Winter Words, Op.52
I. My Beloved Is Mine, Op.40
II. Abraham and Isaac, Op.51
III. Still Falls the Rain, Op.55
IV. Journey of the Magi, Op.86
V. The Death of Saint Narcissus, Op.89
Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Bejun Mehta (countertenor)
Nathan Gunn (baritone)
David Jolley (horn)
Bridget Kibbey (harp)
Julius Drake (piano)
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 8 March, 2006
Venue: Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York City
In one of the highlights of the New York vocal recital season, Ian Bostridge launched his five-event Carnegie Hall “Perspectives” series with an all-Britten programme comprising “Winter Words” and the Canticles.Later in March, Bostridge will collaborate at Zankel Hall with Julius Drake and the Belcea Quartet for cycles by Fauré and Vaughan Williams, and with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s for music by Handel and Lutoslawski. The series will continue in May with a recital of Schubert and Beethoven lieder in Carnegie’s Stern Auditorium accompanied by Leif Ove Andsnes, and a Zankel Hall recital of Schumann duets and lieder with soprano Dorothea Röschmann and Drake.
Bostridge has established himself as a leading interpreter of the rich legacy of works written for Peter Pears. Happily, Bostridge’s interpretations are coloured by his own considerable musical intelligence and sensibilities; he never merely replicates Pears. The Britten songs presented in this programme are not only interesting musically, but also for their texts – Thomas Hardy in “Winter Words”, and Elizabethan poet Francis Quarles, Dame Edith Sitwell and T.S. Eliot in the Canticles – which are significant in their emotional and intellectual content. Bostridge brought his vocal talents and his scholarly bent to bear most effectively and affectingly on music and words alike; Drake’s expressive and sensitive playing made him an ideal partner.
Hardy’s “Winter Words” mixes themes of urban civilisation and nature, but always with a direct relevance to the human condition. In “Wagtail and Baby” a bird drinking from a stream is completely unruffled when a bull, a stallion and a mongrel ford the stream, but is terrified by the approach of a perfect gentleman, which sets a watching baby ‘a-thinking’. Bostridge, aided by Drake’s evocative playing, portrayed each of the animal creatures and conveyed the subtle but weighty message of the poem. Two of the songs involve young boys, one travelling third-class on the railroad and the other playing the violin at a railway station. Bostridge’s portrayals of both the traveller, in “Midnight on the Great Western”, and the fiddler, in “At the Railway Station, Upway”, emphasized the bleakness of their lives, but in the latter song also brought out the uplifting qualities of music, as the boy’s playing – mimicked by Drake’s piano line – induced a handcuffed convict to sing of ‘life so free’. The most gripping song of the cycle was “The Choirmaster’s Burial”, which Bostridge delivered dramatically, changing his vocal quality to portray several different voices and ranging from narrative recitative to ghostly hymn-singing.
Britten’s five Canticles were performed in succession, without interruption for applause, even though these pieces are not a single work, having been composed over a 27-year span and for varying combinations of musicians. Bostridge’s decision to present them in this manner created a reverential atmosphere quite appropriate to their subject matter. Britten, as he so often did, wrote these pieces for himself and his musician friends, with Pears being the common element in all five works and Britten as the piano accompanist in the first four canticles. In this concert, of course, those roles were superbly played by Bostridge and Drake. (The fifth Canticle has a harp accompaniment.)
After tenor and piano tenderly conveyed Quarles’s warm affirmation of the nature of love in the first Canticle, “My Beloved Is Mine”, the mood changed dramatically as the story of “Abraham and Isaac” was enacted. Countertenor Bejun Mehta (singing the part originally written for contralto Kathleen Ferrier) touchingly portrayed Isaac to Bostridge’s Abraham. Bostridge chose not to provide any special dramatic effects in the passages where the two singers join together as the voice of God. By way of contrast, when countertenor David Daniels and tenor Anthony Dean Griffey performed this work at Carnegie several years ago, the stage lights were dimmed during the ‘voice of God’ passages, and the singers faced away from the audience and sang into the open piano.
The third canticle, “Still Falls the Rain”, is a setting of Edith Sitwell’s poem, “The Raids, 1940. Night and Dawn”. Its repeated references to the falling rain serve as a metaphor for both the bombing of Britain during the Blitz and the spilling of Christ’s blood on the cross, thus analogizing Britain’s suffering to Christ’s agony. Bostridge’s performance was enormously moving, and David Jolley was also brilliant, making the horn as expressive as a second singer as he played the extensive obbligato part Britten wrote for Dennis Brain.
In the fourth Canticle, “The Journey of the Magi”, a T.S. Eliot poem with the theme of religious conversion, Bostridge was joined by Mehta and Nathan Gunn, who sang the parts originally written for James Bowman and John Shirley-Quirk, respectively. Britten’s strange dissonances and tonalities for the three voices and the irregular piano rhythms further Eliot’s portrayal of the Magi as real people who, reminiscing about their journey, recall the inconveniences – cold, filth and price-gouging among others – to which they were subjected, and finally realize that Christ’s birth meant the death of the beliefs on which their kingdoms, and their lives, had been based. Eliot’s portrayal of the Magus narrator should be understood as self-referential, as the poem was published just after the poet’s own conversion to Roman Catholicism.
The fifth and final Canticle, “The Death of Saint Narcissus”, was written in 1974, by which time Britten was no longer capable of playing the piano – thus the harp accompaniment originally written for Osian Ellis but beautifully played on this occasion by Bridget Kibbey. Although this Eliot poem is replete with weighty and complex images and themes, including martyrdom, masochism and auto-eroticism, Britten’s composition is, if anything, more straightforward and less convoluted than in the earlier Canticles. This, as well as the soothing sound of the harp, brought a calming finish to an emotionally charged performance.