Mahler Lieder, Wigmore Hall

Mahler composed the deeply autobiographical poems of Lieder eines
fahrenden Gesellen
in the midst of a harrowing relationship with soprano
Johanna Richter, and Ian Bostridge adopted a persona of intense and at times
surprisingly assertive self-absorption, drawing us into the spurned
protagonist’s journey to despair and death. These songs contain surprising
contrasts – effervescent joy is supplanted by languid despondency, which in
turn may be superseded by a violent anger; and, such tensions were apparent
from the first, the fleeting springiness of Drake’s accompaniment
contradicting the earnest ardour and anger of Bostridge’s avowals, “Weine!
Wein’! Um meinen Schatz” (“I’ll weep, weep! For my love”), in the
opening song, ‘Wenn Mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’ (‘When my love has her
wedding-day’). Tempi and moods were exaggerated, and characteristically the
tenor’s expression closely followed the shades and nuances of the text, but
the result – emphasising the volatility of the poet-speaker’s emotions, and
the cruel precariousness of human experience – was never mannered.

In ‘Ging heut’ Morgen ¸ber’s Feld’ (‘I walked across the fields
this morning’), Drake’s staccato polyphonic pulse conjured a folk-like ease
and insouciance, but the poet’s fresh delight in the simple beauties of the
natural world was challenged by the surprisingly forceful assertion of
Bostridge’s question, “Wird’s nicht eine schˆne Welt?” (“Isn’t it
a lovely world?”). An almost bitter retort, this question transmuted to
become a tentative grasping for confirmation, “Ei, du! Gelt? Schˆne
Welt?”, Bostridge finding, throughout the recital, an extremely expansive
expressive palette. Drake’s terse postlude refused to indulge the
poet-speaker’s final poignant but self-regarding introspection.

A driving energy propelled ‘Ich hab’ ein gl¸hend Messer’ (‘I’ve a
gleaming knife’), Bostridge’s fevered opening cry almost literally slicing
through the air, culminating in a violent outburst, “Nimmer, halt er Ruh’,/
Nimmer halt er Rast!” (‘Never at rest,/ never at peace’), which mocked
the sentimentality of the close of the preceding song: “Mir nimmer, nimmer
bl¸hen kann!”

‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ (‘The two blue eyes’) was not overly
funereal in tempo to begin, but the swinging pendulum of Drake’s bass and the
discomforting alternations between major and minor modes became increasingly
foreboding. Describing his journey through the still night, across the dark
heath, Bostridge employed a rich and penetrating lower register, the clarity of
the melodic lines creating a narrative intensity which was enhanced by the
delicate countermelodies of the piano accompaniment. Yet more disturbing
juxtapositions concluded the cycle, the pained intensity of “Da wuflt’ ich
nicht, wie das Leben tut” (‘I was not aware of how life hurts”)
tentatively overturned by a delicate sweetness as “alles wieder gut!”
(“all was well once more”).

In the following five R¸ckert Lieder, Dorothea Rˆschmann took a
little time to settle; in general approach, she shared Bostridge’s intensity
but lacked some of the anguish. In ‘Blicker mir nicht in die Lieder’ (‘Do
not look into my songs!’) Drake summoned an unflagging mischievous energy,
culminating in an insouciant final gesture, but Rˆschmann did not fully or
convincingly inhabit the strong ‘I’ persona initiated here. A more
confident engagement with the text and a diversity of vocal colour marked
‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (‘I breathed a gentle fragrance’);
Drake’s light running accompaniment coupled with a far-reaching melodic vocal
line created a mellifluousness which affectingly contrasted with some unusual
harmonic progressions – the sharpness of the lime (‘der Linde’) beneath
the delicacy of the ‘gentle fragrance’ (‘linden Duft’), perhaps.

‘Um Mitternacht’ (‘At midnight’) found Rˆschmann more composed;
with well-centred and beautifully coloured tone, she shaped the modulations of
mood from bitter resignation, through despairing anger to spiritual
transcendence: “hab’ cih die Macht/ In deine Hand gegeben” (“I gave my
strength/ into Thy hands). Seeming to inhabit the persona of the poems with
ever more assurance and clarity of vision, Rˆschmann imbued the ecstatic,
floating lines of ‘Liebst du um Schˆntheit’ (‘If you love for beauty’)
with a warm, glistening shine, finding much emotional drama in the simple
lyric. In the concluding song, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I
am lost to the world, the soprano issued a supremely beautifully melodic
outpouring, culminating with a luminous translucence, complemented by Drake’s
rippling countermelodies, as the protagonist becomes at one with God: “Ich
bin gestorben dem Weltget¸mmel/ Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebeit” (“I am
dead to the world’s tumult/ and rest in a quiet realm”).

