The Bostridge Project: ‘Ancient and Modern’

We began with the master lutenist, John Dowland, whose distinctive blend of
poem, melody and harmony was exquisitely celebrated in a sequence of ensembles,
solo songs and lute dances. After a lively, euphonious opening — the trio
‘When Phoebus first did Daphne love’, in which the voices swelled
and declaimed in joyful harmony — Ian Bostridge established a more
intimate air, with ‘Daphne was not so chaste’. Seated, Bostridge
struck a relaxed pose; the improvisatory flourishes and sense of spontaneous
melodic growth reminding us that these songs would have been sung in intimate,
domestic settings by whichever forces were to hand. Elizabeth Kenny’s
lute was no mere substitute for voices, but an instrument in subtle dialogue
with the melody, and providing telling harmonic nuance. Mark Stone’s
rendering of the renowned ‘In darkness let me dwell’ seemed, in
contrast, overly mannered and theatrical. The limited melodic range of these
songs naturally highlights the centrality of the text and there is no need for
the singer to excessively dramatise the words; indeed, to do so risks
destroying the very simplicity and fluidity of line which encapsulates the
understated sorrow — one merely needs to take each phrase as it comes.

The trio ‘Come again, sweet love doth now invite’ achieved a
madrigalian lightness of spirit, with yearning intensity escalating through the
breathy line, “To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss, to die”, the
Elizabethan euphemism beautifully coloured by Daneman. Here Stone provided
solid foundations for the subtle textual nuances of the upper voices. Daneman
revealed a rich lower register in ‘Flow my tears’, her eloquent
phrases decorated with sensitive cadential elaborations by the lute. The three
voices came together once more for ‘White as lilies was her face’,
rhythmic vigour — when reflecting on the power of a woman’s wooing
to undo the male — contrasting with a more subdued depiction of loss, and
climaxing with an intricately assertive declared intent to “banish love
with forward scorn”. Interspersed between these songs were two pieces for
solo lute, the aptly titled ‘Semper Dowland simper dolens’ and
‘Mignarda’, in which Kenny relished the freedom of form and
adventurous tonal palette.

Philip Heseltine, who assumed the name Peter Warlock (reflecting his
interest in the occult), was deeply influenced by his Elizabethan predecessors
and conducted much research into the idiom which had a marked effect on his own
musical style. Six of his ‘Elizabeth songs arranged for voice and string
quartet’ revealed a plaintive sound world; the Heath Quartet’s
restrained, almost imperceptive vibrato recreated the undemonstrative yet
acutely affecting timbre of the viol consort, the closely nestling voices
further deepening the mood of concentration. In ‘Born is the Babe’
deft counterpoint between the imitative instrumental entries supported a
sincere rendering of the text by Mark Stone; in particular, a tender cadence
emphasised the solace of Christian faith: “The haven of peace when
worldly troubles toss/ Who cur’d our care by suff’ring on the

‘O Death, rock me asleep’ was more Stygian in mood, plangent
suspensions complementing the dark richness of Bostridge’s lower register
as he called for death to “rock me asleep,/ Bring me to quiet
rest”. In contrast, Daneman soared with piercing clarity above the dense
string texture in ‘Abrahad’, recognising her husband’s death
— “Alas, alas, alas, alas, lo, this is he!” — before
calling dramatically for death to embrace her too, in elaborate echoes between
voice and strings in dynamic variation. Maytime celebrations brought more
joviality to the end of the first part of the programme, Stone’s
declamatory bon esprit in ‘When May is in his prime’,
being followed by Bostridge’s sweet delight in the through-sung,
‘No more, good herdsman, of thy song’. Bostridge’s ability to
subtly colour an individual word, assimilating detail and overall meaning, was
evident in the forward momentum he brought to repetitions in the song’s
conclusion: “Your pipes to me but harsh do sound/ Wherein such sweetness
erst I found/ Well may the nymph then ever fare,/ For she, for she, for she is
she without compare.” The vigorous string lines underlining
Daneman’s “chirping notes” in ‘In a merry may
morn’ brought the first half to a joyful end.

