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Performances

Ian Bostridge
18 Sep 2018

A Winterreise both familiar and revelatory: Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès at Wigmore Hall

‘“Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?” the wanderer asks. If the answer were to be a “yes”, then the crazy but logical procedure would be to go right back to the beginning of the whole cycle and start all over again. This could explore a notion of eternal recurrence: we are trapped in the endless repetition of this existential lament.’

Ian Bostridge (tenor) and Thomas Adès (piano) at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ian Bostridge

Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke

 

Just one of the interpretations of Schubert’s Winterreise offered by Ian Bostridge in an article in the Guardian at the time of the publication of the tenor’s award-winning book, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession , but one which at times must have felt so relevant to the singer’s own experience of the work. Bostridge has been studying and performing Schubert’s cycle of 24 settings of poems by Wilhelm Müller, which the composer told his friends had ‘cost me more effort than any of my other songs’, for more than 30 years. In more than 100 performances, he has been partnered by many different pianists, sung the work in venues both intimate and vast, made a film of the cycle (directed by David Alden, in 1994), and taken it onto the stage in performances of Hans Zender’s ’composed interpretation’ of Winterreise (1993), complemented by Netia Jones’s video designs, The Dark Mirror .

It is surely a work that Bostridge has ‘lived’, and certainly which he re-lives, physically, psychologically, emotionally, with every fresh performance. And, ‘fresh’ is an apt word, for while Bostridge’s vocal and expressive ‘identity’ is distinctive and striking, his performances of Winterreise traverse a wide emotional spectrum which embraces existential despair, self-lacerating irony, gentle wistfulness and wild delusion with varying degrees of emphasis. I’ve lost count of how many times I have heard Bostridge perform Winterreise. Certainly, I remember, as a student, attending his first solo recital at Wigmore Hall in February 1995, and I have enjoyed countless lieder recitals by the tenor in the subsequent 23 years. Returning to the Hall last night to hear him sing Winterreise once again, partnered by Thomas Adès, I reflected that I too might stand accused of being afflicted by the mesmeric potency of this music and voice.

This performance of Winterreise was a remarkable symbiosis of the familiar and the revelatory. And, the subtle, pining beauties that Adès coaxed from the piano part played no small part in creating a journey which ventured at times into deeply introspective terrain, but which was always richly imaginative. I have heard Adès perform Winterreise with Bostridge several times, writing reviews of their performances at the Barbican Hall in 2015 and, the previous year, at the Aldeburgh Festival in Snape Maltings . Perhaps the expressive diversities and differences between those two performances, just six months apart, should have prepared me for the invention and spontaneity of this recital at Wigmore Hall. It was an enactment of human desolation which was strange, terrifying and captivating in equal measure, and which held me spellbound.

Thomas Ades 2 - Credit Brian Voce.jpgThomas Adès. Photo Credit: Brian Voce.

I don’t think I’ve attended a performance of Winterreise in which I have been so aware of the pianist’s presence - participating in, contributing to, depicting, inciting, reflecting on the wanderer’s psycho-physical journey. I noted, of the duo’s Barbican Hall performance, that ‘the generally restrained dynamics, particularly from Adès, asked us to listen with discernment to the gestural minutiae’, and in the intimacy of Wigmore Hall Adès dared to retreat still further, playing with an astonishingly delicate touch, shaping every utterance with exquisite suppleness.

The wanderer did not so much as step out with a purposeful tread in ‘Gute Nachte’ as float, carried by dreams and memories through the bleak iciness to which he seemed insensible. The piano’s accents were but tender emphases, as if the traveller’s foot had sunk into soft snow, and Adès’s sweet pianissimo faded still further in the second stanza as darkness enveloped the world. Bostridge was at one with this ethereal landscape, his whispered ‘Gute Nacht’ a farewell not just to his beloved, but also to recognisable realities. But, in ‘Die Wetterfahne’ the traveller’s unpredictability immediately revealed itself in the flash of fire with which Bostridge scorned the weather-vane, ‘Da dacht’ ich schon in meinem Wahner,/ Sie pfiff’ den armen Flüchtling aus’ (In my folly I thought it mocked the wretched fugitive). There was a terrible, unhinged quality to the anger.

In song after song, Adès surprised me with the emotive suggestiveness of the slightest of gestures. The pinpoint delicacy of the frozen tears which fall unnoticed in ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ conjured a painful innocence when the traveller realises that he has been weeping; and here, the darkness of Bostridge’s confused low murmuring, ‘Ei Tränen, meine Tränen’, was shocking, all the more so in the light of the deceptive lyricism of the final stanza. This warmth, though, was immediately numbed by the rapid curtailment of the piano’s brief swellings in the introduction to ‘Erstarrung’, and Bostridge’s oscillation between heated avowals and insubstantial musings. The fourth stanza of this song perfectly exemplified Adès’s engagement with the poet-narrator’s journey, the quiet, even circling of the right-hand being underpinned by a sharply defined bass line in which a triplet figure came to the fore, as if literally pushing the wanderer onwards.

