glorious King, eternal, ever new’. The playful inner voices of Drake’s accompaniment confirmed the aria’s joy. Bostridge was surprisingly assertive in the second stanza of ‘Komm, süßer Tod’ (Come, soothing death’), pleading with ardency for the ‘sweet repose’ which will come when the protagonist is united with his Saviour, and the final bars, which resolved the song with swiftness, suggested eager acceptance. The richer accompaniment and strong bass part of the best known of the songs, ‘Bist du bei mir’, (If though art near) gave this aria a more dramatic, lied-like quality, but it was the simple lullaby ‘Liebster Herr Jesu’ (Dearest Lord Jesus) which most powerfully communicated Bach’s quiet faith. Here, Bostridge’s calm control of the soothing melody was beguiling, though it was sensitively tempered with moments of intensity: the fading reticence of the expressed desire to be ‘far from this world’, the stronger appeal, ‘Es ist genug, Herr, d’rum komm zu erlösen’ (It is enough, Lord; come soon to release me’), the sharper bitterness of the ‘Tränen’ wept. In the final phrase, Drake’s sweet-toned but ‘barely there’ accompaniment conveyed the singer’s consuming exhaustion and submission, ‘Komm doch, wir wird hier auf Erden so bange!’ (Come and release me from bondage so weary).

The second half of the concert began with unusual fare, starting with two songs by Franz Paul Lachner (1803-90), a well-known composer in his day but now regarded as ‘competent’ and rather less inspired than his contemporary, Schubert. Originally composed for voice, horn and piano, ‘Waldvöglein’ (Little forest bird) was bright and cheerful: Bostridge’s melody was bursting with vigour while Drake’s accompaniment was perennially springy and light. In ‘Nachts in der Kajüte (At night in the cabin) the piano left hand engaged energetically with the high cello melody, and the closing tenor plea, for the ‘little girl’ to ‘nestle against my great heart’ (‘Komm an mein großes Herz’) as heart, heaven and sea ‘perish with sheer love’ was fervent.

Richard Rodney Bennett was, like Britten, an astonishingly eclectic composer; he admired and absorbed jazz and popular music, and, also recalling Britten, had success in composing for film. Bennett’s ‘Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’ was, for me, the highlight of the programme. The work was composed in 1961 and dedicated to Peter Pears. The anonymous text, probably dating from the 1600s, refers to those beggars, commonly known as ‘Tom O’Bedlams’, who feigned mental illness, some of whom were probably former inmates of the Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam).

Bostridge found both astonishing declamatory force in the narrative stanzas - reminding me of Edgar in King Lear who disguises himself as a mad beggar and cries: ‘Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul /fiend hath led through fire and through flame, and /through ford and whirlipool e'er bog and quagmire;’ - and a haunting ethereal quality in the refrain. The concluding stanza, ‘With an host of furious fancies,/ Whereof I am commander’, had extraordinary rhetorical power.

Schubert’s ‘Auf dem Strom’ (On the river) was the final work and allowed Bostridge to demonstrate his characteristic care for the text and the power of his upper register. The cello’s soft, distant introductory melody established the elegiac mood (the part was originally written for the distinguished horn-player Josef Lewy). The dramatic climax came in the fourth stanza, with its incessant triplets conveying the text’s sentiments, ‘Ach, vor jener dunklem Wüste,/ Fern von jeder heitern Küste’ (Ah, how I shudder with horror at that dark wildnerness), and Isserlis’s expressive interlude heightening the tension of the coming storm which blows across the angry sea.

Composed during the last year of Schubert’s life, ‘Auf dem Strom’ is imbued with thoughts of and homage to Beethoven, and contains a musical quotation from the Eroica Symphony. It was an apt work with which to conclude a programme which also paid tribute to the memory of former great musicians, and it was performed with valedictory nobility.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge tenor, Steven Isserlis cello, Julius Drake piano
J.S. Bach - Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen BWV175 Aria: ‘Es dünket mich, ich seh dich kommen’, Herr Gott, dich loben wir BWV16 Aria: ‘Geliebter Jesu, du allein’, Jesu, nun sei gepreiset BWV41 Aria: W’oferne du den edlen Frieden’; Britten - Cello Suite No.3 Op.87, Five Spiritual Songs (transcription from J.S. Bach); Franz Paul Lachner Waldklänge Op. 28 ‘Waldvöglein’, ‘Nachts in der Kajüte’ Op.34 No.2; Richard Rodney Bennett - Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’; Schubert - ‘Auf dem Strom’ D.943

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