Schubert: The Complete Songs

The songs were grouped by poet, and we began with settings of six poems
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe — a poet who preferred composers to
take a direct approach to setting his poems: that is, to retain the
structure of his texts and avoid overly fancy and heavy piano

Schubert often treats his poets’ work with much greater freedom,
digression and complexity than Goethe desired, but the single-strophe songs
offered here revealed the composer’s ability to turn these brief
texts into spell-binding musical miniatures. Johnson’s chords rippled
gently at the start of ‘Meeres Stille’ (Calm sea), delicately
supporting the carefully unfolding tenor melody. Bostridge imbued the
simple line with great profundity: the openness of the vowels,
‘Glatte Fläche’ (glassy surface), permitted a momentary
flash of brightness, before the dark descent into ‘deadly
silence’. The extreme slowness of ‘Wandrers Nachtlied I’
(Wanderer’s night-song) established an expressive intensity which
strengthened into rhetoric with the troubled question, ‘Was soll all
der Schmerz und Lust?’ (What use is all this joy and pain?). If
Bostridge did not quite control the first high, quiet floating reply,
‘Süßer Friede!’ (Sweet peace!), the enriched
repetition was warmly persuasive, but the consolations of this song were
cruelly swept aside by ‘Wonne der Wehmut’ (Delight in sadness),
where Bostridge coloured his voice with a slightly harder
‘edge’ to convey the poet-speaker’s self-consoling
melancholy. Goethe’s six-line poem equates ‘eternal’
(ewigen) love with ‘unhappy’ (unglücklicher) love —
a simple alteration in the two final lines (which repeat the opening lines)
confirms the Romantic conceit — and Bostridge, ever alert to textual
nuance, made much of the agonised dissonance, aided by Johnson’s
biting accent, to convey the speaker’s pain; a pain, which was
subsumed and embraced in the consonant repetitions of Schubert’s
closing phrase, ‘Trocknet nicht’ (Grow not dry).

The tempo of ‘An den Mond’ was slower than my recollections
of other performances by Bostridge of this song; I thought that it made the
opening more tense with anticipation, and it also made for greater contrast
with the subsequent forward momentum, ‘Fließe, Fließem
lieber Fluß!’ (Flow, flow on, beloved river!), which was aided
by Johnson’s even, undulating quavers. ‘Jägers
Abendlied’ (Huntsman’s evening song) and ‘An Schwager
Kronos’ (To Coachman Chronos) were marvellously intense counterparts
to the single-strophe songs, though — uncharacteristically —
the text of the former was distinctly approximate in places. There was
imprecision, too, in the booming piano octaves which open the latter, and
while the wide, glorious vistas opened magically as the horseman crested
the hill, I’d have liked more staccato definition in the pounding
accompaniment triplets.

Now largely forgotten as a poet, Johann Baptist Mayrhofer had a
considerable influence on Schubert’s musical and personal
development, and the composer set 47 songs and two operas to
Mayrhofer’s texts. The poet was described by Johannes Brahms as the
‘ernsthafteste’ (most serious) of Schubert’s friends, and
it was no surprise that the ten settings which followed took us into more
complex and, at times, obscure psychological and mythological realms, in
which pain and passion combined in an ambiguous communion.

The strange harmonic lurches of and shifts of tempo of
‘Atys’ are deliberately destabilising, and Bostridge’s
telling of the tale of this self-castrating fertility deity’s tragic
end was disturbing. (In Mayrhofer’s version of the myth, as the
cymbals announce the arrival of his beloved goddess, the unrequited Atys
throws himself from a cliff in the forest in a fit of mad frenzy. The
tenor, too, staggered (alarmingly at times) as if pierced by the
speaker’s pain. Here was the instinctive appreciation of the
text’s nuances that we are so used to from Bostridge; the smallest
details — a slight injection of intensity at the end of the first
stanza was all that was needed to convey the fervour of Atys’
yearning for his homeland — made their mark. And, Johnson was an
equally vivid story-teller: the softness of the major-key conclusion to
this first stanza was quickly quelled by the darkness of the minor
tonality, and the dryness of the punched chords at the start of Atys’
own account of his rage testified to the ferocity of his pent-up fury. The
long piano postlude was a superb musical narrative. In ‘Der
zürnenden Diana’ (To Diana in her wrath), however, the
accompaniment at times overwhelmed the voice and again I found the
thick-textured repeating chords occasionally uneven. But the duplicitous
goddess’s image, which gladdens Actaeon’s heart even as he
dies, was conjured by a beautiful lucidity of texture and smooth but
penetrating vocal phrasing, making the hit of the arrow — which
seemed almost literally to fell Bostridge — even more acute.

