Ian Bostridge’s Lieder singing has divided opinions. I have myself
only recently delved deeper into his art and remain in two minds
– to a certain extent. There can be no mistake though that here
is a serious intellectual who never skims the surface. He sings
off the words and has a myriad subtle nuances in his aural palette.
Neither is he afraid of trying new approaches to oft-heard songs.
His voice is light, lyrical and rather reedy. At times it sounds
almost androgynous – if there is such a thing as an androgynous
sound. It is nonetheless a beautiful sound from pianissimo up
to mezza-forte. Above mezza-forte it is good - and he never presses
the voice beyond its natural limits - but it tends to sound undernourished.
And herein lies a problem: the really dramatic pages of the song
literature can sometimes elude him – at least when compared to
the darker voices we are used to hearing in Schwanengesang.
I have recently reviewed recordings by Siegfried Lorenz and Olaf
Bär. I have long admired Hermann Prey and his early 1960s recording
was the one through which I learnt these songs. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
is in the same league. His DG recording with Gerald Moore (circa
1970) was my reference recording for this review. Compared to
these and other tenors, notably Peter Schreier, Bostridge stands
out as weaker and more – small-scale.
Let me say at once
that small-scale is in no way deprecatory, it is just descriptive.
Just as the maximum volume of a string quartet compared to a
full string orchestra is a number of decibels lower so is Bostridge’s
dynamic scope more compressed. Within this scope he is just
as expressive as his stronger-voiced competitors. Moreover,
intensity of expression is not just a question of volume. A
pianissimo can be almost unbearably intense, sung with the right
Compared to Fischer-Dieskau
Bostridge is generally on the fast side, though not consistently
so. In the first two songs he is marginally slower and also
in songs No. 4-6, but the later songs are swifter and Der
Doppelgänger considerably so. These slight differences in
tempo paired with his lighter voice renders an airiness to the
songs that is quite beguiling. Frühlingssehnsucht is
eager and expectant and his lightness doesn’t exclude a rather
powerful end to the song. Ständchen is beautiful and
intimate, sung with a sensual caressing vibrato and a certain
sweetness of tone, that shouldn’t be mistaken for crooning.
In der Ferne has an almost transcendental atmosphere;
no big gestures. Abschied is soft and restrained, inward
and winding down more and more while nervously running. Der
Atlas is intense, almost panic-stricken, but this is a
song that needs a stronger voice to make full impact. Ihr
Bild is so extremely inward that it feels otherworldly –
a strange feeling. Das Fischermädchen is light, almost
weightless. Die Stadt begins almost inaudibly but the
climax is intense enough but lacks the dark weight of Fischer-Dieskau
– or any number of baritones. Am Meer is uncomplicatedly
beautiful – as it should be: a most loveable song. Der Doppelgänger
builds from nowhere; even the passages marked fff are
comparatively soft, though the sheer intensity of Bostridge’s
tone is heart-rending and he observes the accelerando marking
at ‘Du Doppelgänger, du bleicher Geselle’ more eagerly than
Fischer-Dieskau. The concluding Die Taubenpost flutters
Before the ‘cycle’
he sings three independent songs of which Geheimnis is
a superb example of his small print approach. An Schwager
Kronos is a typical bold-type song and ideally requires
a darker, more physical voice. Bostridge shows that expressive
enunciation also pays dividends. Widerschein gets a rather
self-indulgent reading with frequent tempo changes and in some
places almost parodic tone – but it is fascinating even so.
The encore, Abschied
D475, is extremely inward, as though he has already started
to leave. Antonio Pappano plays exquisitely throughout and cleverly
and sensitively adjusts the dynamics to the singer. What is
marked fff becomes ff and at the other end of
the dynamic scale ppp is played pppp. Small print
As I have pointed
out in earlier reviews Ian Bostridge is a very special Lieder
singer. Whatever he does is thoroughly analyzed and thought
through. One can react to certain approaches that are not what
one is used to but then, more often than not, he is quite refreshing.
He has his own integrity and he is definitely never dull. Personally
I still prefer Fischer-Dieskau – and he is never dull either
– but every lover of these songs should lend an ear to Ian Bostridge.
Certainly I will have this disc easily available for further
listening. The recording is up to EMI’s generally high standards.