Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Wigmore Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

The Schubert songs posthumously, and relatively quickly, gathered together as Schwanengesang by a canny publisher have given us a third song-cycle, and the rest, for grateful Schubertians, is history. However, the fourteen settings do not form a dramatisable arc, as do Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, a point Ian Bostridge and Lars Vogt kept reminding me of. This was the first time I had heard Bostridge in recital for the best part of three years, and his voice has gathered in baritonal weight and colour, now perhaps rather at the expense of that lovely, unimpeded clarity at the centre of his tenor range, while his tapering of tone and the way his voice leans into a note, sometimes, in the slower numbers, to harmony-altering possibilities, are peerlessly expressive. On the other hand, his performance style steers, often too close for comfort, to a method-acting brand of histrionics. This is intense enough in, for example, the narrator’s disintegrating identity in Winterreise, but it is not such a good fit for the Schwanengesang settings of the poems by Rellstab, Heine and Seidl, which are more preoccupied with memory, untethered by the imagery of direction and destination.

Bostridge’s animated, reactive portrayals of anxiety and melancholy are generous and sincere, but they tend towards an all-purpose anguish that not only paints him into an emotional corner but also doesn’t always pick out the irony that threads through a lot of the songs. The first, ‘Liebesbotschaft’ (Love’s message) slipped easily into romantic agony, then further into existentialist total immersion in ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ (Warrior’s foreboding), and, three songs in, Bostridge started wrestling speed and smoothness of line against the rigours of more emphatic emoting, a lacerating honesty making both ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade) and ‘Aufenthalt’ (Resting place) bigger than they need be. ‘Der Atlas’ had Bostridge at his most convulsive, as well as being shockingly loud, and the fury continued into ‘Ihr Bild’ (Her likeness). If he had reined in showing his hand so consistently, the bleakness he evoked in ‘Der Doppelgänger’ (The wraith), in which the lover processes old but still potent memories of lost love, would have had much more grip; it did, though, fold brilliantly into a distracted and layered conclusion in ‘Die Taubenpost’ (Pigeon post).

The interval came after the seven Rellstab settings, the second half opening with Schubert’s earlier Einsamkeit (D620, 1818), a twenty-minute, multi-section Mayrhofer setting on the meaning of life, no less – the human spirit tempted away from meditative calm by conflicting desires for love, friendship, worldly success and glorious deeds, then, as an old man, back to nature and solitude at the close of play, a hyper-romantic scena Schubert regarded as his best work at the time. It’s a through-composed cycle, and while Bostridge’s brand of engagement didn’t hold back, it was the quieter, waltz-like passages, where his powers of vocal characterisation came to the fore, that stay in the mind. Einsamkeit is a work much loved by Vogt, in which this great musician balanced Bostridge’s explicit approach with beautifully judged subtlety, insight and back-up.

Vogt has been disarmingly frank about his recent cancer diagnosis, but his treatment doesn’t seem to have affected his mesmerising directness and astute artistry. His role at the piano both contained and explained Bostridge’s extremes, without going against him or retreating into neutrality. The wash of sound he drew in ‘Die Stadt’ was hair-raising, the elegant trot he established in ‘Abschied’ (Farewell) piled on the irony with admirable stealth, and everywhere his layerings of meaning and implication were masterly. There were two encores, Der Wanderer an den Mond, and Nacht und Träume.

This link., takes you to Peter Reed’s first-night review of ENO’s The Valkyrie