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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Schubert: Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 28.11.2005 (AO) 


The annual series “Song on the South Bank” opened with Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake.  Tonight’s programme came in two halves.  The first half was conceptually brilliant, exploring settings of poets who were outsiders and misfits.  It was powerfully performed, so much so that it was profoundly disturbing.  In a smaller, more intimate venue and with an audience of Kenner, it would have been momentous. But an evening of sad songs about death is never going to wow the public.  Artistry, alas, needs a touch of showmanship to succeed.

The first five songs, to the poems of Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze were certainly not designed to get an audience in party mood.    Schulze conceived an obsessive love for two sisters, one of whom was dead. Their strange haunted quality highlights the disturbing nature of the poet’s delusions.  Bostridge sings them with exquisite sensitivity.   Der liebliche Sterne was a masterpiece of subtle nuance, negotiating the sudden swoops of high and low that reflect the swings in the poet’s mood.  The star is elusive, an unapproachable vision.  In the third verse, he manages to move from awed rapture, to a gnawing sense of frustration.  The song ends with unrestrained violence. Bostridge throws out Herneider ins Wogengewühle!  (Down into the whirlpool!) with such conviction that it seems perfectly logical  that the poet should want to drown himself to reach a star.  Drake plays the postlude with bittersweet irony: the twinkling “starlight” notes remain as intangible as the poet’s dreams.

Even when Schubert switches to a major key, he doesn’t disguise the undercurrents.  As Richard Stokes, in the unusually well written programme notes, says “the ritornellos…… drive the lover nearly insane”.   Drake was superb, giving the circular rhythms manic intensity, completely undermining the süßes Ahnen (sweet expectations) in the text.

Bostridge and Christoph Prégardien both made pioneering recordings of Schubert’s settings of Johann Mayrhofer.  When Bostridge sang  Im kalten, rauhen Norden (in the cold, raw North), his voice curled chillingly round the repeated “en”s, then suddenly burst with glowing warmth in einer Sonnenstadt. The effect was almost visual.  Describing the sun, his voice became raptly plangent, reminding me of the unnatural calm of Schulze’s starstruck gaze.  Drake further emphasized the darker undercurrents, sometimes stridently dominant, sometimes going subterranean behind the voice, but never subsumed.

Death was to the nineteenth century what sex is to ours.  So thus followed three more songs in which death is seen as blissful release.  Bostridge and Drake negotiated the tricky pauses in Totengräbers Heimweh, which express wordlessly the gravediggers constant sighs.  If Bostridge threw a little too much abandon into Tag und Nacht keine Ruh! he captured the poem’s demented mood.  The new depth in his voice helped him scrape along the lowest parts of his register.  When he intoned Hinab, ins tiefe Grab (down into the deep grave) the chameleon quality of his voice sounded almost un-human, like a tolling bell.  Bostridge sang the final verse with an exquisitely delicate ardour as if the gravedigger were already shining with the stars before he collapses, lifeless but blissful, into an empty grave.  It was profoundly disturbing because it was so convincing, and deeply felt. So unsettling, indeed, I wanted a strong drink at the interval.

The second half of the programme was much more conventional, with all time favourites.   There was much beauty, but it was hard to shake off the profound experience that had gone before.   It must have been even more difficult for performers of Bostridge’s sensitivity.  His Sei mir gegrüßt was caressingly decorated, but infused with too much wistful languor.   The poet, Friedrich Rückert, may have written much about death, but in this case he was being fairly straightforward.  Drake, Bostridge’s partner for a dozen years, seemed to sense the need to change the mood.   He bounced into Die Forelle with surprising attack, making it a jaunty, cheeky dance.  Bostridge responded almost with relief.   There was more lyrical singing to follow.  Des Fischers Liebesglück in particular stands out.  But my mind was still dwelling on the astounding, if depressing, earlier songs.  


Anne Ozorio


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