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Snape Proms, 6 August 2016
08 Aug 2016

Snape Proms: Bostridge sings Brahms and Schumann

Two men, one woman. Both men worshipped and enshrined her in their music. The younger man was both devotee of and rival to the elder.

Snape Proms, 6 August 2016

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ian Bostridge


Johannes Brahms was twenty-years-old when he met Clara Schumann, in 1853. She was thirty-four and the wife of his much-loved mentor, Robert Schumann, whom Brahms idolised and desired to emulate. The men shared a sensibility and mind-set in which artistic creativity was fuelled by the symbiotic relationship between love and loneliness; it was a sensibility which infuses their music with a bittersweet animus.

In 1854 Brahms wrote to his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim: ‘I believe I admire and honour her no more highly than I love and am in love with her. I often have to restrain myself forcibly just from quietly embracing her and even ----: […] I think I can’t love a girl anymore, at least I have entirely forgotten about them; after they promise us the heaven which Clara shows us unlocked’.

Indeed, Clara unlocked not just heaven but artistic vision and resourcefulness. The dialectic between passion and denial, fulfilment and rejection seems almost to be a requisite for Romantic musical fertility. Brahms’s music is a creative contemplation of inner feelings - whether the fire inspired by those feelings was fuelled by passion for Clara, or for the young soprano Agathe von Siebald, whom Brahms met and courted when on vacation in Baden-Baden in 1856 and to whom he gave an engagement ring.

Many listeners and scholars have looked for - and professed to have discovered - a verbal-musical symbolism in Brahms’s music. And, his art-songs might seem to further invite such ‘unlocking’ of meaning as they both directly speak and indirectly embody, in text and music respectively. In this recital of lieder by Brahms and Schumann at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake demonstrated their own shared sensitivity to the way feeling is accentuated by the dualities which both fuel the expressivity and characterise the medium of expression.

Bostridge recently recorded a disc of Brahms’s lieder with Graham Johnson for Hyperion ( Hyperion CDJ33126) but only a few of those songs were included in the selection which formed the first half of the recital. The tenor seemed a little tense at the start of the sequence, but it is a measure of his confidence that the opening song was the technically challenging ‘Es träumte mir’ (I dreamed), the vocal line of which floated on high kept aloft, by Drake’s gently billowing arpeggios. As the poet-narrator drifted into a dream within a dream, Bostridge’s voice was an ethereal thread but one still vivified by the latent energy of awakening. And, with that awakening came the rains and storms of ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’ (In the church graveyard) in which both voice and piano entered a turbulent darkness, before the stillness of the graves brought some quietude of mind, the lyricism of the final major-key phrases perfectly capturing the peace of the final declaration: ‘Genesen.’ (Released)

After the chill and eeriness of ‘Herbstgefühl’ (Spring feeling), there was an incipient hopefulness in ‘Der Ganz zum Liebchen’ (The journey to love), underscored by the dancing lightness of the piano accompaniment. And, this buoyancy emerged even more strongly in ‘Geheimnis’ (Secret) in which Bostridge conveyed a sense of wonder, through the clarity of tone and diction, and complicity, in the chromatic inflections which tinge the arcing lines of the poet-narrator’s address to the trees: ‘Vertraut ihr das Geheimnis euch/ Von uns’rer Liebe süss?’ (Do you confide to each other, the secret of our sweet love?)

The warm undulations of the piano accompaniment to ‘Minnelied’ (Lyric love song) blessed the song with a welcome richness while Bostridge’s articulation of the final verse exemplified his sensitivity to Romantic sensibility and to the German language: the melodic crest, ‘Traute, minnigliche Frau’ (Gentle, charming lady), bloomed affectionately before the tenor retreated, softly emphasising the final line, ‘Mög’ in Wonne blühen’, daring to hope that his heart might ‘bloom in bliss’ like the sunset reddening meadow.

Drake’s accompaniments were inextricably fused with the vocal expression. The unstable modulations at the end of the second verse of ‘Alte Liebe’ (Old age), and the diminished harmonies which underscore the opening of the third were wonderfully expressive of what one scholar has called Brahms’s ‘masochistic nostalgia’, as the poet-speaker ponders, ‘Es ist, als ob mich leise/ Wer auf die Schulter schlug’ (It is as if someone tapped me on the shoulder). And, the piano postlude confirmed and enhanced the compulsion, derived from sadness and acceptance, which is expressed in Bostridge’s final phrase, ‘Ein alter Traum erfaßt mich/ Und fürht mich seine Bahn.’ (An old dream takes hold of me and leads me on its path) The entwining cascades of ‘Sommerfäden’ (Threads of summer) embodied both the exterior world - the gossamer threads of summer light which the poet-singer imagines as a tapestry of ‘Liebesträume’ (dreams of love) - and a dark interiority, as he sees his own fate hanging by such a brittle thread. Similarly, the spirals which surged from the depths in ‘Verzagen’ (Despair) were both the raging storm-sea and the poet’s lurching heart in love-sickness.

