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Reviews

21 Aug 2019

Sincerity, sentimentality and sorrow from Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake at Snape Maltings

‘Abwärts rinnen die Ströme ins Meer.’ Down flow the rivers, down into the sea. These are the ‘sadly-resigned words in the consciousness of his declining years’ that, as reported by The Athenaeum in February 1866 upon the death of Friedrich Rückert, the poet had written ‘some time ago, in the album of a friend of ours, then visiting him at his rural retreat near Neuses’. Such melancholy foreboding - simultaneously sincere and sentimental - infused this recital at Snape Maltings by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake.

Snape Proms: Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ian Bostridge

Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke

 

A virtuoso linguist, a fecund neologist, facilely and exuberantly toying with form and metre, Rückert was and is seen by some as an affected and artificial versifier: a stylist rather than a poet. Not so the composers whom his work inspired: among them, Schubert, Robert and Clara Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Zemlinsky, Bartók, Berg, Wolf, Hindemith and Henze.

One might feel, in fact, that the six Rückert settings by Schubert with which the recital commenced were chosen for their simplicity and directness, not for their affectation, though they were certainly not lacking in sensibility. ‘Die Wallfahrt’ (The pilgrimage) emerged only in 1968, when a copy of the song was discovered by Reinhard Van Hoorickx in the Cornaro family library. Barely 16 bars long, just over a minute in length, this song’s piano accompaniment supports the voice with broadly spaced spread chords, and the sombre vocal line falls dark and deep: it is hardly the sort of song with which one might expect a tenor to open a recital. Indeed, it was originally written for bass voice; but its combination of spirituality and humanity (the text was published in Rückert’s Östliche Rosen in the early 1820s) set the tone for the whole recital.

The opening piano chords of ‘Greisengesang’ (Old man’s song) were imposing, and the sparseness of the voice-piano unisons and homophony were chilling; but the old man’s memories of youth and love lingered and lived, as Bostridge’s tender, time-transporting head voice revealed. The winter has whitened his hair, but the flush of youthful passion glows in his cheeks. Did the poet-speaker’s voice, softening, shadowed, sink at the close into a deep forest of dreams or into the underworld? Were the piano’s three rich cadential chords a warm bed of rest or tolling bells? We could not know.

‘Lachen und Weinen’ (Laughter and tears) promised liveliness and joy, but paradoxically epitomised their very brevity. Pauses and silences before doubtful and questioning vocal utterances seemed to render the piano’s light-hearted ornaments dishonest. ‘Du bist die Ruh’ (You are repose) initially intimated the vocal transfiguration that Bostridge can so beguilingly and tenderly offer, but the intensity of the final stanza seemed riven with pain as much as with passion. Similarly, ‘Daß sie hier gewesen!’ (That she was here!) was quizzical rather than certain: shored up with belief and hope, torn down by doubt and fear, each word of the vocal line interrupted by a brief silence. In the final stanza, the duo pulled the rhythm this way and that to trouble us further, and the final repetition of the title line was desperate and fraught, rather than confirmatory.

Finally, ‘Sei mir gegrüßt’ (I greet you): slow, reflective, introspective. Bostridge seemed lost in reverie, head bowed, leaning on the piano. The visions of passion - ‘Sei mir gegrüßt, Sei mir geküßt’ - were not realised by repetition but pushed ever further into the hinterland of dreams. I’m not entirely certain, but I think that Bostridge mis-ordered the text of the final two stanzas, so that we concluded not with the poet’s imagined embrace - ‘I close you in my arms’ - but with the urgency of ‘my soul’s most ardent outpouring’. If so, then the sudden surge of erotic fulfilment was, ironically, welcome.

Bostridge’s interpretations of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn are familiar from his recent recording and performances with Antonio Pappano . The grotesque, the ironic, the distorted, the empty: such abstracts were just as present here, but I felt that Drake’s encompassment of a spectrum of ‘orchestral’ colours, as well as his ability to play the same small motif with infinite variety of nuance and emphasis, made, paradoxically, the bitterness both more bracing and more bearable, the human breath more tangible, than on the occasion I heard Bostridge sing these songs in the Barbican Hall.

In ‘Revelge’ (Reveille) the piano growled but was never ponderous, despite the ferocity of some of the left hand’s leaping, martial fourths. The shocking image, ‘My comrades strewn so thick, Lie like mown grass on the ground’, unleased God’s thunder from the keyboard. Bostridge twisted through the torturous ‘tralalees’, brazenly facing the audience, daring us to flinch. He flagellated us with the image of the marchers passing the drummer’s sweetheart’s house, pounding us with her vision of his bones at the head of a human tombstone, ‘Daß sie ihn sehen kann’ (That she may see him there).

Bostridge’s energy then seemed spent, burnt up by anger. ‘Wo die schönene Trompeten blasen’ (Where the beautiful trumpets blow’) was searching, at times gently penetrative - as when the nightingale mourns the lovers’ future loss. But there was a sharp bite in the piano’s martial motifs and Bostridge’s piercing stare at the close - when the departing soldier speaks with love of the ‘home of green turf’ to which he will return’ - again dared us to look away. By this point, Drake’s grotesque trills in ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’ (The drummer boy) were almost too much to bear, and the anger spilled over into the pained vocal cries as the drummer walked towards the gallows: ‘Weil I weiß, daß I g’hör dran’ (For I know what you mean to me). As the marching motifs pushed the boy towards his death, so Drake’s languorous trills tugged him back: the tension was painful. At the close there was only death: ‘Gute Nacht’. In the silence and stillness of the Maltings, it seemed no one dared to breath … until Julius Drake stood, necessarily drawing us, and Bostridge, back to the land of the living.

