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06 Dec 2018

The Pity of War: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall

During the past four years, there have been many musical and artistic centenary commemorations of the terrible human tragedies, inhumanities and utter madness of the First World War, but there can have been few that have evoked the turbulence and trauma of war - both past and present, in the abstract and in the particular - with such terrifying emotional intensity as this recital by Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall.

Requiem: The Pity of War: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano, Barbican Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Antonio Pappano (piano), Ian Bostridge (tenor)

 

Their recently released Warner Classics recording, Requiem: The Pity of War , closes with three songs about war from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Here, Bostridge and Pappano opened with Mahler’s provocative, astringent settings, and these three songs were quasi-operatic in their theatrical impact. This might not be how everyone likes their Mahler; but anyone who has seen Bostridge’s remarkable Weimar-inspired performance of Hans Zender’s Winterreise must surely admire the way the tenor can inhabit the fragile bitterness of a world which pits anger against fear, the frailty of anxiety against faux insouciance. Bostridge did not just bring the poetic personae to life, he ‘lived’ their experiences, deeply and disturbingly. Roughness not refinement was the touchstone: these were real lives, lived and lost. There was a razor-sharp bite to the sarcasm and bravado as Bostridge stared and challenged, stalked, stooped and floundered, flinging and spitting words at us, with a snarl and shout, prowl and pounce.

In ‘Revelge’ (Reveille), the bold bluster was hurled at us in cocky, spiky dotted rhythms, through the snarling rolled ‘r’ of ‘tral-la-li’ and in the cold nonchalance of the repeated ‘Ich muß’, ‘Ich muß’, as the soldier marches to his death. At times the frenzy bordered on hysteria. And, though Pappano was seated at the piano rather than standing on a podium, his contribution was no less theatrical. The violent accents at the start of ‘Revelge’ stabbed the soul. But, in the third stanza, when the soldier rejects his wounded comrade’s pleas for assistance - ‘Ach, Bruder, ich kann dich nicht tragen,/ Die Feinde haben uns geschlagen!/ Hell’ dir der liebe Gott!’ (Brother, I cannot carry you there. The enemy has beaten us. May dear God help you!) - the painful pragmatism was expressed through the juxtaposition of the sweetness of the right hand which follows the vocal line, and the astringent left-hand broken chords, vicious stabs of alienation. Similarly, the gothic horror of the battlefield, the carefree irony of the interlude prior to the final stanza, and the horrible growl of the close which punctuates with dreadful finality the voice’s desperate sneers, were delineated in spine-chilling musical close-up.

The piano’s low drumming at the start of ‘Der Tambourg’sell’ (The Drummer Boy) was a terrible rattle of chains which cascaded bone-shaking trills throughout the song, Pappano’s rhythmic regularity holding the drama together, as the captured boy marched towards the gallows. At the start of the drummer boy’s address - first resigned, then rhetorical - bidding ‘goodnight’ to the ‘stones of marble, hills and high mountains’, to officers, musketeers and grenadiers, Bostridge’s bending of the pitch captured every atom of weariness; physically, he seemed to fall, as Pappano’s subdued close suggested a world retreating from the realities of such horror.

There followed two song cycles - one renowned, one ‘resurrected’ by Bostridge and Pappano - by composers whose young lives and creativity were cruelly curtailed in the mud, maelstrom and misery of conflict, one hundred years ago.

Listening to Bostridge’s recording of ‘Loveliest of Trees’, one of George Butterworth’s six settings from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, I have been struck by how much the opening calls to mind the tone and manner of Peter Pears, with the exaggerated openness of the initial vowel made even more pressing by the swelling bloom of the first passagio-hovering E. Here, the impression was different, as Bostridge’s floating ‘Loveliest’ seemed to emerge from the ether and tumble gently, extending the drooping pathos of Pappano’s opening fall.

There also seemed less languor and listlessness than in the recorded performance of these Butterworth songs. ‘When I was one-and-twenty’ pushed forward only to lapse at the close into melancholic self-awareness. ‘Look not in my eyes’ was troubled by a restlessness that is perhaps innate to the 5/4 pulse. The sergeant’s mendacities hung, pertinently insubstantial and insincere, in ‘Think no more, lad’, pausing to impress with bullying falsity - ‘’tis only thinking that/Lays lads underground’ - then pushing on to resist questioning. With the reprise of the initial encouragement to ‘laugh, be jolly’. Bostridge’s instinctive story-teller came to the fore in the narrative rubato and intimate sensitivity of the voice which tells of ‘The lads in their hundreds’. But, ‘Is my team ploughing?’ was the theatre of poetry. Pappano’s first chord was barely audible: a whisper from a world beyond. And the contrast between the vulnerability of the tentative questioning from the grave, ‘Is my girl happy … as she lies down at eve?’, and the almost violent dismissiveness of the living voice’s self-defensive urgency - symbolised by the trampling horses, and flying footballs - was distressing. Similarly, Bostridge’s pure tone, ‘Is my friend hearty,/ Now I am thin and pine’, was crushed underfoot by the precipitous response, ‘Yes, lad, I lie easy’, the haste belying the professed sentiment.

