Winter Words, Op.52
Michelangelo Sonnets, Op.22
Six Hölderlin Fragments, Op.61
Who are these Children?, Op.84 [selections – III: Nightmare; VI: Slaughter; IX: Who are these Children?; XI: The Children]
Songs from the Chinese, Op.58
Ian Bostridge (tenor) with Sir Antonio Pappano (piano) & Xuefei Yang (guitar)
Recorded 25-27 January 2013 at St Mary’s Church, Chilham, Kent, except Opus 58, which was recorded on 31 January 2013 in No.2 Studio, Abbey Road, London
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: August 2013
CD No: EMI CLASSICS 4 33430 2
Duration: 70 minutes
It is a measure of how economical Benjamin Britten was in his song-writing that Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano are able to squeeze almost three-and-half cycles onto this disc. Vocal music forms a substantial part of Britten’s oeuvre, and his settings of poetic texts for solo voice and accompanying instruments surely rank among his most lasting achievements. Their wide range of poet, of language and of style is itself impressive and is represented on this release.
Britten was motivated to select particular authors and texts as the basis for song-writing by such things as the affinity he felt with the poet or his situation (the Michelangelo Sonnets are the product of same-sex love), shared ideals such as Soutar’s pacifism, or the thematic alignment of the poetry with his own preoccupations, of which there are many examples here. And, from his meeting with the tenor Peter Pears, he sought and frequently found opportunities to compose for that singer’s unique voice.
Ian Bostridge divides opinion among vocal enthusiasts almost as much as Pears did and does. Detractors often have a visceral dislike of the sound itself: what one listener describes as plaintive another hears as bleating. Another line of Bostridge’s opponents is to disparage what they regard as affectation in the style. One consensus in both camps is that the voice is the nearest in quality to Pears of contemporary tenors. Would Britten have approved? A futile question, though his well-documented dislike of Jon Vickers’s interpretation of Peter Grimes suggests that he might have preferred a voice more akin to Pears’s in the songs too.
Winter Words leads-off the programme. This is not a cycle, with individual songs inter-related, rather there is a repeated theme of consciousness and the passage of time, sometimes at the centre of a song, at others more peripheral, with many opportunities for characters and background to be coloured in. Bostridge’s and Pappano’s interpretation misses few tricks. In the opening setting the background of the November day is very stormy, with both artists suggesting that the narrator is off to a nervy start, though everything settles down by the end of the second verse. In ‘Midnight on the Great Western’ the first two verses are treated as simple narrative, with Pappano providing the sound-effects of the train whistle, the train itself shuddering off from a standing start and reaching a regular rhythm. Then the two artists, having noticed that in the third verse the train is no longer the centre of attention, with only echoes of these sounds, give them less prominence, and the singer turns to the mystery of the boy’s origins, the purpose of his journey and a reference to the theme of innocence, a common Britten preoccupation. In ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’ we hear the voice of the pompous vicar: as well as the singer’s parodying of his voice, Pappano emphasises the left-hand accompaniment to make it sound as if the clergyman is rolling drunkenly from side to side. Then he brings out the isolated notes in the right hand to suggest the ghostly vision of the funeral procession floating through the graveyard. There is plenty of word-painting in the ‘nature’ songs, too. In ‘Wagtail and Baby’ Bostridge mimics sounds in the text (“a blaring bull” and “a stallion splashed”). In ‘Proud Songsters’ the accompanist portrays the loud chorus of birds.
Bostridge has recently had competition in this cycle from the American tenor Nicholas Phan (on Avie). Though the latter has a less idiosyncratic voice he does markedly less colouring of words and Bostridge seems to me to get to the heart of these songs and to respond to the cues which the composer has written into the score. Phan has a more operatic voice, however, and he narrows the gap between them in the Michelangelo Sonnets which also appear on his release. He has a Mozartean tenor with a brightness to it which comes to the fore in the extrovert emotional atmosphere of this, the first cycle Britten wrote for Pears. Phan is recorded in a more reverberant acoustic. He attacks the Italian text in a way he does not venture in the English of the Thomas Hardy-inspired songs and is throughout wholehearted in the declarations of the lover. He does tend to snatch too eagerly at forte markings and some unsteadiness appears, as in ‘Sonnet LV’ at the point where the main melodic figure is repeated in augmentation.
