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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Schubert, Die Schöne Müllerin (review of second recital): Ian Bostridge (tenor), Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 24th February, 2005 (AO)

Ian Bostridge astounded the song world with his seminal Die Schöne Müllerin with Graham Johnson in 1994. Amazingly, he has managed to pull off the feat a second time, in this outstanding performance with Mitsuko Uchida. Indeed, this is an even more distinctive version, one which confirms Bostridge as perhaps the most individual and sensitive interpreters of this cycle, one with which his name is inextricably linked.

Schubert's song cycles are much more than the sum of their parts: performing them takes a breadth of vision which illuminates the cycle as a whole. It is not enough to sing well: understanding and expression are paramount. What is fascinating is how Bostridge has lived with, and grown with, this cycle. With Johnson, Bostridge emphasised the painful vulnerability of the miller's lad, a portrayal of youthful anguish. Now, Bostridge brings to it the insight of a more mature observer, more attuned to the psychological drama that is at the heart of the cycle. It is a tour de force, an infinitely deeper understanding of what the cycle means. There is nothing quite like it. The nearest comparison is Matthias Goerne, whose depiction of the psychosis haunting the miller's lad shocked many by its intensity. Bostridge manages a different, if equally perceptive understanding, without the unorthodox tempi of Goerne's. He's also a tenor. Schubert envisioned the cycle for higher voice and was a tenor himself: this matters a lot, for this version expresses much of what might have been Schubert's personal subtext.

Significantly, both in the programme and in the notes on the CD (to be reviewed on Musicweb-international) Bostridge emphasizes what the poet Wilhelm Müller said it was, a set “Im Winter zu lesen” - to be read in winter, in barreness and cold. The text may speak of spring and flowers but its inherent meaning is youthful suicide. Schubert connected love with death only too well, for he had been diagnosed with venereal disease shortly before setting the poems. It is not a pretty cycle, by any means. Bostridge and Uchida focus on the uneven dialogue between the brook, representing death, and the young man, dreaming of love.

Uchida is almost too dominant a partner, but her evocation of the powerful, unyielding movement of the mill wheel expresses the unrelenting power of the water. This brook has a demonic life of its own, calling to the boy, drawing him towards its crushing embrace. Bostridge's voice has developed deeper colours over the years and his portrayal of the lad is exquisite – lyrical yet richly shaded, making the contrast between the boy and the brook all the more poignant. He whispers, both in awe and excitement “ist das denn meine Straße?” The brook has already shown who's boss. In the brief vignette of “reality,” where the miller talks with his apprentices after work, Bostridge manages to portray the gathering vividly, yet the piano reminds us of the ferocity lurking outside, threatening to shatter the cosy scene. ‘Der Neugierige’ (the questioner) is one of the critical turning points in the cycle. For Goerne it was as if we were inside the boy's troubled mind, a terrifying inner sanctum. For Bostridge, it is the curiosity of innocence, a moment when the demons in the brook for once are still, while the boy wonders about love. But not for long – ‘Ungelduld’ starts almost immediately with its insistent, demented pressures. Bostridge sings the verse, when he thinks he's won love with heartfelt openness and triumph but Uchida has already told us that something's amiss. The contrast between lyricism and the violence of the piano part is striking.

In this recital, he sang the last verse of ‘Morgengruß’ with much more defiance than on the recording, which was much more effective, for it shows that there's still spirit and hope in the lad's mind. Soon after, though, follows ‘Pause,’ which for Bostridge is the turning point of the cycle. The boy has hung his lute on the wall, and can sing no more. Bostridge's voice actually takes on a lute like quality from here on. It is as if the boy has already lost the power to be a proactive individual. The two “lute” songs, ‘Pause’ and ‘Mit dem grünen Lautenbande’ are balanced by two angry songs about the huntsman whom the miller's daughter clearly prefers. Bostridge and Uchida hardly stop to breathe between songs, allowing them to form a striking group that in turn connects to the “colour” songs, ‘Der liebe Farbe’ and ‘Die böse Farbe.’ As a unit of six, without a break, the drama is intensified. In the middle was the most ferocious ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’ (Jealousy and Pride) I can remember – better than on the recording. Bostridge's recent years in opera have certainly taught him expressive, passionate characterisation.

By the time Bostridge sings “Der Mai ist kommen, der Winter is aus!” we are left under no illusion that spring really will come. The miller's lad and the brook have a final dialogue. Uchida starts ‘Der Müller und die Bach’ as if she were playing a funeral march, for the brook is calling the boy to itself. Yet Bostridge infuses the last verses with revived lyricism. “Ach, Bächlein, liebes Bächlein...aber weißt du wie Liebe tut?” These are “his” last words in the cycle, and Bostridge has him depart with tenderness.

Just as Uchida started the cycle evoking the mechanical process of the mill wheel, she ends the cycle with the same relentless turning over of the same small figure. The brook, with its demons, has absorbed the lad into itself: for Bostridge the final ‘Weigenlied’ is no tender lullaby but the chilling voice of the brook, possessively warning the flowers not to arouse the lad from his slumber. It is all the more disturbing because he sings with such understatement. He has emerged from the period of quiet in his career a more mature, deeper and sensitive performer than before. Although he and Uchida have been working on this cycle together for some years, the freshness of their approach in recital indicates that they will still have more to offer as time goes by. It is a beautiful partnership with great potential. Uchida's aristocratic, elegant face broke into a beatific smile at the end, indicating that perhaps we have other good things to look forward to.

The notes that come with Wigmore Hall programmes are usually excellent, but the notes for this concert are above average. Mischa Donat's essay on the original poems and Schubert's setting should make the programme a collector's item.

Anne Ozorio



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