Before the Butterworth cycle, we heard Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied by Rudi Stephan, who died on the Ukrainian front in September 1915, felled by a Russian bullet near Tarnopol in Galicia, at the age of 27. The lyric sensuousness of Richard Strauss and Schoenberg infuses these six songs and, allied with Bostridge’s sensitivity to the text, they made a deep emotional mark. The melodic unfolding was fluent and beautifully coloured, offering - as in the lovely sustained arc which depicted ‘Kythere’, Aphrodite’s island realm - escape into worlds far removed from strife, suffering and grief. Pappano’s accompaniment rippled with rapturous suppleness in ‘Pantherlied’ (Panther Song), Bostridge’s final piercing exclamation pressing home the metaphoric simultaneity of love and war: ‘Lass mich nie, nie deine Krallen spüren;/ Neulich im Traum grubst du sie mir in’s Herz!’ (Never, never let me feel your claws’; Lately, in a dream, you sank them deep into my heart!). The wreath-like misty illusions of ‘Abendfrieden’ (Evening’s Peace) brought the dreams and delusions of Schubert’s ‘Nebensonnen’ to mind, the mood being enhanced by the subsequent interiority of ‘In Nachbars Garten duftet’ (In the neighbour’s garden) at the end of which Bostridge’s head voice seemed to evaporate into ecstasy, the protagonist’s eyes overflowing with ‘burning pain’ at the sight of two lovers entwined beneath a linden tree, wrenched asunder from the piano’s low ostinato of reality. A paradoxical blend of hollowness and warmth made ‘Glück zu Zweien’ (Happiness for Two) unsettling, while the final drooping line of ‘Das Hohenlied der Nacht’ (The High Song of the Night) was almost unbearably laden with the weight of sublime passion.

After the interval, Weill’s Four Walt Whitman Songs, written shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, made a similarly visceral impact. Weill explained that he had chosen Whitman’s ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ because of its ‘extraordinary timeliness ... as a passionate call to arms to everybody in the nation’, and apparently his first choice to sing the four songs was Paul Robeson, though that did not come to fruition. Again, we were transported from the world of ‘lieder’ to ‘music theatre’, with words made physical by gestures such as Pappano’s violent ‘thump’ at the close of ‘Beat! Beat!’ - a terrible call-to-arms, the dreadfulness of which was enhanced by Bostridge’s expressive raucousness. The suave rhythms of ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ exerted a different type of persuasive rhetoric, one undermined by the final image: ‘But I with mournful tread,/ Walk the deck my Captain lies,/Fallen cold and dead.’ In the long ‘Come up from the fields, father’, Bostridge and Pappano sustained the narrative tension and the final image of the mother’s longing to be with ‘her dear dead son’ presented a bitter contrast between the consoling sweetness of Bostridge’s head voice and the abrupt curtailment of the cadence.

Four of Benjamin Britten’s songs from Who Are These Children? (which are not included on the Warner Classics CD) concluded the recital, a cycle that Britten wrote in the traumatic shadow of the fire that destroyed Snape Maltings in 1969, and which was his final substantial song-cycle for tenor and piano, setting ‘Lyrics, Rhymes and Riddles’ by the Scots poet William Soutar. In fact, we had only the lyrics here, the violent images of ‘Nightmare’ and ‘Slaughter’ being deprived of the contrasting whimsey of ‘The Aulk’ and the youthful vigour of ‘A Laddie’s Sang’. One might feel that this was a Blake-ian ‘experience’ without the contrasting ‘innocence’, and shorn of the daunting Scots dialect - one thinks of the role of the Proverbs which are in dialogue with the Songs in Britten's Blake settings.

That said, Bostridge inhabited the dissonant wrenches of ‘Nightmare' and the metaphysical bleakness of the landscape of ‘Slaughter’ with almost overwhelming immediacy, making a strange, compelling beauty of ugliness: ‘The phantoms of the dead remain/ And from our faces show.’ The piano’s reflective patterning in ‘Who are these children?’ could not resist dissolution into questioning ‘nothingness’; and, in the final song, ‘The Children’ who ‘Upon the street lie/Beside the broken stone’ were removed from our world by an austerity that was terrible and terrifying.

There was some assuagement. I found myself longing to hear the ambiguous but ultimately restful strains of Ivor Gurney’s ‘Sleep’ to wash away the stains, stabs and suffering; but, the lyrical tenderness of Schubert’s ‘Litanei’ was just as soothing, though I left the Barbican Hall wrought and wracked by the expressive power of Bostridge’s singing. It’s hard to imagine a voice that could communicate more harrowingly and honestly, in Wilfred Owen’s words, ‘the pity war distilled’.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Antonio Pappano (piano)

Mahler: Three songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (‘Revelge’, ‘Der Tambourg’sell’, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’); Stephan -Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied, Butterworth - Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad; Weill - Four Walt Whitman Songs; Britten - Four songs from Who Are These Children (‘Nightmare’, ‘Slaughter’, ‘Who are these children?’, ‘The Children’)

Barbican Hall, London; Wednesday 5th December 2018.

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