In the final sequence of three songs, the poet-narrator increasingly embraced the loneliness of reminiscence. ‘Über die Heide’ was an eerie lament for life and love, which have flown by and taken with them the certainty that rapture ever existed. ‘Mein Herz ist schwer’ (My heart is heavy) stepped deeper into melancholy; the anger beneath the poet-singer’s dejection was evident in the vigour with which Bostridge and Drake imbued the tugging cross-rhythms of the sighing wind in the final verse, when the poet broods over just where grief, love, joy and youth have fled - ‘Mein Herz ist schwer, mein Auge wacht’ (My heart is heavy, my eyes keep watch). ‘Botschat’ (Message) had a calmer lilt and Bostridge shaped the unusual intervals of the vocal line into beguiling curves, withdrawing to a tender murmur for the young man’s entreaty to the breeze to encourage his beloved to salve her lover’s sorrow with hope: ‘Denn du, Holde, denkst an ihn.’ (For you, fair one, think of him)

Schumann’s bitter-sweetness has a sharper, more biting tang. After the interval, Bostridge’s penetrating insight brought the protagonist of the composer’s settings of Heine vividly to life, or perhaps one ought to call it death-in-life, such is the melancholic jouissance of Heine’s texts.

The Romantics’ ambiguous blend of life and languor, desire and dejection was tensely present from the first song, ‘Dein Angesicht’ (Your face), and deepened in ‘Lehn’ deine Wang’ (Against my cheek); but, the urgency of close-pressed hearts and the flowing river of the lovers’ tears dissolved in the second stanza as, clasping his beloved in his arms, the poet-narrator dies of love’s desire, bringing about a relaxation which allowed Bostridge to embrace the song’s prepubescent, heightened lovesickness: a mercurial blend of hope, naivety and pain.

Drake was a superb accompanist, as alert as Bostridge to every nuance of the Romantic cast of mind which the songs embody - and equally equipped with the technique and artistry to craft those nuances into a unity which is both coherent and contradictory. The ‘dark splendour’ of the piano tone showcased the bright gleam of the singer’s flowering adoration in ‘Es leuchtet meine Liebe’, while the stature of the chordal postlude confirmed the inescapable tragedy of the gloomy folk-tale of love. In ‘Mein Wagen rollet langsam’ the tight, dotted rhythms of the rolling carriage alternated with a tender chord sequence, as the charms of nature lulled the poet-speaker into a seductively solipsistic dream; but, Bostridge’s murmured will-o’-the-wisps - who ‘hop and pull faces,/ So mocking yet so shy’ (‘Sie hüpfen und schneiden Gesichter,/ So spöttisch und doch so scheu’ - took on an ominous tone as the goblins whirled together like mist.

The programme originally placed Schumann before Brahms, but that the decision to reverse the composers in a-chronological sequence was the right one was confirmed by the profound artistry of the interpretation of Dichterliebe Op.48 with which the recital concluded.

Bostridge recorded the cycle with Drake in 1998 ( EMI Classics ‎- 5 56575 2 ). Of course, every time a singer presents a song, or cycle, it will be a new performance, shaped by both preparation and spontaneity. But, it seemed to me that this Dichterliebe was more introspective than previous accounts, live and recorded, that I have heard from Bostridge: the haunting poeticism and anguish more prolonged and deep. And, that this quality was underpinned by a core strength in the voice which enables the singer to phrase the melodic line with ever more control. The gentlest of vocal caresses - as the poet-singer bathes his soul in the lily’s chalice in ‘Ich will meine Seele tauchen’, or the dreamed beloved whispers soft words to the sleeping poet in ‘Allnächtlich in Träume’ - can retreat into coaxing softness but still retain an underlying presence. Angry or impassioned outbursts - the wild rush of pain which bursts the lover’s heart in ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen’ (When I hear the little song), or the bloom of burgeoning love in ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ (In the wondrous month of May), or the snarling rage at the heaviness of sorrow in ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’ (The bad old songs) - make their impact, sometimes stirring, sometimes shocking, through subtle enrichment without overly emphatic contrast of timbre.

Drake found an elegiac poeticism in the piano’s opening signature statement, the rippling cascades which commence ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’, and which are restated and varied through the cycle, seeming to anticipate the fragile pathos of Brahms’s Intermezzo in B minor Op.119. The rubatos were pronounced but not mannered, and this drawing out of the line was a feature of the whole cycle. For example, after the blissful energy of ‘Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne’ (Rose, lily, dove, sun), the confidence of the first stanza of ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen see’’ - in which Bostridge gave sustained strength to the declaration, ‘So werd’ ich ganz und gar gesund’ (Then I am wholly healed) - gave way to a desperate need for assurance to combat doubt, expressed through slow deliberation: ‘Doch wenn du sprichst: ich liebe dich!/ So muss ich weinen bitterlich.’ (But when you say: I love you! I must weep bitter tears.)

