“Figures from the Antique”, Wigmore Hall

One mild
criticism levelled at Bostridge in the past has been that his repertoire range
is rather limited, but this recital series is convincingly dispelling that
censure; here, an intriguing assemblage of chamber cantatas proved that he is
as comfortable, and accomplished, in styles as disparate as baroque
seria and French mÈlodie.

Bostridge was partnered by the Austrian soprano, Angelika Kirchschlager,
and, opening the recital with Handel’s O numi eterni, she
immediately established her striking dramatic presence, launching with
unrestrained emotional force into an anguished account of the rape and suicide
of Lucrezia. La Lucrezia is a truly ‘operatic’ work.
Except for the admixture of recitative and aria, it has very little resemblance
to the standard Baroque cantata; rather it is a complex scena in a multifaceted
and unique form. Such complexity is integral to the development of
Lucrezia’s agonising responses: pain, fury, doubt, resignation and
revenge. Kirchschlager maximised the transitions — often unpredictable
and unsettling — from recitative to aria, powerfully revealing the
volatility and extremity of Lucrezia’s emotional states. Histrionic
outbursts characterised by abrupt, jarring shifts of register were juxtaposed
with calmer episodes where a reflective ‘cello accompaniment (sensitively
played by Jonathan Manson of the English Concert) intimated the underlying
sadness beneath the outpourings of aggressive vengeance. With a wild energy,
Kirchschlager absolutely inhabited Lucrezia’s destabilised, damaged
psyche. Yet, while not lacking in dramatic impact, her projection of the text
was less impressive; and, it was a pity that her performance was so bound to
the score throughout.

In contrast, Bostridge’s rendering of Alessandro Scarlatti’s
Io son Neron, l’imperator del mondo was most definitely
‘off the book’. Bostridge’s unmannered delivery — and
the intermingling of flamboyant posturing and imperious flourishes with traces
of ironic insinuation — revealed a dramatic and emotional range far
beyond the internalised, tormented modes with which he established his
reputation. In the first aria, in which a supercilious Nero challenges even the
gods, Bostridge demonstrated both vocal strength and flexibility as he
arrogantly declared, “I want Jove to tremble before the magnificence of
my presence”. With fitting irony, the rejections of the notion of
compassion in the second aria draw forth the tenor’s most beautiful,
seductive tone. The recitatives conveyed the tempestuousness of the deluded,
unbalanced emperor, demonstrating his extreme cruelty and his delight in the
suffering and slaughter he causes. The last aria ‘Veder chi pena’ is set as a
tarantella, a southern Italian folk dance, and Bostridge enjoyed the paradox
that this light-hearted form is in fact the ultimate demonstration of Nero’s
malignity as he sings: “To watch those that suffer and sigh is my heart’s
desire, evil since birth.”

The ‘modern’ half of the recital began with Eric Satie’s little
known “La Mort de Socrate”, a quiet, reflective account of the
great Greek philosopher’s final moments before he is poisoned.
Impressively performing the ceaselessly unfolding declamation from memory,
Bostridge demonstrated his profound musical intelligence, appreciating both the
understated manner and charm of the early twentieth-century French idiom and
the underlying sincerity and affectivity of the sentiments expressed. With
poise and elegance he related the French text — fragments from
Plato’s Dialogues translated by Victor Cousin — his even
tone and graceful delivery unaffectedly revealing its simple poignancy.
Bostridge’s reading was sympathetically supported by some accomplished
playing by the Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon, who drew sharply
defined textures from his ensemble.

Kirchschlager closed the recital with an impassioned performance of Benjamin
Britten’s late masterwork, Phaedra, a ‘dramatic
cantata’ written for Janet Baker. In contrast to the tragic nobility with
which Baker reportedly imbued the role, Kirchschlager went for an unrelenting,
full-throttle approach; and while she undoubtedly conveyed the neuroses and
instability of Theseus’s unfaithful wife, by emphasising Phaedra’s
sexuality and fickleness she neglected the quieter, internalised guilt and
remorse that Britten’s music suggests. Certainly, in the ‘Presto to
Hippolytus’ Britten sets explicitly sexual imagery from Robert
Lowell’s translation of Racine: “Look, this monster ravenous/ For
her execution, will not flinch,/ I want your sword’s spasmodic final
inch.” And here Kirchschlager’s dazzling timbre together with
striking rhythmic incisiveness from the instrumentalists of the Aurora
Orchestra powerfully conveyed her adulterous lust and intimated her

But, Britten’s music is never frantic; the heights of Phaedra’s
obsession are depicted by a chilling passage for stratospheric strings
accompanied by untuned percussive strikes which suggest a pulsing, diminishing
heartbeat, both serenely beautiful and poignantly prophetic of her imminent
death. In the final ‘Adagio to Theseus’, Phaedra shows calm
acceptance of her fate — “A cold composure I have never know/ Gives
me a moment’s pause.” — her resignation underpinned by the
orchestra’s gradual modulation towards C Major harmony and
‘resolution’. Superb instrumental playing — cellist Oliver
Coates deserves especial mention — brought some emotional variety to the
performance, to counter Kirchschlager’s remarkable but unremitting

Claire Seymour


Handel: O numi eterni (La Lucrezia) HWV145

Corelli: La Follia for violin and string ensemble

Scarlatti: Io son Neron, l’imperator del mondo

Satie: “The Death of Socrates” from Socrate

Britten: Phaedra Op.93

image_description=The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David
product_title=“Figures from the Antique”
product_by=Angelika Kirchschlager, mezzo-soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor. Aurora Orchestra. Nicholas Collon, conductor. The English Concert. Laurence Cummings, director and, harpsichord. Nadja Zwiener, solo violin. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday, 20th February 2012.
product_id=Above: The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David