Songs from our Ancestors Anonymous
Flowing Water [6:26] Dominick ARGENTO (b.1927)
Letters from Composers: Schubert [4:26]
Letters from Composers: Chopin [3:26] Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Second Lute Song (from Gloriana) [3:54] Xu CHANGJUN (b.1957)
Sword dance [5:19] Chen YI (b.1953)
Shuo Chang [6:48] John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
In darkness let me dwell [3:33]
Come again, sweet love doth now invite [2:03]
White as lilies was her face [2:06]
My thoughts are wing’d with hopes [1:32] Stephen GOSS (b.1964)
The Book of Songs [12:27] Ruan JI (210-263)
Drunken Ecstasy [2:09] Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Die Mainacht, D194 [2:00]
Der KŲnig in Thule, D367 [2:56]
Schubert: An die Musik D547 [2:24]
Stšndchen 'Leise flehen meine Lieder', D957 No. 4 [3:48]
Ian Bostridge (tenor) Xuefei Yang (guitar)
rec. January & April 2016, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London GLOBE MUSIC GM-001 [70:17]
This is the first release from a brand new label (as you might tell from the catalogue number). Globe Music is the record label of Shakespeare’s Globe, the arts complex on London’s Bankside, and will focus on recordings made in the warm, intimate acoustic of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the recreated Jacobean theatre that sits next to Shakespeare’s wooden “O”. I’ve never visited it, but the notes wax lyrical about the special, candlelit atmosphere of the playhouse and the intimacy of the music made there. (They already have a regular season of candlelit concerts.)
It’s always exciting to see the launch of a new label, particularly one so intimately anchored in a sense of place as this one, and I arrived at this with very high expectations because Ian Bostridge and Xuefei Yang had already collaborated spectacularly successfully on a disc of songs for the Britten centenary. However, the results in this case are rather mixed, albeit there is more good than bad. The packaging, for a start, consists of a very handsome hardback book that houses the CD, but the contents are rather quixotic. It contains the texts for nearly all the songs, for example, but leaves out those of Argento’s Letters from Composers, and carelessly omits An die Musik altogether.
Furthermore, Ian Bostridge’s Dowland feels uncomfortably mannered to my ears, as though he feels the need to draw out something deeply profound in the text that often isn’t really there. ‘Come again, sweet love doth now invite’, for example, is - let's face it – not much more than a pleasing ditty, but Bostridge articulates it as though it were Winterreise, and to my ears that sense of over-egging the pudding runs through the Dowland set. Nor does his voice quite suit the tone of the ardent lover in Essex’s lute song.
The Schubert section, on the other hand, works very well, for perhaps exactly the same reason. Bostridge sounds much less mannered here. Stšndchen, in particular, benefits from the guitar accompaniment, which is not only beautifully arranged (by Tilman Hoppstock), but played with the most marvellous sensitivity. If the others aren't quite at that level then they're still very good, particularly An die Musik (though don’t look for the translation).
The Argento songs are played and sung well, poignant of tone and very well chosen, and the Chinese numbers are fascinating. Wang is utterly dazzling, her technique brilliantly virtuosic but also modest in its refusal to draw attention to itself. The non-vocal numbers are wonderful. Ruan Ji’s ‘Drunken Ecstasy’ is very attractive. ‘Flowing Water’ makes use of glissandi in a characteristically Chinese manner, and she plays the harmonics beautifully. ‘Sword Dance’ has an accompaniment that mimics the intense tremolos of, say, Memories of the Alhambra, and Chen Yi's piece, specially written for Yang, is both interesting and appealing.
The Goss selection was commissioned by Bostridge and Yang, so presumably this is its first recording (the booklet doesn't specify). Goss takes his texts (all in English translation) from the Chinese collection Book of Songs, the same source from which Britten drew his Songs from the Chinese. ‘She threw me a Quince’ is appealing in its folk-like shape, and the ‘Pastoral’ has moments of impressive virtuosity. ‘In the Tavern’ has a touch of sardonic humour reminiscent of Carmina Burana, and ‘Lament’ has a beautifully melancholy ending with an undulating accompaniment representing the flowing of the river.
So this isn’t at all bad for a first release, and no doubt the issues are mere teething problems, even if I was left with a nagging sense of could-do-better. Even if it doesn’t always work, the choice of repertoire is brave, and it befits the setting. Admirers of the artists and the venue will no doubt wish to explore. Incidentally, all the songs (except the Schubert) are sung in English. Wouldn’t it have been fascinating to have heard Bostridge singing in Mandarin?