Ian Bostridge & Julius Drake

Im Frühling, D882
Über Wildermann, D884
Der liebliche Stern, D861
Tiefes Leid, D876
Auf der Brücke, D853
Aus ‘Heliopolis’ I, D753
Aus ‘Heliopolis’ II, D754
Abendbilder, D650
Ins stille Land, D403
Totensgräbers Heimweh, D842
Auf der Riesenkoppe, D611
Sei mie gegrüßt, D741
Daß sie hier gewesen, D775
Die Forelle, D550
Des Fischers Liebesglück, D933
Fischerweise, D881
Atys, D585
Nachtviolen, D752
Geheimnis, D491
Im Walde (Waldesnacht), D708

Ian Bostridge (tenor) &
Julius Drake (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 28 November, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

No instrument causes more disagreement than the human voice; that disagreement grows when a voice and its owner’s stage-persona are as distinctive as Ian Bostridge. Now 33, Ian Bostridge is in great demand, and his recordings to date include several discs of Schubert. His voice has grown in power over the years without losing those peculiarly British plaintive, nasal and monochrome qualities, and a tight vibrato. And he certainly looks distinctive; a friend of mine likened him to a cadaver, which is slightly unfair, but one senses that he does play on his height and chiselled bone structure by wearing a dinner suit that is too tight for him. He also moves around a lot, which can be highly distracting.

Nevertheless, having heard an interesting – if ultimately unsatisfactory – “Winterreise” from him at the Wigmore Hall a couple of years ago, I hoped that this recital would be challenging. It certainly was. To begin with the negatives, the first item, “Im Frühling” was too slow to allow any sense of breeze, walking or a flowing stream to register, and in the final stanza the phrasing sounded affected, while “Über Wildemann” suffered from a lack of attack from both artists; at “O Liebe, Liebe” the voice failed to convey ecstasy. In “Der lieblichte Stern”, the second stanza needed a greater range of tonal colouring; again, the final stanza sounded affected. In “Auf der Brücke” the opening phrases were flat, the galloping hooves only hinted at; this lack of rhythmic, dynamic and tonal variety would seriously affect many of the songs. Several other problems also became apparent as the evening progressed. If the first song was too slow then so was “Sei mir gegrüßt”, which meant that the joyous but gentle expectancy was missing; the eponymous trout hardly darted around, while “Nachtviolen” was so slow that the green leaves of the second stanza brought morbidity rather than cheer.

Bostridge also uses his voice in ways that can come perilously close to mannerism. On numerous occasions there were self-conscious dynamic variations, tonal bulges, a tendency to leap on a note. He would also smooth out the melodic line and extend note values in cadences. Then there is the aforementioned affectation. In the first few songs an air of petulance and self-pity crept into Bostridge’s approach; elsewhere the accent sounded arch, so that one came away from a song remembering mannerisms rather than messages. And the stage movements! I have no problem with moving around to heighten expression, but for some reason Bostridge would sometimes stand with his left hand in his pocket (shades of Bertie Wooster!) and during the piano postlude to “Atys” he turned his back to the audience and peered into the piano. Tonally, the bottom-half octave of the voice is far darker than the rest and almost seems to come from a different person. As for Julius Drake, he was too self-effacing and demure, doing a very pre-1970s accompanist routine where the pianist always defers to the singer.

Having said all this, there were elements of the recital that were memorable. Firstly, Bostridge does have charisma and presence; he can command a hall and its audience. Secondly, while “Sei mir gegrüßt” was slow, it succeeded through Bostridge’s intensity and sheer beauty of tone. In the last stanza the effect was hypnotic. In points of “Nachtviolen”, I was reminded of the young Karl Erb – one of the great Lieder singers – and the ppp final line was exquisite. The opening of “Im Walde” was under-powered but the sense of projection and concentrated tone in the fourth stanza was exemplary and the first line of the last verse of “Atys” had clarity and lightness. Two encores came in the forms of “Heidenröslein” (D257/2) and “Abschied” (D475); the first was once again slow and laboured, the second slow but made compelling by a beautifully sustained and controlled pianissimo legato line.

In many ways, then, a frustrating recital. If Bostridge could only stop being so self-conscious and concentrate on interpretation, then he could become a great Lieder singer!

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