Schubert’s ‘swan-song’: Ian Bostridge at the Wigmore Hall

Bostridge’s enunciation of the strange tri-syllabic rhymes – ‘Fremde
durchmessenden,/ Heimat vergessenden,/ Mutterhaus hassenden,/ Freunde
verlassenden’ – and his responsiveness to the unremitting dactylic
repetitions created a cumulative force which was overwhelming.
(Interestingly, his 2009 recording of the song with Anthony Pappano for EMI
Classics is much less rhetorical and more introspective, and considerably

Rellstab depicts a protagonist who has fled his home and is oppressed by a
broken heart and loneliness. He asks the murmuring wind and fleeting
sunbeams to carry his greetings back to the one who broke his faithful
heart and who now, a ‘fugitive’, sets out into the world. But, the text is
almost untranslatable partly because English is less happy with gerunds –
verbs used as nouns – as they are too like the present participle. In his
translations, Richard Stokes makes use of the simple present – ‘Who roams
foreign parts, who forgets his fatherland’ – and adjectives (‘L¸fte, ihr
s‰uselnden,/Wellen sanft kr‰uselnden’ becomes ‘You whispering breezes, you
gently ruffled waves’). Stokes is, as always, controlled, precise and
expressive. But, what is missing here is a sense of the continuous
progression which the German, with its amalgamation of noun and verb,
conveys. Then, there is the problem of the nouns which begin each line –
‘Herze’, ‘Auge’, ‘Sehnsucht’, ‘Heimw‰rts’, ‘Klage’, ‘Abendstern’,
‘Hoffnungslos’, in the second stanza – a pattern which disrupts English

Bostridge’s performance communicated every atom of the alienation that
Rellstab’s linguistic strategies evoke. Stokes translates ‘Busen, der
wallende’ as ‘The swelling breast’, but – so my German-speaking guest
informs me – the German intimates the sea: the undulation of the waves and
the echoes they return to the heart of the wanderer. Bostridge magically
conveyed the way the protagonist’s sinking despair – submerged as his heart
is by resounding pain – is transfigured into new determination. His appeal
to the elements – angry rather than importuning – faded, just as the
elements themselves ‘never linger’ (‘Nirgend verweilender’). Then – as the
syntax ‘rights’ itself (‘Die mir mit Schmerze, ach!/Dies treue Herze brach’
– Ah! Send greetings to her who broke this faithful heart with pain) – he
regained strength: the heartless one must be forced to bear witness to the
suffering heart. Such is the Romantic agony.

But, this is to jump in at the deep-end of my response to this recital. If
you are still with me, I’ll go back to the beginning.

‘In der Ferne’ is one of seven poems by Ludwig Rellstab which, alongside
six by Heinrich Heine and one by Johann Gabriel Seidl, were set by
Schubert and published posthumously as the sentimentally titled Schwanengesang by Tobias Haslinger. They share the perennial
Romantic obsession with love and death, but they are not a ‘cycle’, rather
an embodiment of Haslinger’s commercial opportunism and shrewdness. As
Richard Kramer has put it (in Distant Cycles: Schubert and the Conceiving of Song), there are
not only settings of different poets, there are different kinds of song:
‘The Rellstab songs sing the lyrical, expansive Schubert. The Heine songs
scream and groan.’

Bostridge and Vogt performed the two sequences separately, with Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte dividing them. ‘Liebesbotschaft’ (Love’s
brook) made for an optimistic, even magical, start to the sequence, with
its excitedly rippling brook. And Vogt used the springy bass line to create
energy and promise to match the protagonist’s hopeful dreams – beautifully
conjured by Bostridge’s light tenor – of murmuring sweet repose to his
beloved as he cradles her in his arms. But, menace and disappointment were
not far away, in the dark coldness and tense rhythms of the piano
introduction to ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ (Warrior’s foreboding), coupled with the
low shadowy vocal line. Bostridge was characteristically keen to highlight
the contrasts, textually and musically, though; references to the fire of
longing that surges through the poet-speaker’s heart, and to the warm glow
of his beloved as she lies in his arms, were vocally enhanced, and a more
threatening heat rumbled through the piano’s resonant bass as the
protagonist sang of his welling sadness and loneliness. Bostridge was able
to create a marvellous, and unsettling, contrast between the sweetness and
promise of rest and the anxiety of abandonment.

‘Fr¸hlingssehnsucht’ (Spring longing) swept forward with urgency, though I
did not feel that Vogt’s busy accompaniment was sufficiently crystalline.
Again, Bostridge was alert to the emotional shifts, each stanza pushing
exuberantly to a stalling, hesitant question – the fear of loss present in
the heavily nuanced semitonal accent of the repetition: ‘Wohin?’, ‘Hinab’,
‘Und du?’ culminating in the final, desperate ‘Nur Du!’ (only you!).
‘St‰ndchen’ (Serenade) was a beguiling exhortation, and the piano
accompaniment a convincing guitar strum, though I felt that Vogt might have
brought the piano’s echo-phrases rather more to the fore. The slides
between major and minor tonality were effectively employed to trigger an
escalation of emotion which sank back at the close into wistful
wishfulness, ‘Komm’, begl¸cke mich!’ (Come, make me happy).

‘So my heart pounds without respite’ sings the poet-speaker in the nervous
‘Aufenthalt’ (Resting place) and Vogt duly obliged, while Bostridge
revealed real power, angrily lamenting his grief, ‘Ewig derselbe/Bleibet
mein Schmerz’. Vogt’s cantering accompaniment in ‘Abschied’ (Farewell)
needed to be lighter of touch – or perhaps initially lighter and then
gradually increasingly, desperately perhaps, more insistent – if its irony
was to be fully felt. As it was, it felt a little laboured at times, but
the defiant, delusive self-belief of Bostridge’s poet-speaker was
forcefully apparent in the power of the closing stanza.

