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Britten, Mahler, Brahms: Ian Bostridge (tenor), London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding, (conductor), Barbican Centre, 23.10.2005 (AO)


Britten, Nocturne

Mahler, Revelge, Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen  

Brahms, Symphony no. 4


London concert programmes are notably daring, challenging listeners to think more deeply about what they hear.  The LSO sponsors “Sound Adventures”, commissioning composers to write something based on their response to the music chosen for a particular evening.  It adds an even greater creative edge to the performance.  Luke Stoneham’s Proem built on huge walls of sound, trombones and bassoons blaring like whalesong.  Perhaps it was a reference to the Kraken in the Britten cycle, as were its gamelan and bell influences.  It was a good start to the most spectacular performance of Britten’s Nocturne that I’ve ever heard.

Ian Bostridge is the Britten performer par excellence.  His voice is far more nuanced and agile than Peter Pears’ ever was.  It may not be as elegant as Ainsley’s or as pretty as Padmore’s, but it has an interpretive intensity that puts him in a league altogether of his own.  Intuitively, Bostridge responds to the deepest levels of Britten’s psyche, picking up the sharp edge of surreality that pervades Britten’s most original work.  At a stroke, he makes Britten sound utterly modern, utterly exotic and completely involving.  Nocturne sets texts that don’t naturally “sing”, and Britten’s settings make no compromises.  Bostridge, however, has made it one of his showpieces, having performed it more frequently over the last few years than any other singer.   In the last two years, Bostridge’s voice and personality have strengthened remarkably, and he is singing with a wider range and presence than ever before.  He was good before, now he is stunning.

His voice seems to relish playing with words as Britten did.  What a range of colour he can bring to words like “nurslings of immortality…immortality…immortality”.  In the Tennyson setting, the Kraken, he handles the tricky long phrases with their internal rhythms.  This quirkiness is even more marked in the Coleridge song, where the lyricism springs from within the lines of the text, not merely following them.  Many of these songs are set with minimal accompaniment, the orchestra unobtrusive while the singer carries the main line, commenting on and complementing him.  Again, the unique quality of Bostridge’s timbre comes into its own.  He sounds like an exotic oboe or clarinet, weaving and curling: a kind of circular breathing for voice.  Since Britten emphasises the use of solo instruments throughout the piece, the effect is like a seamless dialogue between human and non-human sounds.  It is especially vivid when Bostridge sings the “mew, mew, mew” of the cats, plausible feline and yet more than.  It evoked references to similar sounds in other parts of the cycle, such as the “beau-u-teous boy”, helping in its own way to enrich the songs ass a group.   Nonetheless, when he needs to Bostridge can be fiercely human and dramatic, as when he cries “Sleep no more !”  Harding and Bostridge have worked together many times in Britten.  Harding kept the orchestra alert yet restrained – each note crystalline, even when the playing was barely audible.  The effect was subtle and chamber like, a carefully judged balance between soloists and ensemble, beautifully achieving the diaphanous, trance like effect Britten was seeking.

They were adventurous too in the two Mahler songs.  We’re so used to hearing butch baritones sing Revelge that hearing a tenor of Bostridge’s refinement might come as a shock.  However, Mahler set it for tenor and the song is, after all, about a frightened young drummer boy. Bostridge’s characterization was accurate and Harding got the choppy march rhythms right, but this version might have been a little too unfamiliar to take in on one hearing.  Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen is a staple of both sopranos and baritones, so a tenor version works very well indeed.  The sensuality of Bostridge’s singing gave a particularly poignant twist to the story of a ghost foretelling his lover’s death.  Bostridge understands the supernatural Wunderhorn ethos, so it is a pity that Mahler wrote so little for tenor.  The orchestra played lovely details.  If the horns were a little shrill, it was not out of keeping with the material.

Harding’s recording of Brahms 3rd and 4th symphonies raised eyebrows because it was so different.  Again, we’re so conditioned to hearing Brahms with encrustations of gravitas that it takes a while to adjust to an interpretation that clarifies individual textures.   Each generation recreates music in relation to the Zeitgeist.  If the spirit of our time is less cluttered, and more transparently open, perhaps this will reflect in reconsiderations of old classics.  Harding’s approach seems to be to keep his textures clean, metaphorically letting light shine through to the deepest levels.  As a result, it was easy to follow the melodic themes as they wove through the work, and appreciate just how deftly Brahms structured the symphony.  Indeed, the approach highlighted the tension between the lyrical and the more controlled, giving the performance an emotional acerbity. The attack and punchy, direct playing, especially in the last movement, was truly “energico e passionato”.  Brahms may have milked his image as a Grand Old Man, but at heart he was too sharp to be taken in by appearances.  I suspect he might have enjoyed this clear-sighted revaluation.


Anne Ozorio

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