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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Lieder, Volume 4
Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano)
rec. live, 16 May 2015, Wigmore Hall, London. DDD
German texts & English translations included

Here’s another instalment in the series of Schubert recitals by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake on the Wigmore Hall Live label. Their previous three albums were outstanding (Volume 1 ~ Volume 2 ~ Volume 3) so I was thrilled when the postman delivered Volume 4 for review. The sting in the tail, though, is that I learned from the accompanying PR leaflet that this is the final volume in the series.

Unlike Volume 3, which explored the theme of longing, there is no theme per se to this programme though many of the songs, including all those in the second half, are settings of Goethe. Bostridge begins, though, with three settings of poetry by Matthäus von Collin (1779-1824). He conveys very well the rueful sadness of Wehmut. The ballad, Der Zwerg is a very different kettle of fish. Julius Drake’s relentless rhythmical playing underpins Bostridge’s vivid narration. The singing is very dramatic and Bostridge brings an appropriately baritonal tinge to his voice in the passages that are concerned with the Dwarf. This involving account is a mouth-watering precursor to an even greater narrative setting that awaits us later in the programme. Complete contrast is found in Nacht und Träume. The music of this song is laid out on a mere two pages yet Schubert manages to convey so much. Listen to the way Bostridge delivers the first two words, “Heil’ge Nacht…” The plangent longing in his voice presages a deeply felt, wonderfully poetic reading of the song.

Four Goethe settings follow, songs which Richard Stokes suggests in his notes, may have been intended by Schubert to be sung as a group. The famous Der Musensohn is invested with wide-eyed eagerness by Bostridge, an eagerness which Drake mirrors in his playing. In An die Entfernte the anguish of lost love is plain to hear. The group ends with Willkommen und Abschied and here Bostridge, supported in ideal fashion by Drake, conveys the urgency and rapture of a young lover. In this song it’s noticeable how telling is the use of pauses, especially at the end of the third stanza. Wandrers Nachtlied II is another great setting of Goethe. In a rapt performance Bostridge evidences the same expert control that we encountered in Nacht und Träume.

There follow three settings of poems by Franz von Bruchmann (1796-1867) who was a close friend of Schubert in the 1820s. All are excellent songs and they work well together as a group. Am See features a flowing and soaring melody, so typical of the composer. Im Haine is a swinging strophic composition.

The first half ends with a return to Goethe for Erlkönig. Julius Drake drives the piano part on with spine-tingling urgency. As for Bostridge, he again evidences the capacity for vivid narration that marked out his account of Der Zwerg. Here, he differentiates the three characters most convincingly. He does this not only by adopting different tones of voice – as many singers do – but also by highly imaginative delivery, something that not all singers can accomplish so effectively. In particular, this applies to the insinuating manner he adopts for Erlkönig himself. It’s a gripping, electrifying performance and unsurprisingly the audience reaction is highly appreciative.

The second half is devoted entirely to Goethe settings, opening with the first (1815) setting of An den Mond. This winning song is borne along on a lovely, easeful melody which is so generous that each strophe encompasses two of Goethe’s stanzas. Nähe des Geliebten is “only” a strophic setting with a gentle, simple accompaniment, but Schubert writes in a marvellously expressive vein. Bostridge invests the vocal line with great feeling while Drake weights the piano part perfectly, especially through his intuitively idiomatic use of rubato. Liebhaber in allen Gestalten is a jolly, humorous song which is characterised delightfully by both musicians. Their performance raises a laugh from the audience at the end. Meeres Stille affords a telling contrast with its depiction of becalmed voyagers. This song gives Bostridge another opportunity to show his expert control of line.

Erster Verlust, Richard Stokes tells us, is Goethe’s translated conflation of ‘Porgi amor’ and ‘Dove sono’ from Le nozze di Figaro. Bostridge’s delivery is full of yearning sorrow, especially in the way he sings the last two lines of the poem. Much though I love Schubert’s charming first setting of An den Mond, there’s no doubting that four years later his second setting shows a far deeper response to Goethe’s lines – this time he sets the poem in full whereas in 1815 he set only 7 of the 9 stanzas. The melodic inspiration in this later setting is much more searching than Schubert had achieved in 1815 and Bostridge responds with an intense performance which makes a memorable and eloquent end to the programme. The long silence before applause breaks out speaks for itself.

There isn’t a song in this programme that is less than inspired and the same is true of the performances. Ian Bostridge is one of the most perceptive Schubert singers currently before the public and this insightful programme, magnificently executed, is a fine testimony to his empathy with Schubert’s Lieder. At all times Julius Drake’s playing of the piano parts is exemplary and just as satisfying to hear as is Bostridge’s singing.

The performances have been expertly recorded by Steve Portnoi. The booklet essay by Richard Stokes is authoritative.

They say all good things must come to an end and now, sadly, that’s true of this four-disc survey of Schubert Lieder from Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake. The series as a whole has been richly rewarding but with this distinguished recital I think that the best has been saved until last.

John Quinn

Wehmut D772 [2:40]
Der Zwerg D771 [5:13]
Nacht und Träume D827 [3:49]
Der Musensohn D764 [1:52]
An die Entfernte D765 [3:07]
Am Fluße D766 [1:32]
Willkommen und Abschied D767 [3:19]
Wandrers Nachtlied II D768 [2:21]
An die Leier D737 [4:41]
Am See D746 [1:46]
Im Haine D738 [2:21]
Erlkönig D328 [4:08]
An den Mond D259 [3:40]
Nähe des Geliebten D162 [2:49]
Nachtgesang D119 [2:22]
Liebhaber in allen Gestalten D558 [1:31]
Meeres Stille D216 [2:33]
Auf dem See D543 [3:10]
An Mignon D161 [2:17]
Erster Verlust D226 [1:51]
Ganymed D544 [4:04]
An den Mond D296 [5:36]



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