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Franz Schubert
18 Feb 2016

Schubert: The Complete Songs

The Wigmore Hall’s chronological journey through the complete lieder of Franz Schubert continued with this recital by tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Graham Johnson. The duo gave a thought-provoking performance which was notable for the searching dialectic between simplicity and complexity which it illuminated.

Schubert: The Complete Songs

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Franz Schubert


The songs were grouped by poet, and we began with settings of six poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — a poet who preferred composers to take a direct approach to setting his poems: that is, to retain the structure of his texts and avoid overly fancy and heavy piano accompaniments.

Schubert often treats his poets’ work with much greater freedom, digression and complexity than Goethe desired, but the single-strophe songs offered here revealed the composer’s ability to turn these brief texts into spell-binding musical miniatures. Johnson’s chords rippled gently at the start of ‘Meeres Stille’ (Calm sea), delicately supporting the carefully unfolding tenor melody. Bostridge imbued the simple line with great profundity: the openness of the vowels, ‘Glatte Fläche’ (glassy surface), permitted a momentary flash of brightness, before the dark descent into ‘deadly silence’. The extreme slowness of ‘Wandrers Nachtlied I’ (Wanderer’s night-song) established an expressive intensity which strengthened into rhetoric with the troubled question, ‘Was soll all der Schmerz und Lust?’ (What use is all this joy and pain?). If Bostridge did not quite control the first high, quiet floating reply, ‘Süßer Friede!’ (Sweet peace!), the enriched repetition was warmly persuasive, but the consolations of this song were cruelly swept aside by ‘Wonne der Wehmut’ (Delight in sadness), where Bostridge coloured his voice with a slightly harder ‘edge’ to convey the poet-speaker’s self-consoling melancholy. Goethe’s six-line poem equates ‘eternal’ (ewigen) love with ‘unhappy’ (unglücklicher) love — a simple alteration in the two final lines (which repeat the opening lines) confirms the Romantic conceit — and Bostridge, ever alert to textual nuance, made much of the agonised dissonance, aided by Johnson’s biting accent, to convey the speaker’s pain; a pain, which was subsumed and embraced in the consonant repetitions of Schubert’s closing phrase, ‘Trocknet nicht’ (Grow not dry).

The tempo of ‘An den Mond’ was slower than my recollections of other performances by Bostridge of this song; I thought that it made the opening more tense with anticipation, and it also made for greater contrast with the subsequent forward momentum, ‘Fließe, Fließem lieber Fluß!’ (Flow, flow on, beloved river!), which was aided by Johnson’s even, undulating quavers. ‘Jägers Abendlied’ (Huntsman’s evening song) and ‘An Schwager Kronos’ (To Coachman Chronos) were marvellously intense counterparts to the single-strophe songs, though — uncharacteristically — the text of the former was distinctly approximate in places. There was imprecision, too, in the booming piano octaves which open the latter, and while the wide, glorious vistas opened magically as the horseman crested the hill, I’d have liked more staccato definition in the pounding accompaniment triplets.

Now largely forgotten as a poet, Johann Baptist Mayrhofer had a considerable influence on Schubert’s musical and personal development, and the composer set 47 songs and two operas to Mayrhofer’s texts. The poet was described by Johannes Brahms as the ‘ernsthafteste’ (most serious) of Schubert’s friends, and it was no surprise that the ten settings which followed took us into more complex and, at times, obscure psychological and mythological realms, in which pain and passion combined in an ambiguous communion.

The strange harmonic lurches of and shifts of tempo of ‘Atys’ are deliberately destabilising, and Bostridge’s telling of the tale of this self-castrating fertility deity’s tragic end was disturbing. (In Mayrhofer’s version of the myth, as the cymbals announce the arrival of his beloved goddess, the unrequited Atys throws himself from a cliff in the forest in a fit of mad frenzy. The tenor, too, staggered (alarmingly at times) as if pierced by the speaker’s pain. Here was the instinctive appreciation of the text’s nuances that we are so used to from Bostridge; the smallest details — a slight injection of intensity at the end of the first stanza was all that was needed to convey the fervour of Atys’ yearning for his homeland — made their mark. And, Johnson was an equally vivid story-teller: the softness of the major-key conclusion to this first stanza was quickly quelled by the darkness of the minor tonality, and the dryness of the punched chords at the start of Atys’ own account of his rage testified to the ferocity of his pent-up fury. The long piano postlude was a superb musical narrative. In ‘Der zürnenden Diana’ (To Diana in her wrath), however, the accompaniment at times overwhelmed the voice and again I found the thick-textured repeating chords occasionally uneven. But the duplicitous goddess’s image, which gladdens Actaeon’s heart even as he dies, was conjured by a beautiful lucidity of texture and smooth but penetrating vocal phrasing, making the hit of the arrow — which seemed almost literally to fell Bostridge — even more acute.