Bostridge’s ability to employ his extensive technical capacities
to diverse expressive effect was ever evident. There was not a single song
that did not have something to surprise us, or command our attention. The
strength of line in ‘An die Freunde’ (To my friends) was
noteworthy, emphasising the power of human love — ‘Das freut
euch, Guten, freuet euch;/ Die alles is dem Toten gleich’ (rejoice,
good friends, rejoice; all this is nothing to the dead) —
particularly after the Gothic eeriness of the piano’s chromatic tread
at the start. The high-lying melody of ‘Abendstern’ (Evening
star) was sweetly and surely phrased, the major-minor alternations
bittersweet, as the poet-speaker’s apostrophe to the lovely celestial
light paradoxically conveyed his own terrestrial alienation.
‘Einsamkeit’ (Solitude) was, quite simply, breath-taking in its
dramatic and musical range, and its philosophical insight.

While some of the Mayrhofer settings are well-known, it was good to hear
some unfamiliar songs too: ‘Wie Ulfru fischt’ (Ulfru fishing)
presented another indistinct protagonist who longs for refuge from
man’s insecurities, dilemmas and disappointments — expressed by
the furious unrelenting quavers of the accompaniment and the determined
onward march of the vocal line — and whose surprising identification
with the fish whom he hunts leads him to long to share the blithe
tranquillity of the fishes’ sanctuary. The entry of the voice in
‘Freiwilliges Versinken’ (Voluntary oblivion) — on a weak
beat and into cloudy harmonic territory, amid piano inner-voice trills
— was wrong-footing. Here, the power of Bostridge’s lower
register together with the fragmentation of the vocal line created a
hypnotic sense of disintegration, while the intimations of release
suggested by the concluding hints of major tonality, and the tenor’s
wonderfully controlled upwards appoggiatura, spilled into, and were
extended by, Johnson’s expressive piano postlude.
‘Auflösug’ (Dissolution) was an apocalyptic whirlwind
— again, there was a danger that the voice might be overshadowed by
the piano’s tumult — in which the poet-speaker longs for the
world to dissolve in self-consuming exhilaration. But, there were surprises
here, too, in the astonishing final line in which the low tenor phrase was
subsumed within the piano’s shimmering ‘ätherischen
Chöre’ (ethereal choirs).

The final sequence of six songs was devoted to settings of Ernst Konrad
Friedrich Schulze. ‘Die liebliche Stern’ (The lovely star) was
sung with dulcet beauty; in contrast, in ‘Tiefes Leid’ (Deep
sorrow) Bostridge turned a burning, accusative gaze upon the audience,
pulling the slow pulse this way and that to embody the poet-speaker’s
own mental anguish — ‘Ich bin von aller Ruh gechieden,/ Ich
treib’ umher auf wilder Flut;’ (I have lost all peace of mind
and drift on wild waters), and retreating into introspection in the
whispered lines, ‘Nicht weck’ ich sie mit meinen Schritten/ In
ihrer dunlen Einsamkeit.’ (I shall not wake them with my footsteps in
their dark solitude.) In ‘Lebensmut’ (Courage for living),
despite the piano’s heroic summons, Bostridge seemed overcome by
weariness as the poet-speaker faced the sapping struggles of life; leaning
onto and into the piano (in which he had placed a score) it seemed that the
tenor might succumb to the disillusionment and collapse which baits the
speaker. Both ‘Im Walde’ (In the forest) and ‘Auf der
Brücke’ (On the bridge) were characterised by strong unity of
interpretation. Finally, after the dreamy delusions of ‘In
Frühling’ (In Spring), the final song, ‘Über
Wildemann (Above Wildemann), concluded our journey. The sublime mountain
landscape (Wildemann is a small town in the Harz highlands) with its
roaring winds, rushing rivers and verdant meadows offered tempting
consolation to the tormented poet-speaker in the central major-key verses,
but at the final reckoning there was only alienation, as the final verse
drove onwards with grim obsessiveness.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Ian Bostridge, tenor; Graham Johnson, piano.

Meeres Stille, Wandrers Nachtlied I, An den Mond, Wonne der Wehmut,
Jägers Abendlied, An Schwager Kronos; Geheimnis, Wie Ulfru fischt,
Atys, Einsamkeit, An die Freunde, Freiwilliges Versinken, Der
zürnenden Diana, Abendstern, Auflösung, Gondelfahrer; Im Walde,
Der liebliche Stern, Auf der Brücke, Tiefes Lied, Lebensmut, Im
Frühling, Über Wildemann. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 16th February 2016.

image_description=Franz Schubert
product_title=Schubert: The Complete Songs
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Franz Schubert