Ian Bostridge, Wigmore Hall

But despite the promise of the text, and the rapt lyricism of
Tippett’s arrangement of Henry Purcell’s compelling air, the
evening’s intriguing sequence of songs in the English language seemed, on
the contrary, to demonstrate music’s power to dramatise the darkest,
despairing aspect of human life.

Indeed, much of the selected repertoire drew upon the shadier regions of the
low tenor register, and it was interesting to hear Bostridge calling on a
grainier, rougher-hued tone at times. The contrast between weighty lows and
bright high phrases emphasised the sudden changes of mood in Tippett’s
setting. The intricate interplay and imitation between voice and accompaniment
was sensitively delivered, suspensions subtly emphasised by Drake, scalic
passages flowing smoothly.

Even in this opening song Bostridge’s delivery and physical manner
conveyed dramatic tension and angst which, as the recital proceeded, rose at
times to a quite disturbing intensity. Always fully committed —
musically, dramatically and physically — here one feared for his
well-being! With frowns and contortions, he tensed his body, twisted and almost
stumbled across the stage, gripping the piano as if quite literally in need of
physical support.

Such mannerisms aptly matched the astounding rhetorical force of
Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s ‘The Queen’s
Epicedium’. Just two days previously, the Wigmore Hall audience had been
stirred by James Bowman’s moving rendition of Purcell’s original
elegy. Britten’s setting is much more overtly theatrical and pained. The
emotional range is vast, and calls for a far wider array of vividly expressive
gestures, from the melismatic flourish of the opening challenge, “do you
require a song?”, to the gentle dotted rhythms of the image of quiet
pastoral mourning — “See, see how ev’ry nymph and swain/ hand
down their pensive heads” — to almost hysterical cry of desolation,
“The Queen! the Queen of Arcadie is gone!”, enhanced by piquant
switches between major and minor. Bostridge emphasised the physical effort
required to express such sorrow, seeming at times to have to force the words
from his body, while Drake flamboyantly offered a glimpse of the eternal in the
song’s astonishing final cadence: “her star is fixt, and shines
beyond the skies.”

The poems by William Soutar which form Britten’s last song cycle,
Who are these Children? recall the fierce juxtapositions of violence
and innocence found in William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and
Experience’. However, the four songs chosen by Bostridge and Drake focus
not on the purity of the child’s word, but rather expose the transience
of childhood tranquillity and joy as the purity of youth, and youthful
imagination, is corrupted by an unforgiving adult world. The spare linearity of
much of the writing, coupled with surprising muscular rhythms, reminds us of
the composer’s interest in Purcell’s approach to word-setting.
Drake discerned much meaning in the harmonic subtleties and melodic nuances,
from the eerie right hand line of the first song, ‘Nightmare’, to
the ambiguous close of ‘Slaughter’: “The phantoms of the dead
remain/ And from our faces show.” Elsewhere he evoked a terrifying and
unstoppable force as, relentlessly, “Death rides upon an iron beast/ And
tramples cities down”. Bostridge’s bitter rage in ‘Who are
these Children?’ where “A wound which everywhere/ Corrupts the
hearts of men: The blood of children corrupts the hearts of men” was
frightening in its intensity, made sharper still by the deafening silence which
followed. In this song, which depicts children watching a gentrified fox hunt,
Britten’s ability to conjure a precisely drawn world through musical
means was powerfully demonstrated, the staggering rhythms recalling the
syncopated lurchings of Tarquinius’ night-time ride to the home of the
virtuous Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia.

The following Whitman settings by Kurt Weill did little to dismiss the
lingering sense that “The earth is darkened with a darkening
stain”. Although there is much irony in Weill’s use of jazz idioms
and pastiche, it is a black humour — the cynical wryness found in
Britten’s own Cabaret Songs — and Bostridge and Drake
conveyed the incongruity between style and sentiment perfectly through their
control of rubato and dynamics in the lament, ‘Oh Captain! My
Captain!’ There was some relief, however, in the tender ache of the
closing lines of ‘Come up from the fields Father’ — in which
a mother receives news of her son’s death in battle — and the warm
opening of ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’, as the last rays of sun and
hours of summer pass to silvery autumnal evening.

In the first half, the titles of Haydn’s ‘Five English
Canzonettas’ seemed to promise some lightening of heart, but the gloom
was only partially allayed, for after the rollicking ‘Sailor’s
song’, a boisterous glorification of the British navy , the Shakespearean
text of ‘She never told her love’ returned us more to a mood of
wounded renunciation, most poignantly conveyed by Drake’s expressive
introduction and postlude. ‘The wanderer’, in both text and idiom,
is the closest of these songs to the spirit of Schubert’s lieder, and it
is not surprising that this drew the most affecting performance from Bostridge.
But, it was J.S. Bach’s ‘Five Spiritual Songs’ which
presented the most consoling moments of the evening, for even though they speak
of death, it is the eternal peace of the Christian soul which is portrayed not
the throbbing agony of human loss.

‘Come soothing death, come sweet repose’ Bach declares: a major
key cadence concludes this song as the poet’s “eyelids close, come
sweet repose!”, both confirming Bach’s own faith and reassuring the
listener of the possibility of transcendence. However, while Bostridge and
Drake certainly convinced the audience that music has remarkable expressive
potential, there were few demonstrations of its power to beguile human woes and
terrors on this occasion.

Claire Seymour


Purcell/Tippett: Music for a while
Bach/Britten: Five Spiritual Songs
Haydn: Content; Sailor’s song; She never told her love; The wanderer;
Purcell/Britten: The Queen’s Epicedium
Britten: From Who are these Children? Op. 84; Nightmare; Slaughter; Who are
these Children?; The Children
Weill: Beat! Beat! Drums!; O captain! My captain!; Come up from the fields,
father; Dirge for two veterans

image_description=Ian Bostridge [Photo by Ben Ealovega]
product_title=Ian Bostridge, Wigmore Hall
product_by=Ian Bostridge, tenor; Julius Drake. piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 23rd May 2011.
product_id=Above: Ian Bostridge [Photo by Ben Ealovega]