Bostridge’s ability to employ his extensive technical capacities to diverse expressive effect was ever evident. There was not a single song that did not have something to surprise us, or command our attention. The strength of line in ‘An die Freunde’ (To my friends) was noteworthy, emphasising the power of human love — ‘Das freut euch, Guten, freuet euch;/ Die alles is dem Toten gleich’ (rejoice, good friends, rejoice; all this is nothing to the dead) — particularly after the Gothic eeriness of the piano’s chromatic tread at the start. The high-lying melody of ‘Abendstern’ (Evening star) was sweetly and surely phrased, the major-minor alternations bittersweet, as the poet-speaker’s apostrophe to the lovely celestial light paradoxically conveyed his own terrestrial alienation. ‘Einsamkeit’ (Solitude) was, quite simply, breath-taking in its dramatic and musical range, and its philosophical insight.

While some of the Mayrhofer settings are well-known, it was good to hear some unfamiliar songs too: ‘Wie Ulfru fischt’ (Ulfru fishing) presented another indistinct protagonist who longs for refuge from man’s insecurities, dilemmas and disappointments — expressed by the furious unrelenting quavers of the accompaniment and the determined onward march of the vocal line — and whose surprising identification with the fish whom he hunts leads him to long to share the blithe tranquillity of the fishes’ sanctuary. The entry of the voice in ‘Freiwilliges Versinken’ (Voluntary oblivion) — on a weak beat and into cloudy harmonic territory, amid piano inner-voice trills — was wrong-footing. Here, the power of Bostridge’s lower register together with the fragmentation of the vocal line created a hypnotic sense of disintegration, while the intimations of release suggested by the concluding hints of major tonality, and the tenor’s wonderfully controlled upwards appoggiatura, spilled into, and were extended by, Johnson’s expressive piano postlude. ‘Auflösug’ (Dissolution) was an apocalyptic whirlwind — again, there was a danger that the voice might be overshadowed by the piano’s tumult — in which the poet-speaker longs for the world to dissolve in self-consuming exhilaration. But, there were surprises here, too, in the astonishing final line in which the low tenor phrase was subsumed within the piano’s shimmering ‘ätherischen Chöre’ (ethereal choirs).

The final sequence of six songs was devoted to settings of Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze. ‘Die liebliche Stern’ (The lovely star) was sung with dulcet beauty; in contrast, in ‘Tiefes Leid’ (Deep sorrow) Bostridge turned a burning, accusative gaze upon the audience, pulling the slow pulse this way and that to embody the poet-speaker’s own mental anguish — ‘Ich bin von aller Ruh gechieden,/ Ich treib’ umher auf wilder Flut;’ (I have lost all peace of mind and drift on wild waters), and retreating into introspection in the whispered lines, ‘Nicht weck’ ich sie mit meinen Schritten/ In ihrer dunlen Einsamkeit.’ (I shall not wake them with my footsteps in their dark solitude.) In ‘Lebensmut’ (Courage for living), despite the piano’s heroic summons, Bostridge seemed overcome by weariness as the poet-speaker faced the sapping struggles of life; leaning onto and into the piano (in which he had placed a score) it seemed that the tenor might succumb to the disillusionment and collapse which baits the speaker. Both ‘Im Walde’ (In the forest) and ‘Auf der Brücke’ (On the bridge) were characterised by strong unity of interpretation. Finally, after the dreamy delusions of ‘In Frühling’ (In Spring), the final song, ‘Über Wildemann (Above Wildemann), concluded our journey. The sublime mountain landscape (Wildemann is a small town in the Harz highlands) with its roaring winds, rushing rivers and verdant meadows offered tempting consolation to the tormented poet-speaker in the central major-key verses, but at the final reckoning there was only alienation, as the final verse drove onwards with grim obsessiveness.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Ian Bostridge, tenor; Graham Johnson, piano.

Meeres Stille, Wandrers Nachtlied I, An den Mond, Wonne der Wehmut, Jägers Abendlied, An Schwager Kronos; Geheimnis, Wie Ulfru fischt, Atys, Einsamkeit, An die Freunde, Freiwilliges Versinken, Der zürnenden Diana, Abendstern, Auflösung, Gondelfahrer; Im Walde, Der liebliche Stern, Auf der Brücke, Tiefes Lied, Lebensmut, Im Frühling, Über Wildemann. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 16th February 2016.

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