The second half of the recital was devoted to songs from Des Knaben
. Many of the folk verses collected, often from oral sources, by
Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano have an inherently dramatic character and,
cast as dialogue, they can be sung as duets, creating immediacy and impact. In
the opening ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’ (‘The Sentinel’s Night
Song’), Bostridge found himself in what was to become a recurring role of
soldier/prisoner; here, a sentry who is tempted from his duty by the alluring
song of a girl who appears to him in a vision. Drake’s strident energy
underpinned the tenor’s martial verses which contrasted effectively with
Rˆschmann’s softer episodes. Similarly, in ‘Trost im Ungl¸ck’
(‘Consolation in sorrow’) Bostridge’s Hussar resisted the enticements of
a young maiden, the piano’s sprightly rhythms conveying the soldier’s
buoyant attempts to convince himself that he can live without his love.
Rˆschmann’s dismissive denials of dependency grew to a thrillingly defiant
outburst: “Ich lieb dich nur aus Narretei;/ … Ohn dich kann ich wohl
sein.” (“I love you but from foolishness … I can exist without you.”)
Drake’s galloping conclusion carried forth into the start of the following
‘Lied des Verfolgten im Turm’ (‘Song of the prisoner in the tower’), an
impassioned duet between an imprisoned soldier and his lover, in which
Bostridge summoned both a proud swagger and a more honest mode of quiet
reflection: “Es beliebt dabei,/ Die Gedanken sind frei” (“So shall it
always be, thoughts are free”).

Rˆschmann was at her best in ‘Das irdische Leben’ (‘Life on
earth’), demonstrating moving expressive power, through voice and physical
gesture, as she solemnly communicated the grave tale of a starving child who
cries pitifully to his mother for bread, “or I shall die”; Drake’s hollow
piano figuration and low pianissimo left hand at the close piercingly captured
the poignancy of the final image: “Lag das Kin auf der Totenbahr” (‘the
child lay dead upon the bier’). But, the soprano showed a lighter spirit too,
relaxing warmly in the humorous ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’ (‘Who
made up this little song?), capturing the L‰ndler charm in
‘Rheinlegendchen’ (‘Little Rhine legend’), and enjoying the comic
gestures of the ironic ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’ (‘In praise of high
intellect), in which a donkey, judging a competition between a cuckoo an a
nightingale, becomes confused by the beauty of the latter’s song and lets out
a raucous “Ija! Ija!” (“Hee-haw!”.

In yet another military-themed song, ‘Revelge’, (‘Reveille’) Ian
Bostridge spun a gratifyingly focused, at times searing tale, wonderfully
embodying the drummer boy who sets out to battle and is wounded, must endure
while his agonies are ignored by his fellow soldiers, who then succumb while he
is unable to aid them. Accompanied by Drake’s stark, staccato octaves and
chilling, diabolic trills, Bostridge built from initial martial robustness to a
brutal climax, before a magical switch to a third-person narration describing
how the drummer boy will lead a funeral procession past the house of his
sweetheart; all the chaos and rage of war was unleashed in Drake’s dissonant
piano pedals, concluding a drama of almost operatic impact. In ‘Des Antonius
von Padua Fischpredigt!’ (‘Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes’),
by contrast, Bostridge adopted an ironically insouciant stance, his nonchalant
air enhanced by Drake’s tripping, chromatic streams. Then, in ‘Der
Tamboursg’sell’ (‘The drummer-boy’) the tenor found a strange optimism
– a lightning of tempo and timbre – in the moments before his execution,
creating an almost unbearable pathos before the veiled, sombre horror of the
conclusion: “Vor euch ich Urlaub nimm,/ Gute Nacht” (“I take my leave of
you,/ good night”). Drake’s rattling death trills underpinned possibly the
most affecting moment of the evening.

After the schmaltzy twists of ‘Verlone M¸h’ (‘Wasted effort’)
Rˆschmann and Bostridge brought the evening to a moving close with ‘Wo die
schˆnen Trompeten blasen’ (‘Where the splendid trumpets sound’), a
surprisingly tender duet between a maiden and her dead soldier-lover, which
faded into inevitable obscurity.

There was much to enjoy in this tightly planned Mahlerian sequence, but
guiding and shaping each miniature drama in a way which the individuality of
each song and produced a coherence whole was Julius Drake. The Wigmore Hall
audience are fortunate that they have two more opportunities to enjoy the
pianist’s intelligent artistry: on 1 June Drake performs with baritone
Christopher Maltman in songs by Eisler, and on 20 July he is joined by Sarah
Connolly and Fiona Shaw in a programme entitled, ‘A Music Of One’s Own:
From The Diary of Virginia Woolf’.

Claire Seymour


Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen: ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit
macht’, ‘Ging heut’ Morgen’, ‘Ich hab’ ein gl¸henden Messer’, ‘Die
zwei blauen Augen’; Five R¸ckert Lieder: ‘Blicke mir nicht in die
Lieder’, Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’, ‘Um Mitternacht’, ‘Liebst du
um Schˆnheit’, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’; Lieder from Des
Knaben Wunderhorn: ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’, ‘Des Antonius von Padua
Fischpredigt’, ‘Das irdische Leben’, ‘Trost im Ungl¸ck’, ‘Lied des
Verfolgten im Turm’, ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht’, ‘Revelge’,
‘Rheinlegendchen’, ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’, ‘Verlorne M¸h’,
‘Der Tamboursg’sell’, ‘Wo die schˆnen Trompeten blasen’.

image_description=Gustav Mahler c. 1907 [Color enhanced photo by Armando Bravi courtesy of International Gustav Mahler Society]
product_title=Mahler: Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen; Five R¸ckert Lieder; Lieder from
Des Knaben Wunderhorn
product_by=Dorothea Rˆschmann, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Julius Drake piano.
Wigmore Hall, London, Sunday 7th April 2013.
product_id=Above: Gustav Mahler c. 1907 [Color enhanced photo by Armando Bravi courtesy of International Gustav Mahler Society]