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Opening night of the 2005/6 Season at the Wigmore Hall:  Schumann: Lieder to Texts by Heinrich Heine, Ian Bostridge, Graham Johnson, Wigmore Hall, 10 September, 2005 (ME)



Ah, the end of Summer… the Proms are over, the Wigmore season begins  - and life springs anew, or at least that’s how it feels this year. Long committed to covering the dreaded ‘Last Night’ at the Albert Hall – mainly because of the presence of Andreas Scholl – I requested a change when I realized that it coincided with this Opening Night: and how glad I was that I did. Almost exactly two years ago, after an opening concert given to a relatively sparse house, I opined that the Wigmore really should open seasons with ‘one of the select group of singers who would sell out this hall no matter who was performing elsewhere…even though some of our fellow lovers of Song in the U.S. apparently regard one of them as a ‘voiceless twit.’ How heartening to report, then, that this time the place was packed to the gunwales for the v.t. (very few critics, however) and that this opening recital did everything that such a concert needs to do – set the correct tone of high ambition for the season, welcomed regulars with well-loved works interpreted anew, provided an evening of truly distinguished music – making and, incidentally though by no means unimportantly, made the audience feel a sense of belonging to the place and optimism for the new regime, courtesy of a beautifully judged Welcome in the programme (the complimentary interval drink seemed to go down well, too).


Of course, Bostridge has a wonderful voice, and he is the least likely of all singers to merit the description of ‘twit’  - this recital was originally scheduled to present him singing Schumann duets with Sophie Daneman, but the soprano having had to withdraw, we were treated to an all-Heine programme very much in the Fischer-Dieskau mould. The tenor becomes more and more of a Hölderlin figure with each recital, evoking the tortured romantic soul with ever more anguish whilst developing still further his now very astringent, sardonic view of this music and poetry. The superb programme notes, by Richard Stokes, are clearly in sympathy with this style: however to my ears it misses some of the ambivalence that is the characteristic of the poet and the rapture that is the hallmark of the composer: interestingly, Graham Johnson’s playing seemed to err more towards my view.


In the first three songs of ‘Liederkreis’ (Op. 24) Bostridge offered singing as angular as his appearance, the only shreds of tenderness appearing in Johnson’s limpid nachspiel to ‘Morgens stehich auf und frage’ but the singer gave a more rounded performance of ‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen,’ with impressive phrasing in the long lines and finely shaded expressiveness at ‘Schweigt still!’ Bostridge clearly sees the centrally placed fifth song as the ‘key’ to the cycle, and he gave it highly individual interpretation, the ‘Winterreise’ – like closing stanza drawn out with anguished drama and the repeat of the first lines given in a daring mezza-voce. ‘Berg’ und Burgen’ echoed the bittersweet, ambivalent nature of both poet and composer, with the surface glitter and gentle lapping of the waters, so finely suggested by Johnson’s playing, uncomfortably undermined by Bostridge’s almost dangerous singing, with the line ‘Birgt sein Innres Tod und Nacht’ delivered in tones very far from the cosy lyricism one usually hears, suggesting rather that this line is the prelude to the speaker’s casting himself into those waters.


‘Mit Myrten und Rosen’ is derided as a lollipop by Richard Stokes, accusing the poem of ‘gooey sentimentality’ but surely it is Schumann’s expression of his love for Clara which shines through the song, both in its vivid depiction of the volcanic nature of his passion at ‘und rings viel blitzende Funken versprüht’ – particularly incisively sung – and its full-blown romanticism at ‘Einst kommt dies Buch in deine hand, / Du susses Lieb im fernen land: whatever reservations Bostridge may have about the latter, he certainly surrendered himself to the emotion here. The final diminuendo was a little disappointing in that instead of a wondrous caress, as Goerne manages, here the word ‘Liebeshauch’ was not dwelt on quite long enough or given quite enough lingering in the tone.


Six other songs to Heine poems followed, not all of them successful choices: ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ was finely done, and ‘Abends am Strand’ showed both singer and pianist at their most eloquent, but Bostridge’s voice is not really the right match for ‘Belsatzar,’ and in the closing ‘Mein Wagen rollet langsam’ whilst he did catch the required tone of malice in the lines about the apparitions, he missed the languid air of the beginning and the ambivalence of the poet’s feelings as a lover.


Dichterliebe’ is apparently everyone’s favourite song cycle, which would have come as grim news to me when I struggled with it as one of my ‘set works’ for A level Music decades ago: the style of this evening’s performance of it may be gauged by Stokes’ description of Heine’s work as ‘hate poems,’ and Bostridge’s echoing interpretation of Schumann’s settings of them as 95% bitter and only 5% sweet. In ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ we were far more conscious of ‘Verlangen’ than ‘Liebe,’ and in ‘Ich will meine Seele tauchen’ the lover’s rapture was subsumed into the heartbreakingly brief nature of the happiness described. ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’ was given a fascinatingly bleak interpretation: according to Bostridge, the pity offered by the flowers is not pity at all but sardonic, ironic mockery, making the following song even more emotionally desperate – it was superbly sung, as was ‘Allnächtlich im Traume,’ the delicacy and subtlety of the phrasing all that could be desired, and the final ‘vergessen’ deftly avoiding any hint of overplaying.


Such is the individuality of Bostridge’s interpretation that one can tend towards making light of the actual singing – always a danger with artists who stray from the well worn paths, but with ‘Aus alten Märchen’ no one could miss the entirely proper anguish of ‘Ach, könnt ich dorthin kommen,’ so wonderfully expressed in the aching tone and the subtle shading of the language. The recital closed with four encores, all settings of Heine by Schubert and Brahms, the most successful being a poetically sung and liquidly played ‘Mondenschein.’  A great start to what promises to be a memorable season ahead.



Melanie Eskenazi


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