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Schubert, Lieder to texts by Goethe: Wolf, Eichendorff Lieder. Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake, Wigmore Hall Friday 14th February (ME)

Keats or is it Bostridge and vice versa


Mr. John KEATS descends from HEAV’N to speak of the DIVINE Mr. BOSTRIDGE and the uniquely skill’d Mr. DRAKE.

Oh, my dear Severn! Could you have conjectur’d, as you sat at your easel by that casement in Rome, in that year of my death, 1821, that there could be another such young man with a visage so very like my own? I might, indeed, have envisioned Mr. Bostridge as I penned my poem about ‘La belle dame sans merci,’ for he is indeed one who seems to loiter palely as he stands upon the stage, and he is truly haggard and woe-begone of countenance. He was suffering with a chill upon this occasion, and I did bethink me – you know what a horrid morbidity of temperament I possess – that he might be perhaps working himself into almost as premature a decline as my own, but you may imagine with what transports of joy I heard his lovely singing of Mr. Schubert’s settings of our great German master, Herr von Goethe.

A Poet is truly the most unpoetical thing in existence, because he is continually filling in for some other body, and this is also true of such a singer as Mr. Bostridge, for he gives himself so much to these words and music that he becomes the speaker! He and Mr. Drake chose to begin and end the first part of this evening with Schubert’s different settings of ‘An den Mond,’ and I must tell you, my dear Severn, that no one hearing such singing of the first one would want to describe this song as ‘nearly insignificant,’ as Mr. Capell once did! So beautiful was the tone of the voice and so melancholy the descending piano parts of this exquisite E flat major melody, that I confess a tear crept to mine eye. Mr. Bostridge did not quite achieve a perfect attack on the first forte in the next song ‘Nähe des Geliebten’ but he gave us a true poet’s feeling for the words, and his singing of lines like ‘O wärst du da!’ did put me in mind most sorely of my own dear Fanny.

Mr. Drake seems to play ever more beautifully and skilfully each time I hear him – and, of course, my dear friend, this hallow’d place is more than any other frequented by the shades of departed poets and composers, so I count myself amongst those fortunate ones who may hear him with every one of the singers so favour’d as to be his partner! I have always loved ‘Auf dem See’ since the very moment that Mr. Schubert and Mr. Vogl performed it for me, and Mr.Drake and Mr. Bostridge recall’d that first hearing to my mind. I own to a particular love for those songs of Schubert which depict water, and to hear Mr. Drake’s playing of the little phrases which so finely suggest rippling wavelets, gave me as much pleasure as anything in this heavenly realm. Mr. Bostridge gave this song its true poetic meaning, so oft to my ears ignored by others; Mr. Schubert so beautifully depicts the poet’s yearning in ‘Goldne Träume, kommt ihr wieder’ and the wondrous promise of Nature in ‘Sich die reifende Frucht’ that I longed so much for him to have been able to set my own reflections on these themes to music, and Mr. Bostridge seemed to understand so well that aching Pleasure nigh can so oft turn to poison, even while the bee-mouth sips!

‘Ganymed’ and ‘Erster Verlust’ are two of the finest of all Mr. Schubert’s compositions, and these performances of them gave me the most perfect joy! ‘Erster Verlust’ is so short a song – would that I had lived long enough to master this art, of conveying so much in so short a space! – but when it is played as Mr. Drake played it, with such almost-hesitant ardour, and sung as Mr. Bostridge sang it, with such deep longing and lingering on those final words ‘Jene holde Zeit zurück’ it truly puts me in mind of my own reflections on Melancholy!

I heard the final ‘An den Mond’ with transports of joy; how is it that these artists are able to convey to me the spirit of the composer and the poet in such a way that I feel I hear them anew – oh, Mr. Schubert, Mr. Goethe, how well you understood this frail poet’s thoughts as he wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale!’ Truly can it be said that I, too, ‘wandle zwischen Freud und Schmerz’ - but O, for a life of Sensations, rather than of thoughts such as these!

After the earthbound audience had retir’d for refreshment, we were enchanted with the songs of Mr. Wolf, set to poems by von Eichendorff, and what delightful poems these are, even though not so passionate as those by Herr Mörike! Messrs. Bostridge and Drake were enabled to show their lighter side in ‘Liebesglück’ and ‘Seemanns Abschied,’ but as you may imagine, it was such songs as ‘Verschwiegene Liebe’ and ‘Das Ständchen’ which held me enthralled, not only by the beauty of the music but Mr. Drake’s most mellifluous playing (and I must speak too of his wonderful nachspiel to ‘der Schreckenberger!) and the perfect singing, so aptly melancholy and so lovely in tone – that final ‘verschwiegen’ so softly intoned that one might imagine the singer asking that easeful death might take away his quiet breath, as once I did, and in ‘Das Ständchen,’ those heartbreaking lines phrased with such a lute-like lilt, if I may be permitted such an expression, and just catching at that ethereal quality we must have in such music.

And so, my dear Severn, another evening of bittersweet joy at the Wigmore Hall – my spirit will attend once more on this next Saturday and Monday, when Frau Schäfer and Herr Goerne will no doubt transport us with more of Herr Wolf’s glorious compositions. Darkling I shall listen, and once again recall how I was once half in love with easeful death, calling him sweet names in many a mused rhyme.

Fled is that music – do I wake, or sleep?

John Keats

(Melanie Eskenazi)

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