But, despite the compelling impetus a pause did come, in a strange vision of the linden-tree which seemed to carry Bostridge away from the present, his voice becoming blanched and eerie as the dangerous rustling branches beseeched, ‘Komm her zu mir, Geselle, Hier findst du Ruh’!’ (Come to me, my friend, here you shall find rest!). The arrival of the cold wind woke us all from such mysteries, and as Bostridge declared, ‘Ich wendete mich nicht’ (I did not look back), the piano seemed almost to disappear. From my seat in the Hall, I could appreciate how closely Adès watched, followed, responded to Bostridge in ‘Wasserflut’ (Flood), in which the tenor emphasised the traveller’s instability and volatility, through startling tonal contrasts. And, again, there was that telling detail from Adès: in the third stanza he seemed to emphasise the difference between the piano’s dotted rhythm and the singer’s triplets (a discrepancy which has been subject to much, unresolved critical debate), lagging behind the vocal line and sharpening the poignancy of the traveller’s address to the snow, ‘Folge nach nur meinen Tränen,/ Nimmt dich bald das Bächlein auf’ (You’ve only to follow my tears and the stream will bear you away).

The languor of some songs created a heavy, wretched woefulness, as when the wanderer confronts the motionless, ice-crusted stream in ‘Auf dem Flusse’ (On the river), and here the indignation of Bostridge’s rhetorical outburst - as the poet-narrator imagines that beneath the stillness a torrent rages, like that in his own heart - was complemented by the tautness of the piano bass trills, the left hand being somehow both melodious and discomforting. The piano emerged slyly from the shadows at the start of ‘Irrlicht’ (Will-o’-the-wisp), and though the poet-speaker declares himself calm, as he makes his way down the dry bed of the mountain stream, there was fear in the rising vocal portamenti of the last stanza and in the piano’s final whispered taunt.

In contrast, I scribbled the word ‘deranged’ in my programme alongside the text of ‘Rückblick’ (A backward glance), and I think that says it all: this traveller seemed to have become detached from the real, and the corporeal, existing ‘somewhere else’ in a world of his own tortured imaginings. In ‘Rast’ (Rest) the juxtaposition of Bostridge’s light head-voice, as he drove on without rest through the storm, and the dense piano left-hand chords deepened this sense of ‘lostness’ still further, and the final pang of anguish which afflicts the traveller’s heart was viciously tense. By ‘Frülingstraum’ (Dream of Spring), both pianist and singer had submitted to an almost psychotic unsoundness, deviating alarmingly between frenzy, desolation and dreaminess. The slowing at the end of this song, which emphasised the clarity of the low piano bass line, seemed to prepare for the weary weight and torpor of ‘Einsamkeit’ (Loneliness); here, single words, ‘Einsam’, ‘Leben’, seemed almost detached from any semantic context, and Bostridge’s voice was bleached of all colour in the wanderer’s concluding reflection on a past when he was not so wretched.

The arrival of the mail-coach brought no promise or joy, Adès’s poundings ringing with indifference: ‘Die Post bringt keinen Brief für dich’ (There will be no letter for you). There was a further pained paring of emotional connectedness in the unisons of ‘Der greise Kopf’ (The hoary head), in the cold simplicity of the piano’s arpeggio-triplets in the prelude to ‘Die Krahe’ (The crow) - as even as a child’s music-box - and in Bostridge’s fragmented address to the ‘wunderliches Tier’, strange creature, whose overhead circling casts a perturbing shade. At the close of the song, Bostridge turned his back on the audience, gazing into the belly of the piano, lost in terrifying absurdity and unease.

It didn’t seem possible that we could descend any further into existential desolation, but we did, and by the time we had travelled from impetuous last hopes (‘Letzte Hoffnung’), through the taunting barking of dogs and rattling of chains in the village (‘Im Dorfe’) and into pure delusion (‘Täuschung’) what was most chilling was the way the supreme control executed by singer and pianist served a seemingly irredeemable irrationality. The proverbial hopelessness of trying to argue with a madman was palpable.

And so it seemed oddly but wonderfully ‘wrong’ that we could admire Adès’s lovely voice-leading in ‘Der Wegweiser’, especially as the sign-post led us only to the essence of human isolation: the slowing, fading declaration of acceptance that the wanderer must travel the one road from which no man has ever returned (‘Eine Strasse muss ich gehen,/ Die noch Keiner ging zurück’). And, that Bostridge, in ‘Das Wirtshaus’ (The inn), could colour so tenderly the traveller’s acknowledgement that the graveyard is to be his place of rest. Adès did not conjure defiance at the start of ‘Mut!’ (Courage!) so much as half-hearted self-encouragement, though there was fierce anger in the final two chords, which almost whipped us with their bitter accents.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard Bostridge sing ‘Die Nebensonnen’ more beautifully, the eloquent decorations of Adès’s introductory phrase inspiring a lyrical gentility which made nihilist submission to darkness and death seem almost consoling. But, should we have been tempted by apparent intimations of solace, Adès revealed our foolishness at the start of ‘Der Leiermann’: the left hand’s upward acciaccatura, which resolves to form the bare fifth of the hurdy-gurdy man’s dirge, here crunched onto the beat, an aggressive and disturbing intrusion - and this was, for once, no pianissimo, but a forceful, sustained expression of contempt and pain. The clanging dissonance of these first two bars, though not stated again, lingered and cast an acerbic shadow over the song, draining the traveller of a life-pulse, even as he marvelled at the organ-grinder’s steadfastness - ‘Dreht, und seine Leier/Steht ihm nimmer still.’ (He turns the handle, his hurdy-gurdy’s never still). The silence - both relief and horror - which engulfed the traveller was absolute.

Claire Seymour

Schubert: Winterreise D911

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Thomas Adès (piano)
Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 17th September 2018.

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