There was a weariness underlying this cycle as Bostridge’s protagonist sometimes withdrew into introspective rumination. The concluding statement of ‘Ich grolle nicht’ - ‘Ich sah, mein Lieb, wie sehr du elend bist. Ich grolle nicht.’ (I saw, my love, how pitiful you are. I bear no grudge.) - was resignedly dismissive rather than cynical. The walker in the garden in ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’ (One bright summer morning) seemed drained and disenchanted, the slow pace and piano rubato suggesting a disengagement from the whispering flowers which here offered a piteous plea: ‘“Sei unsrer Schwester nicht böse, Du trauriger, blasser Mann.”’ (‘Be not angry with our sister, You sad, pale man.’)

Yet, paradoxically there was a driving force which connected the sequence of songs, the ending and beginning of consecutive songs fused as if part of an unstoppable continuum of emotion. After the ponderous, dragging articulation of the piano’s dotted rhythms at the start of ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’ (In the Rhine, in the holy river), at the close Drake’s jerky, angrily hammered bass line was still ringing when he began ‘Ich grolle nicht’, and the subsequent ‘Und wüssten’s die Blumen, die kleinen’ (If the little flowers knew) followed segue. Dreams and awakenings alternated until it was impossible to know the imagined from the real.

Bostridge appeared to feel every emotion as if it were his own, as if the words sprang from his own wrenched and troubled heart. As he immersed himself in the verbo-musical discourse he become deeply introspective. And, much of the affective intensity of his performance derives from this ability to understand what lies within the music; it is a gift that Drake shares - the capacity to articulate the inner voice hidden within the music. Yet, I wondered if sometimes Bostridge did not drift too far into an interior world, remote from the listeners in the Maltings Hall. Frequently, he stared intently at an unseen horizon, or down as if some resolution to the pains of life might be found deep in the bowels of the earth; or even, within the body of Drake’s Steinway, as he offered the audience a bowed profile.

During a conversation (interview), baritone Mark Stone spoke to me of the way audiences have to work hard to understand and enjoy a song: they have to listen intently to a text, perhaps in a language not their own, and can’t just sit back and let the music ‘wash over’ them. Stone suggested that they can feel as much a part of the performance as the singer; and that the singer may even feel that he or she is forming an individual relationship with each listener - one that must be sustained, not just through musical expression but also through eye contact.

Of course, the Maltings Hall is a large venue for a lieder recital and this sort of direct communication between individuals may not be possible or desirable. And, all artists have a manner in performance which is natural to them. There is no doubt that Bostridge’s experience, expressed through his stage demeanour, is intense and honest. And, as a self-confessed Bostridge ‘aficionado’ I would not desire him to perform in any other way. But, I did find myself on occasion during this recital longing to see Bostridge really sing out to us, rather than inwards. On those occasions when the tenor directed his gaze at his listeners - when he let us into the secret of his broken heart in ‘Und wüssten’s die Blumen, die kleinen’, or as his hopes rose of reaching the magic landscapes of ‘Aus alten Märchen’ (From fairy-tales of old) and attaining freedom from pain - the result was a frisson of energy and engagement.

After all Schumann, Brahms and all those Romantic dreamers acquiesce in their loneliness. It is as essential as love. As Shakespeare tells us in All’s Well That Ends Well, ‘The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together:/ our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not;/ and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our own virtues.’ (IV.iii.84)

Clearly drained at the close of the recital, Bostridge accepted the applause with characteristic sombreness and reserve. I just hope that he enjoyed singing these songs as much as we enjoyed listening to them.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano).

Brahms: ‘Es träumte mir’ Op.57 No.3, ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’ Op.105 No.4, ‘Herbstgefühl’ Op.48 No.7, ‘Der Gang zum Liebchen’ Op.48 No.1, ‘Geheimnis’ Op.71 No.3, ‘Minnelied’ Op.71 No.5, ‘Alte Liebe’ Op.72 No.1, ‘Sommerfäden’ Op.72 No.2, ‘O kühler Wald’ Op.72 No.3, ‘Verzagen’ Op.72 No.4, ‘Uber die Heide’ Op.86 No.4, ‘Mein Herz ist schwer’ Op.94 No.3, ‘Botschaft’ Op.47 No.1; Schumann: (Lieder on texts of Heine) ‘Dein Angesicht’ Op.127 No.2, ‘Lehn deine Wang’ Op.142 No.2, ‘Es leuchtet meine Liebe Op.127 No.3, ‘Mein Wagen rollet langsam’ Op.142 No.4, Dichterliebe Op.48.

Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Snape; Saturday 6th August 2016.

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