Britten, Mahler, Brahms: Ian Bostridge (tenor),
London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding, (conductor), Barbican
Centre, 23.10.2005 (AO)
Revelge, Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen
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
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.
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.
voice seems to relish playing with words as Britten did.
What a range of colour he can bring to words like “nurslings
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.
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.
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