Bostridge is less comfortable at high volume, and a hint of a whine enters his tone around the top of the stave, which is where Britten has concentrated much of his writing to suit Pears’s voice, such as in the opening line of each verse in the concluding ‘Sonnet XXIV’. The Sonnets have an overall mood of uncertainty: misgivings about love. Bostridge gives an impression of nerviness for much of the time; in ‘Sonnets LV and XXXVIII’ it is Pappano with his disturbing, repeated rhythmic figures who sets the tone. The words are articulated with precision, as always with Bostridge, and the voice is skilled enough to handle the fast pace set by his partner in ‘Sonnet XXXIV’.
A third version, recorded for Wigmore Hall Live in 2010 in a mixed recital by Matthew Polenzani, a genuine lyric tenor, takes the dramatic impulse even further than either Phan or Bostridge. He makes much of the contrasts, including in ‘Sonnet XVI’ that between the rhetorical opening and the soft address to his beloved. The restoration of ff in the final line, however, is evidence of a tendency to over-dramatise. However, Bostridge has an admirable mixture of literary sensitivity and scrupulousness, which pays dividends in this work. He is at his vocal best in the glorious ‘Sonnet XX’, where his velvety tone set against the bed of plush chords from the piano could hardly be bettered. This is very much the complete version of the work.
The other collections of songs are less frequently performed but are still essential Britten. The composer clearly found plenty to identify with in the poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, and the setting of six fragments from that author’s work centres around themes such as male beauty, regret over the passing of time, and the loss of innocence, here mostly in the context of classical mythology. This is the most subjective poetry whose appeal to the composer is understandable. He clothes several of these epigrammatic fragments in lyrical beauty: Bostridge produces a particularly resplendent head voice in ‘Sokrates und Alcibiades’. His musicianship is tested In ‘Hälfte des Lebens’ which takes the singer hesitantly down the chromatic scale. Pappano has his moments, too: chirpy in ‘Die Jugend’, in ‘Die Heimat’ he portrays the fishing boat returning in tranquillity to port, which provides the stimulus for the poet to lament the contrast with his own condition, increasingly anxious over his advancing age.
Songs from the Chinese was written for Pears to sing to Julian Bream’s accompaniment on guitar. I do not find them very inspiring, but there is no denying the commitment with which Bostridge performs the vocal part. The texts are largely enigmatic, and the tone of the poems is consistently negative, ‘Depression’ being particularly bleak. Even those with up-beat rhythms contain discouraging messages, while the descriptive ‘The Herd-Boy’ portrays no rural idyll but a harsh struggle in adverse conditions. ‘The Old Lute’ decries that instrument as being outdated, presumably an in-joke for Bream. The playing by Xuefei Yang is crisp and sensitive; voice and instrument are well balanced.
Britten’s penultimate work for voice and piano, Who are these children?, from 1969, is here excerpted to concentrate on the four songs specifically about the subjects. These settings of the Scottish poet William Soutar’s virulently anti-war poems are written in a wholly uncompromising idiom; reflecting the feeling of futility and cynicism in Soutar’s words, the voice pursues a shapeless line with anguished emphases. In the setting of the titular poem, in which children observe familiar sights of normality, unable to comprehend the association between them and the horrors of war, Bostridge underlines the irony with mordent verbal inflection. ‘The Children’ is even more devastating. It is a protest against the deaths of children in air attacks. No lyricism here but enough evidence to suggest that Bostridge could be as good a reciter of poetry as he is a singer.
This recital is a very valuable contribution to this Britten anniversary year (and beyond it) by one of his most thoughtful interpreters. He could do no better than have the support he receives from his admirable partners and is also given a consistently fine recording. The booklet includes texts and translations.