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Ian Bostridge and Lars Vogt at the Wigmore Hall
11 May 2017

Schubert's 'swan-song': Ian Bostridge at the Wigmore Hall

No song in this wonderful performance by Ian Bostridge and Lars Vogt at the Wigmore Hall epitomised more powerfully, and astonishingly, what a remarkable lieder singer Bostridge is, than Schubert’s Rellstab setting, ‘In der Ferne’ (In the distance).

Ian Bostridge and Lars Vogt at the Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ian Bostridge


Bostridge’s enunciation of the strange tri-syllabic rhymes - ‘Fremde durchmessenden,/ Heimat vergessenden,/ Mutterhaus hassenden,/ Freunde verlassenden’ - and his responsiveness to the unremitting dactylic repetitions created a cumulative force which was overwhelming. (Interestingly, his 2009 recording of the song with Anthony Pappano for EMI Classics is much less rhetorical and more introspective, and considerably slower.)

Rellstab depicts a protagonist who has fled his home and is oppressed by a broken heart and loneliness. He asks the murmuring wind and fleeting sunbeams to carry his greetings back to the one who broke his faithful heart and who now, a ‘fugitive’, sets out into the world. But, the text is almost untranslatable partly because English is less happy with gerunds - verbs used as nouns - as they are too like the present participle. In his translations, Richard Stokes makes use of the simple present - ‘Who roams foreign parts, who forgets his fatherland’ - and adjectives (‘Lüfte, ihr säuselnden,/Wellen sanft kräuselnden’ becomes ‘You whispering breezes, you gently ruffled waves’). Stokes is, as always, controlled, precise and expressive. But, what is missing here is a sense of the continuous progression which the German, with its amalgamation of noun and verb, conveys. Then, there is the problem of the nouns which begin each line - ‘Herze’, ‘Auge’, ‘Sehnsucht’, ‘Heimwärts’, ‘Klage’, ‘Abendstern’, ‘Hoffnungslos’, in the second stanza - a pattern which disrupts English syntax.

Bostridge’s performance communicated every atom of the alienation that Rellstab’s linguistic strategies evoke. Stokes translates ‘Busen, der wallende’ as ‘The swelling breast’, but - so my German-speaking guest informs me - the German intimates the sea: the undulation of the waves and the echoes they return to the heart of the wanderer. Bostridge magically conveyed the way the protagonist’s sinking despair - submerged as his heart is by resounding pain - is transfigured into new determination. His appeal to the elements - angry rather than importuning - faded, just as the elements themselves ‘never linger’ (‘Nirgend verweilender’). Then - as the syntax ‘rights’ itself (‘Die mir mit Schmerze, ach!/Dies treue Herze brach’ - Ah! Send greetings to her who broke this faithful heart with pain) - he regained strength: the heartless one must be forced to bear witness to the suffering heart. Such is the Romantic agony.

But, this is to jump in at the deep-end of my response to this recital. If you are still with me, I’ll go back to the beginning.

‘In der Ferne’ is one of seven poems by Ludwig Rellstab which, alongside six by Heinrich Heine and one by Johann Gabriel Seidl, were set by Schubert and published posthumously as the sentimentally titled Schwanengesang by Tobias Haslinger. They share the perennial Romantic obsession with love and death, but they are not a ‘cycle’, rather an embodiment of Haslinger’s commercial opportunism and shrewdness. As Richard Kramer has put it (in Distant Cycles: Schubert and the Conceiving of Song), there are not only settings of different poets, there are different kinds of song: ‘The Rellstab songs sing the lyrical, expansive Schubert. The Heine songs scream and groan.’

Bostridge and Vogt performed the two sequences separately, with Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte dividing them. ‘Liebesbotschaft’ (Love’s brook) made for an optimistic, even magical, start to the sequence, with its excitedly rippling brook. And Vogt used the springy bass line to create energy and promise to match the protagonist’s hopeful dreams - beautifully conjured by Bostridge’s light tenor - of murmuring sweet repose to his beloved as he cradles her in his arms. But, menace and disappointment were not far away, in the dark coldness and tense rhythms of the piano introduction to ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ (Warrior’s foreboding), coupled with the low shadowy vocal line. Bostridge was characteristically keen to highlight the contrasts, textually and musically, though; references to the fire of longing that surges through the poet-speaker’s heart, and to the warm glow of his beloved as she lies in his arms, were vocally enhanced, and a more threatening heat rumbled through the piano’s resonant bass as the protagonist sang of his welling sadness and loneliness. Bostridge was able to create a marvellous, and unsettling, contrast between the sweetness and promise of rest and the anxiety of abandonment.

‘Frühlingssehnsucht’ (Spring longing) swept forward with urgency, though I did not feel that Vogt’s busy accompaniment was sufficiently crystalline. Again, Bostridge was alert to the emotional shifts, each stanza pushing exuberantly to a stalling, hesitant question - the fear of loss present in the heavily nuanced semitonal accent of the repetition: ‘Wohin?’, ‘Hinab’, ‘Und du?’ culminating in the final, desperate ‘Nur Du!’ (only you!). ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade) was a beguiling exhortation, and the piano accompaniment a convincing guitar strum, though I felt that Vogt might have brought the piano’s echo-phrases rather more to the fore. The slides between major and minor tonality were effectively employed to trigger an escalation of emotion which sank back at the close into wistful wishfulness, ‘Komm’, beglücke mich!’ (Come, make me happy).

