Widerschein, D949; Der Winterabend D938; Die Sterne D939
Schwanengesang, D957 [Texts by Ludwig Rellstab:Liebesbotschaft; Kriegers Ahnung; Frühlings-Sehnsucht; Ständchen; Aufenthalt; In der Ferne; Abschied
Texts by Heinrich Heine: Der Atlas; Ihr Bild; Das Fischermädchen; Die Stadt; Am Meer; Der Doppelgänger]
Ian Bostridge (tenor) & Antonio Pappano (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: 31 May, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
This latest attempt at Wigmore Hall to position the posthumously-created Schubert ‘cycle’ in a recital programme here involved preceding it with three songs written or re-written in Schubert’s last year. This seemed on the surface to provide no more than a chronological unity without homogeneity of style or mood but that was belied by a highly interventionist interpretation.
The contrasts between Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano in size and musical background promised an interesting evening in this repeat performance of the recital first given two days before. As it turned out, Pappano gave us a conventional performance of the piano part in the best sense, one very much faithful to the score, while his partner imposed on much of the music a style which was surely foreign to the composer and an interpretation very much of his own invention.
The additional songs with which the recital began set the tone for Bostridge’s approach: technically marked by an avoidance of full voice, the tone nearly always covered, with stylistically a preference for dry recitation rather than lyricism. The tone in “Widerschein” remained largely trapped in the throat, freed only in the very last line. There was much exaggerated crescendoing, with splodges of sound emerging in a thoroughly mannered way. This neglected song describes a narrative of waiting and stealthy arrival but the only events which registered in Bostridge’s reading were vocal ones. The charm of the song was smothered. The warm mood of nostalgia which should dominate “Der Winterabend” was present, largely thanks to Pappano, whose sensitive diminuendo leading to the change of key at “Wie tut mir so wohl der selige Frieden” was nicely judged, as were the little bubbles in the accompaniment which follows. With Bostridge one was again conscious of the lack of a true legato being applied to the musical line. In “Die Sterne” Karl Leitner writes a tribute to the stars as benevolent messengers, observers and guardians. Bostridge seemed to seek a less naïve subtext to Schubert’s setting, to compensate for the apparently unadventurous dactylic rhythm which tolls incessantly throughout. His address to the stars was clipped, aggressive, devoid of appreciation, on the verge of disdain.When the singer moistened his throat with water before continuing; I wondered if he felt uneasy with his vocal health. The admission of some latecomers at this point was no doubt frustrating. There did seem to be a natural hiatus there but the management was faced with a tricky decision, given that the artists remained on the platform.
The intuitive view of the two main poetic groups of “Schwanengesang” is that the Rellstab poems are lighter, lyrical, romantic, the Heine poems dark, horrific, relentless in their pessimism. There are obvious exceptions in the former: ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ is about death on the battlefield, ‘In der Ferne’ bemoans the fate of the fugitive, ‘Aufenthalt’ the enduring nature of suffering. Bostridge and Pappano differed little from conventional interpretation in their treatment of these three songs. If anything they devoted an extra attention to detail to ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ which illuminated the hidden corners of the song, especially in bringing out the ambiguity of the warrior’s prediction “Bald ruh’ich wohl und schlafe fest”, which could refer to reunion or death.
Bostridge spat out ‘Aufenthalt’ like the nastiest of operatic villains, Alberich without the kindliness. He made much of the consonants in the gerunds of ‘In der Ferne’, the pain inescapable because of the structure of a poem which repeats the same rhythmic figure all the way through. ‘Herze, das sehnende’ offered no hope as the low melody dragged him into the depths of despair, only intensified by the futile dream which offers an illusion of escape.
There is also a case for treating ‘Ständchen’ as something darker than the thing of beauty it appears to be superficially. Bostridge went much further than I had previously experienced, drawing as much pessimism from this song as he did from ‘In der Ferne’. This serenadee was always going to ignore his song and he despised her for it. The role of nightingales was emphasised. As Richard Stokes pointed out in an enlightening programme note which stressed the dark potential of the songs and was in keeping with Bostridge’s interpretation, they traditionally sing of unhappy love. ‘Kennen Liebeschmerz’ was delivered with a sneer, the final up-tempo stanza uttered not with hope of fulfilment but though gritted teeth. In ‘Frühlings-Sehnsucht’ the emphasis was on the frustration of the beloved’s failure to respond to all the positive signs in nature. There was no rejoicing in nature here: the singer’s tone was hard, his momentum exceptionally fast and hectic. His perspective became accusatory as the song went on; he seemed almost driven mad by frustration and the pianist joined in the attack in the last verse.
There was a danger that after packing so much negative emotion into the Rellstab songs the tenor in particular would be spent before the Heine group. But Bostridge’s slim build conceals plenty of stamina and one of his greatest attributes is the ability to create clearly-defined characters in song. His Atlas gave the piano a run for its money; his reaction to his fate scornful defiance. With ‘Ihr Bild’ came the equivalent of the Rellstab Serenade, with the sincerity of the beloved uncertain (her Wehmutstränen are only a supposition). He made relatively little of the smile which breaks over the face on the picture. The voice was held back to a whisper, until the blossoming into full voice for the concluding couplet. Of his own sense of loss he could at least be certain. In addressing the fisher-girl he played not a suitor but a teacher, leaning over the lid of the piano as if giving a lecture. I have rarely heard a ‘Die Stadt’ as macabre or disturbing, the strokes of the oarsman punched out sharply, contrary to the tranquil regularity implied in the poem; this resembled nothing as much as Peter Grimes in his mad scene.
‘Am Meer’ acted as a bridge, joined without a break to its predecessor and to the other crazed hallucination in this interpretation, ‘Der Doppelgänger’. What tension there was at the first glimpse of the wraith, how piercing the first fff on “Schmerzensgewalt”, how startling the next on the accented syllable of “Gestalt”. The last stanza of Heine’s poem may be about the past but this was agony now. Bostridge’s idiosyncratic approach was partly disturbing, though wholly fascinating. Since he expresses himself so much through posture and movement it was difficult to take one’s eyes of him. No performance of his is routine but sometimes, as on this occasion, he teeters on the edge of perversity.
The programme listed only the Heine and Rellstab settings; no ‘pigeon post’ and no encore, we thought, but the artists returned to the platform to perform ‘Die Taubenpost’, a neat way of detaching this ill-fitting piece from its artificial connection with the two greater collections. Lightening the members of audience’s mood on their homeward journey without being accused of bathos was also doubtless in mind.