Vogt seemed more attuned to the spirit of the six songs which make up
Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte finding a dreamy lyricism at the
start of ‘Auf dem H¸gel sitz ich’, as the poet-speaker gazes into the misty
blue countryside towards the meadows where he first encountered his love,
and flowering extravagantly at the close, embodying the protagonist’s
hyperbolic emotion: ‘Und ein leibend Herz erreichet/Was ein liebend Herz
geweiht!’ (and a loving heart is reached by what a loving heart has
hallowed). The hopefulness of ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ (Where the blue
mountains) was undercut but the dreamily whispered pianissimo to which
Bostridge shrank in the second stanza – the entirety of which is intoned on
a single pitch. Straining to hear, we enacted the striving to believe of
the protagonist.

Skipping restlessness was conjured by the incessant triplets of ‘Leichte
Segler in den Hˆhen’ (Light clouds sailing on high) which only served to
make the slower tempo and nuanced rubatos of the second stanza – with its
autumnal imagery – more telling. Bostridge and Vogt pushed urgently through
the sequence, the piano’s trills and echoes at the opening of the fifth
song, ‘Es kehret der Maien’ (May returns) emphasising the poet-speaker’s
fancies and delusion, and culminating in the powerfully sculptured
recognition that the love he shares with his beloved ‘Kein Fr¸hling
erscheint,/Und Tr‰nen sind all ihr Gewinnen’ (knows no spring, and tears
are its only gain). In the final song, ‘Nimm sie hin den, diese Lieder’
(Accept, then, these songs) time seemed to stand still as the ‘red light of
evening’ drew ‘towards the calm blue lake’; but, no, the heroic Romantic
life force was not to be denied, and a pulsing passion resumed in the final
stanza, as an unstoppable upwelling of emotion subsumed all doubt.

Schubert’s ‘swan song’ resumed with Heine’s agonised ‘Der Atlas’ in which
Logt unleashed the full power of the Wigmore’s Steinway – the dotted
rhythms were torturously jagged – and Bostridge revealed baritonal strength
and depth in the expressions of pain that ‘Will mir das Herz im Leibe’
(would break in my body). One felt that apocalypse could come at any
moment, so tense were the underground tremblings, the yells of rage.

‘Ihr Bild’ (Her likeness) was, thus, a world apart: the unison piano and
voice tentative, searching, rapt, blossoming briefly with harmonic
enriching and hope. As if searching for a clear vision of the beloved,
Bostridge peered absorbedly, keenly into the audience, involving and
implicating us in the poet-speaker’s near-madness. The slight break in the
voice – ‘Und ach, ich kann es nicht glauben,/ Da? ich dich verloren hab!’ – was heart-clenching.

‘Das Fischerm‰dchen’ (The fishermaiden) felt a little slow, and thus
offered fewer opportunities for expressive rubatos; the tempo also made the
slips between major and minor tonality more laboured, and lessened the
pensive idealism of the song. But, Vogt struck just the right balance
between definition and ambiguity at the start of ‘Die Stadt’ (The town),
and the song – taut and anxious – progressed disturbingly towards an
assertion of loss. The gentle beauty of ‘Am Meer’ seemed to offer some
consolation and restoration; Bostridge’s tenor floated with effortless
grace and quiet pensiveness, but troubling waters and rising gulls soon
disturbed the vision of the gleaming sea: the image of the beloved’s tears
– ‘Aus deinen Augen liebevoll/Fielen die Tr‰nen nieder’ (from you
loving eyes the tears begin to fall) – was perhaps the most tender,
heart-welling moment of the recital, so ironically sweet was Bostridge’s
head-voice phrasing. In this song, the performers’ attentiveness to
Schubert’s power of suggestion was remarkable.

In ‘Der Doppelg‰nger’ (The wraith) Bostridge captured us all in a steely,
unwavering gaze, in which every pent-up emotion experienced during the
evening was compressed. When these feelings were released, the pain of
self-recognition was terrifying: ‘Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe
– /Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt’ (I shudder when I see his face –
the moon shows me my own form). The final stanza became more animated, the
mood almost confrontational; but, the twisting turn – ‘So manche Nacht, in
alter Zeit?’ (so many nights in times gone by?) – was a squirm of Romantic
painful pleasure.

Last week, attending a performance of Schubert’s String Quintet, I
reflected on the way Schubert, having scaled heights and lows and wrung the
soul dry in the great Adagio, astonishingly revivifies the spirit
with the kick start of the Scherzo – a sort of musical defibrillator. And,
such is the effect of Schubert’s setting of Johann Gabriel Seidl’s ‘Die
Taubenpost’ (Pigeon post) at the close of Schwanengesang, the
symbol of loyal return reinforcing the resilience of the Romantic heroic
spirit. And, so, at the close of this recital, I was ready to return to the
beginning; Bostridge made it easy to understand the Romantic addiction to
the cycle of imagined fulfilment, denied satisfaction and lonely despair.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Lars Vogt (piano)

Schubert – Schwanengesang D957; Beethoven – An die ferne Geliebte Op.98

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 10th May 2017

image_description=Ian Bostridge and Lars Vogt at the Wigmore Hall
product_title=Ian Bostridge and Lars Vogt at the Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Ian Bostridge