A connection to the Schubert of the start of the recital was established when we heard four of Mahler’s Rückert settings. The carefree circular meanderings of Mahler’s wayfarer in ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (I breath a gentle fragrance!) bring him to the Lindenbaum - Bostridge’s voice seemed both to cleanse the air and bear aloft the scent of bracing lime - but this is a very different point of arrival to the turning-point which Schubert’s wanderer must confront in Winterreise. The re-ordering of Mahler’s cycle must have been intended to create a new narrative, but while I could not quite discern this, it did not matter: each song thrived on its own terms. ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ (Do not look into my song!) was urgent: a representation of creativity both fervent and feverish. With ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ (If you love for beauty) we were restored to the paradoxically consoling restless sehnsucht of a Schubert lied. This is the painful beauty that Bostridge can evoke, for me, like no other singer. At the close he seemed overcome: ‘Liebe mich immer, dich lieb’ ich immerdar.’ (Love me forever, I’ll love you evermore.) He turned away from us, carried elsewhere, inwards.

‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’. I am lost to the world. This is the first line of Mahler’s third Rückert song, which followed, unbearably poignant. Quite simply the vocal beauty, the enchantment of the melismas, the magic of Drake’s postlude carried me - and, I’m sure, many in the Maltings - far away too.

Between these two Romantic ‘pillars’ lay the ‘modern Romanticism’ of Hans Werner Henze. Bostridge and Drake first met Henze at Snape Maltings in 1996, when they were performing three of Henze’s settings of W.H. Auden in celebration of the composer’s 70th birthday. Bostridge described their first encounter in an article in The Guardian ten years later, explaining that following their performance Henze offered to write a new song cycle for him: the result was the 45-minute Sechs Gesänge aus dem Arabischen which the duo premiered at Wigmore Hall in 1999. The songs set Henze’s own texts, excepting the final invocation to the moon by the 14th-century Persian poet, Hafiz, as translated by Rückert.

These songs may be challenging for the listener unfamiliar with their sophisticated poetic, philosophical and musical arguments, and with Henze’s attention-demanding idiom, but they offer an immersive, entrancing depth and range of colour, emotion and dramatic mood. Bostridge and Drake gave us just two of the songs. The fourth, ‘Cäsarion’ (Caesarion), tells of the sailor Selim, whose sea journey has been a struggle of epic, Shakespearian dimensions as love and war, man and nature tussle for power and survival. Drake and Bostridge graphically, and grippingly, depicted the storm without and within, the vocal and pianistic rhetoric by turns grand and turbulent, tormented and resigned, as Selim, lured by the witches’ song and tossed by the waves, lands naked, stretched out on the shore, ‘a ladies’ man, laid low by the sea voyage’.

Delivering the virtuosic storm-painting with enviably calm control, Drake relished the piano’s startling contrasts, and technical and expressive demands. And, to counter the theatrical oratory - including yelps and growls - which Bostridge delivered with his back curved, shoulders hunched, his chin pressing onto his chest, there was tenderness. An unaccompanied vocal passage looked beyond the earth, star-ward, as the sailor-narrator’s thoughts followed the ‘lines inscribed by God in his network of veins’. Bostridge submerged himself in the mystical, recounted the narrative and lived the theatrical. At times the vocal line seemed improvisatory, elsewhere more declamatory; but always fervent, often incantatory. During the long piano postlude, the tenor stared into the depths of the piano’s body, as the powerful resonances of the final, towering, pressing chords faded into infinity, the overtones and harmonics slowly dissolving until the essential fifth and then single tone were all that remained as haunting impressions on the surface of the silence.

The final song, ‘Das Paradies’, offered peace, of a kind, with its repetitions and regularities and gentler idiom. But, the insistent refrain, ‘reich mir die Hand’ (give me your hand), possesses its own conflicts - ‘Komm,dass ich dich fasse, reich mir deine Hand’: my and your, desperation and deliverance - just as the unornate vocal line is hectored by the piano’s rhapsodising. Bostridge managed to conjure a serenity that was paradoxically riven with sadness: not so much a Wagnerian anti-resolution, as a Mahlerian denial of despair through a redemption by love.

And so, there was a purposefulness at the close, a reaching for the sublime - both within grasp and unattainable - as Bostridge issued a quasi-falsetto plea to the moon: ‘I clamber up to your castle, fair moon,/let me pale before you. Come, come, give me your hand.’ In the aforementioned Guardian article, Bostridge describes this final song as ‘a sort of letting-go … the song itself has an extraordinary air of transcendence’. As I drove home from Snape Maltings, through the unlit roads of Suffolk, the waning moon hung low - a sagging, watery pendant in the black sky, a shimmering pink blush. Otherworldly and divine.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano)

Schubert - song settings of poetry by Rückert; Henze - ‘Cäsarion’ and ‘Das Paradies’ from Sechs Gesänge aus dem Arabischen; Mahler - songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Rückert Lieder

Snape Proms, Snape Maltings, Suffolk; Tuesday 20th August 2019.

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