‘So my heart pounds without respite’ sings the poet-speaker in the nervous ‘Aufenthalt’ (Resting place) and Vogt duly obliged, while Bostridge revealed real power, angrily lamenting his grief, ‘Ewig derselbe/Bleibet mein Schmerz’. Vogt’s cantering accompaniment in ‘Abschied’ (Farewell) needed to be lighter of touch - or perhaps initially lighter and then gradually increasingly, desperately perhaps, more insistent - if its irony was to be fully felt. As it was, it felt a little laboured at times, but the defiant, delusive self-belief of Bostridge’s poet-speaker was forcefully apparent in the power of the closing stanza.

Vogt seemed more attuned to the spirit of the six songs which make up Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte finding a dreamy lyricism at the start of ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz ich’, as the poet-speaker gazes into the misty blue countryside towards the meadows where he first encountered his love, and flowering extravagantly at the close, embodying the protagonist’s hyperbolic emotion: ‘Und ein leibend Herz erreichet/Was ein liebend Herz geweiht!’ (and a loving heart is reached by what a loving heart has hallowed). The hopefulness of ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ (Where the blue mountains) was undercut but the dreamily whispered pianissimo to which Bostridge shrank in the second stanza - the entirety of which is intoned on a single pitch. Straining to hear, we enacted the striving to believe of the protagonist.

Skipping restlessness was conjured by the incessant triplets of ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’ (Light clouds sailing on high) which only served to make the slower tempo and nuanced rubatos of the second stanza - with its autumnal imagery - more telling. Bostridge and Vogt pushed urgently through the sequence, the piano’s trills and echoes at the opening of the fifth song, ‘Es kehret der Maien’ (May returns) emphasising the poet-speaker’s fancies and delusion, and culminating in the powerfully sculptured recognition that the love he shares with his beloved ‘Kein Frühling erscheint,/Und Tränen sind all ihr Gewinnen’ (knows no spring, and tears are its only gain). In the final song, ‘Nimm sie hin den, diese Lieder’ (Accept, then, these songs) time seemed to stand still as the ‘red light of evening’ drew ‘towards the calm blue lake’; but, no, the heroic Romantic life force was not to be denied, and a pulsing passion resumed in the final stanza, as an unstoppable upwelling of emotion subsumed all doubt.

Schubert’s ‘swan song’ resumed with Heine’s agonised ‘Der Atlas’ in which Logt unleashed the full power of the Wigmore’s Steinway - the dotted rhythms were torturously jagged - and Bostridge revealed baritonal strength and depth in the expressions of pain that ‘Will mir das Herz im Leibe’ (would break in my body). One felt that apocalypse could come at any moment, so tense were the underground tremblings, the yells of rage.

‘Ihr Bild’ (Her likeness) was, thus, a world apart: the unison piano and voice tentative, searching, rapt, blossoming briefly with harmonic enriching and hope. As if searching for a clear vision of the beloved, Bostridge peered absorbedly, keenly into the audience, involving and implicating us in the poet-speaker’s near-madness. The slight break in the voice - ‘Und ach, ich kann es nicht glauben,/ Daβ ich dich verloren hab!’ - was heart-clenching.

‘Das Fischermädchen’ (The fishermaiden) felt a little slow, and thus offered fewer opportunities for expressive rubatos; the tempo also made the slips between major and minor tonality more laboured, and lessened the pensive idealism of the song. But, Vogt struck just the right balance between definition and ambiguity at the start of ‘Die Stadt’ (The town), and the song - taut and anxious - progressed disturbingly towards an assertion of loss. The gentle beauty of ‘Am Meer’ seemed to offer some consolation and restoration; Bostridge’s tenor floated with effortless grace and quiet pensiveness, but troubling waters and rising gulls soon disturbed the vision of the gleaming sea: the image of the beloved’s tears - ‘Aus deinen Augen liebevoll/Fielen die Tränen nieder’ (from you loving eyes the tears begin to fall) - was perhaps the most tender, heart-welling moment of the recital, so ironically sweet was Bostridge’s head-voice phrasing. In this song, the performers’ attentiveness to Schubert’s power of suggestion was remarkable.

In ‘Der Doppelgänger’ (The wraith) Bostridge captured us all in a steely, unwavering gaze, in which every pent-up emotion experienced during the evening was compressed. When these feelings were released, the pain of self-recognition was terrifying: ‘Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe - /Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt’ (I shudder when I see his face - the moon shows me my own form). The final stanza became more animated, the mood almost confrontational; but, the twisting turn - ‘So manche Nacht, in alter Zeit?’ (so many nights in times gone by?) - was a squirm of Romantic painful pleasure.

Last week, attending a performance of Schubert’s String Quintet, I reflected on the way Schubert, having scaled heights and lows and wrung the soul dry in the great Adagio, astonishingly revivifies the spirit with the kick start of the Scherzo - a sort of musical defibrillator. And, such is the effect of Schubert’s setting of Johann Gabriel Seidl’s ‘Die Taubenpost’ (Pigeon post) at the close of Schwanengesang, the symbol of loyal return reinforcing the resilience of the Romantic heroic spirit. And, so, at the close of this recital, I was ready to return to the beginning; Bostridge made it easy to understand the Romantic addiction to the cycle of imagined fulfilment, denied satisfaction and lonely despair.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Lars Vogt (piano)

Schubert - Schwanengesang D957; Beethoven - An die ferne Geliebte Op.98

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 10th May 2017

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