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Shakespeare Songs
Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Sir Antonio Pappano (piano, tr. 1-5, 12-25)
Elizabeth Kenny (lute, 6-11)
Michael Collins (clarinet, 26-28)
Lawrence Power (viola, 26-28)
Adam Walker (flute, 26-28)
rec. 7-11 February 2016, St Jude-on-the-Hill, London
WARNER CLASSICS 9029594473 [66:54]

This is one of the finest contributions that the world of music has brought to the 2016 Shakespeare anniversary. New productions of operas by Verdi and Gounod, or ballets by Prokofiev or Mendelssohn, have their place, but there’s a lot to be said for the intimacy of the connection between the listener and the words which music can enhance, and Ian Bostridge’s programme of songs from the plays produces that intimacy brilliantly. It’s to be treasured.

The first thing to praise the disc for is the eclecticism of its programming. All the songs are set in English, but the composers represented come from a huge range of times and places. Korngold’s three settings, for example, give us a view of Shakespeare from an Austrian living in Hollywood at the time of the Second World War, giving us a really wonderful melange that is, on one level, about as far from Shakespeare’s world as it’s possible to get. They’re marvellous, though; the finest discoveries on the disc, for me. Desdemona’s Willow Song is gorgeous, full of poignancy and the desperate expectation of a woman who suspects she has come to the end, while Come Away, Death is a delightful post-Romantic exercise in psychological harmony, definitely post-Mahler and Wolf. Adieu, Good Man Devil, on the other hand is reckless and defiant, with Bostridge approaching Sprechstimme at times, displaying that commitment to both text and music which makes him such a marvellous song recitalist and which characterises this disc, too.

Unsurprisingly, however, most of the songs here are from English composers, and they’re brought to life magnificently by the partnership of Pappano and Bostridge. Finzi’s collection, which opens the disc, isn’t specifically a cycle, more a set of songs which spoke to the poet and drew a marvellously diverse range of music from him. There is a sardonic side to Come away, Death which is very appropriate, all the more so for being so subtle, but this is then knocked into a cocked hat by the gloriously sunny mood of Who is Silvia? Fear no more, the emotional core of the set, is poignant and restrained, and Bostridge treats it seriously without over-inflating the grief. O Mistress Mine is bonny and carefree, while there is beautiful lyricism to It was a lover and his lass, smooth and flowing rather than just light-hearted.

Quilter’s Come away, Death has poignancy that puts me in mind of Bostridge’s great Britten interpretations (Captain Vere, Peter Quint), and there is beautiful delicacy in the second verse that makes it stand out from its predecessor. Gurney sounds like he is channelling Morley in his marvellously quirky setting of Under the Greenwood Tree and Warlock seems to have been taking a leaf out of the same book in his Pretty Ring Time (with a marvellously upbeat finish), while Sweet and Twenty is more modern and harmonically complex.

Tippet’s Ariel Songs, written specifically for a 1962 Old Vic production of The Tempest, show the composer at his most appealingly melodic, and Bostridge throws himself into the onomatopoeia and earthiness of the songs with vigour: listen to him barking like the dogs in Come unto these Yellow Sands. Full Fathom Five, however, is dark as night, plumbing the grief without revelling in the language’s descriptive richness, while Where the Bee Sucks is as capricious as the character who sings it.

On the other side of the channel, Poulenc’s Fancie is appealingly straightforward, but with a touch of the Paris café to it: you can easily imagine it being sung in a Montmartre cabaret bar. Britten’s setting of the same song is hyperactive, by comparison, suggesting febrile desire where Poulenc was all casual nonchalance, a useful reminder, if it were needed, of how open Shakespeare is to a multiplicity of interpretations. Schubert’s famous An Silvia bounces along with lots of Biedermeier verve, propelled by Pappano’s marvellous accompaniment, and he shades the opening of She never told her love with astounding sensitivity (a dynamic change here, a delicate arpeggio there), treating the song as though it were, frankly, a lot better than it is.

There are other collaborators here, too; chief among them Elizabeth Kenny’s lute, who accompanies Bostridge for a range of settings that date from Shakespeare’s own time. Kenny makes Byrd’s Caleno Custure me sound even more poignant and sensitive, and the lute inspires Bostridge to give, perhaps, his most introverted, inward-looking singing on the whole disc: delightful. Conversely, the lute makes Morley’s famous setting of It was a lover and his lass even more blithe and, of course, marvellously authentic-sounding. Scholars still debate whether this was the original setting used in the first performances of As You Like It, but that doesn’t make a bit of a difference to how marvellously Bostridge and Kenny perform it, nor to the jollity of Morley’s O Mistress Mine. Similarly, Robert Johnson’s Tempest songs date from the time of the play’s composition, or shortly afterwards, and they provide a wonderfully convincing window into the world of how Jacobeans took their theatre and their music (listen to the way “ding dong dell” fades away at the end). John Wilson was one of the most famous Lutenists of Shakespeare’s day, and his setting of Take, o take has a seriousness of complexity that is worthy of Dowland.

Stravinsky’s settings are unusual for several reasons. For a start, they date from the composer’s serialist period in the 1950s, and the instrumental texture of clarinet, viola and flute allows him to weave a very unusual and surprising spell of which the words are only a constituent part. It’s here, more than anywhere else on the disc, that you’re reminded that Shakespeare’s words, like the greatest art, can act as an inspiration into something totally different and innovative. Bostridge, too, colours his voice differently here because of his different collaborators, and the interplay of the four musical lines is refreshingly different at the end of the disc.

Throughout this beautifully curated disc, Bostridge reminds you why he is such a great recitalist. The sensitivity of his singing and his involvement with the words make this a consistent delight, and it’s a riposte to anyone who thinks that only German or French-speakers can get the full richness of the art song experience. Throw in the intelligence of his accompanists and you have a real winning combination.

Simon Thompson

Track listing
1-5. Gerald Finzi Let us Garlands Bring: Come away, come away death
6 William Byrd Caleno Custure me
7 Thomas Morley It was a lover and his lass
8 John Wilson Take o take those lips away
9 Thomas Morley O mistress mine
10 Robert Johnson Where the bee sucks
11 Robert Johnson Full fathom five
12 Franz Schubert An Silvia D891
13 Joseph Haydn She Never Told Her Love
14 Roger Quilter 3 Shakespeare Songs: Come Away, Death Op.6 No.1
15 Ivor Gurney Under the Greenwood Tree
16 Peter Warlock Pretty Ring Time
17 Peter Warlock Sweet and Twenty
18 Erich Korngold Four Shakespeare Songs Op. 31 No.1: Desdemona's Song
19 Erich Korngold Songs of the Clown Op.29: Come Away Death
20 Erich Korngold Songs of the Clown Op.29: Adieu, Good Man Devil
21 Francis Poulenc Fancie
22 Benjamin Britten Fancie
23-25 Michael Tippett Songs for Ariel
26-28 Igor Stravinsky Three Songs from William Shakespeare
29 Anon. When that I was but a little tiny boy

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