Warlock dexterously imitates Elizabethan counterpoint and textures in many
of his own songs, such as ‘Sleep’, where meandering vocal and piano
lines climax in cadential flourishes of a distinctly Tudor flavour. Pianist
Julius Drake enjoyed the gradual enriching of harmonic vocabulary in the second
stanza, and in the piano postlude tenderly recalled the falling fifth of the
opening vocal phrase, “Come, sleep”. In ‘Rest, sweet
nymphs’ Bostridge achieved a remarkable gentility of tone, the dulcet
softness gradually expanding through the vocal rise, “Lullaby, lullaby,/
Hath eas’d you and pleas’d you,”; typically
Bostridge pointed the rhyme before subsiding to a surprisingly quiet sweetness
in the concluding line: “And sweet slumber seized you,/ And now
to bed I hie.” Drake’s rocking dissonances in ‘Cradle
Song’ gradually became an unsettling chromatic bed above which Daneman
soared expansively to reassure that “Thy nurse will tend thee as duly as
may be”. The syncopated rhythms and off-beat accents of ‘Jillian of
Berry’ allowed Stone to indulge in more light-hearted sentiments.

Though similarly taking his inspiration from the Elizabethan, Ivor Gurney
gives voice to a more restless, modernistic yearning, and Drake profitably
explored the doubts and fears conveyed in the shifting, exploratory
accompaniments and postludes to the songs presented here. In ‘Even such
is time’ the imminence of death was conveyed by the low piano chords
which begin the song, and the desperate hope, “My God shall raise me up,
I trust” (Stone), with its ringing piano octaves was unsettled by the
searching postlude. Drake conjured a rippling lute texture in ‘Orpheus
with his lute’ (Daneman), and a sprite-like effervescence in the impish
counterpoint of ‘Under the greenwood tree’ (Stone). In ‘Brown
is my love’ Stone’s honeyed tone and arching phrases aptly captured
the lover’s rapture. The concluding Gurney song, the well-known
‘Sleep’, provided a striking contrast to the preceding setting by
Warlock: Daneman’s soaring melodic lines struck just the right balance
between anxious restlessness and musical completeness.

The recital concluded with a profoundly moving performance of
Warlock’s The Curlew. The instrumental interludes were
astonishing affecting: the colourings of Daniel’s rich cor anglais and
Davies’ pure flute timbre were exquisitely beautiful; the individual
members of the Heath Quartet expertly articulating their solo melodic
fragments; and the various strands formed a dialogue of bitter-sweet elegance.
Bostridge’s innate feeling for the text was evident throughout, but most
powerfully felt in ‘The withering of the boughs’, with the
repetition of the refrain — “No boughs have withered because of the
wintry wind;/ The boughs have withered because I have told them my
dreams” — achieving first a mysterious magic and then, when spoken,
a more disillusioned stoicism. Through ‘He hears the cry of the
sedge’, an almost unbearable intensity amassed, with chromatic clusters
underpinning instrumental fragments, and the voice rising achingly as, in a
Yeatsian vision of apocalypse, the axle breaks and stars “hurl in the
deep/ The banners of East and West”; eventually the voice slipped into
resigned release, as the low tenor proclaimed: “And the girdle of light
is unbound,/ Your breast will not lie by the breast/ Of your beloved in
sleep.” The height of anguish, perhaps, but also heart-breakingly

Claire Seymour

image_description=Ian Bostridge [Photo by David Thompson courtesy of Askonas Holt]
product_title=Song Recital Series: The Bostridge Project: ‘Ancient and Modern’
product_by=Sophie Daneman, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Mark Stone, baritone. Philippa Davies, flute; Nicholas Daniel, cor anglais; Elizabeth Kenny, lute; Julius Drake, piano. Heath Quartet: Oliver Heath, violin; Cerys Jones, violin; Gary Pomeroy, viola; Christopher Murray, cello. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday, 21st December 2011.
product_id=Above: Ian Bostridge [Photo by David Thompson courtesy of Askonas Holt]