The Pity of War: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall

Their recently released Warner Classics recording,

Requiem: The Pity of War

, closes with three songs about war from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Here, Bostridge and Pappano opened with
Mahler’s provocative, astringent settings, and these three songs were
quasi-operatic in their theatrical impact. This might not be how everyone
likes their Mahler; but anyone who has seen Bostridge’s remarkable
Weimar-inspired performance of

Hans Zender’s Winterreise

must surely admire the way the tenor can inhabit the fragile bitterness of
a world which pits anger against fear, the frailty of anxiety against faux
insouciance. Bostridge did not just bring the poetic personae to life, he
‘lived’ their experiences, deeply and disturbingly. Roughness not
refinement was the touchstone: these were real lives, lived and lost. There
was a razor-sharp bite to the sarcasm and bravado as Bostridge stared and
challenged, stalked, stooped and floundered, flinging and spitting words at
us, with a snarl and shout, prowl and pounce.

In ‘Revelge’ (Reveille), the bold bluster was hurled at us in cocky, spiky
dotted rhythms, through the snarling rolled ‘r’ of ‘tral-la-li’ and in the
cold nonchalance of the repeated ‘Ich mufl’, ‘Ich mufl’, as the soldier
marches to his death. At times the frenzy bordered on hysteria. And, though
Pappano was seated at the piano rather than standing on a podium, his
contribution was no less theatrical. The violent accents at the start of
‘Revelge’ stabbed the soul. But, in the third stanza, when the soldier
rejects his wounded comrade’s pleas for assistance – ‘Ach, Bruder, ich kann
dich nicht tragen,/ Die Feinde haben uns geschlagen!/ Hell’ dir der liebe
Gott!’ (Brother, I cannot carry you there. The enemy has beaten us. May
dear God help you!) – the painful pragmatism was expressed through the
juxtaposition of the sweetness of the right hand which follows the vocal
line, and the astringent left-hand broken chords, vicious stabs of
alienation. Similarly, the gothic horror of the battlefield, the carefree
irony of the interlude prior to the final stanza, and the horrible growl of
the close which punctuates with dreadful finality the voice’s desperate
sneers, were delineated in spine-chilling musical close-up.

The piano’s low drumming at the start of ‘Der Tambourg’sell’ (The Drummer
Boy) was a terrible rattle of chains which cascaded bone-shaking trills
throughout the song, Pappano’s rhythmic regularity holding the drama
together, as the captured boy marched towards the gallows. At the start of
the drummer boy’s address – first resigned, then rhetorical – bidding
‘goodnight’ to the ‘stones of marble, hills and high mountains’, to
officers, musketeers and grenadiers, Bostridge’s bending of the pitch
captured every atom of weariness; physically, he seemed to fall, as
Pappano’s subdued close suggested a world retreating from the realities of
such horror.

There followed two song cycles – one renowned, one ‘resurrected’ by
Bostridge and Pappano – by composers whose young lives and creativity were
cruelly curtailed in the mud, maelstrom and misery of conflict, one hundred
years ago.

Listening to Bostridge’s recording of ‘Loveliest of Trees’, one of George
Butterworth’s six settings from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, I
have been struck by how much the opening calls to mind the tone and manner
of Peter Pears, with the exaggerated openness of the initial vowel made
even more pressing by the swelling bloom of the first passagio-hovering E.
Here, the impression was different, as Bostridge’s floating ‘Loveliest’
seemed to emerge from the ether and tumble gently, extending the drooping
pathos of Pappano’s opening fall.

There also seemed less languor and listlessness than in the recorded
performance of these Butterworth songs. ‘When I was one-and-twenty’ pushed
forward only to lapse at the close into melancholic self-awareness. ‘Look
not in my eyes’ was troubled by a restlessness that is perhaps innate to
the 5/4 pulse. The sergeant’s mendacities hung, pertinently insubstantial
and insincere, in ‘Think no more, lad’, pausing to impress with bullying
falsity – ‘’tis only thinking that/Lays lads underground’ – then pushing on
to resist questioning. With the reprise of the initial encouragement to
‘laugh, be jolly’. Bostridge’s instinctive story-teller came to the fore in
the narrative rubato and intimate sensitivity of the voice which tells of
‘The lads in their hundreds’. But, ‘Is my team ploughing?’ was the theatre
of poetry. Pappano’s first chord was barely audible: a whisper from a world
beyond. And the contrast between the vulnerability of the tentative
questioning from the grave, ‘Is my girl happy … as she lies down at eve?’,
and the almost violent dismissiveness of the living voice’s self-defensive
urgency – symbolised by the trampling horses, and flying footballs – was
distressing. Similarly, Bostridge’s pure tone, ‘Is my friend hearty,/ Now I
am thin and pine’, was crushed underfoot by the precipitous response, ‘Yes,
lad, I lie easy’, the haste belying the professed sentiment.

Before the Butterworth cycle, we heard Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied by Rudi Stephan, who died on the
Ukrainian front in September 1915, felled by a Russian bullet near Tarnopol
in Galicia, at the age of 27. The lyric sensuousness of Richard Strauss and
Schoenberg infuses these six songs and, allied with Bostridge’s sensitivity
to the text, they made a deep emotional mark. The melodic unfolding was
fluent and beautifully coloured, offering – as in the lovely sustained arc
which depicted ‘Kythere’, Aphrodite’s island realm – escape into worlds far
removed from strife, suffering and grief. Pappano’s accompaniment rippled
with rapturous suppleness in ‘Pantherlied’ (Panther Song), Bostridge’s
final piercing exclamation pressing home the metaphoric simultaneity of
love and war: ‘Lass mich nie, nie deine Krallen sp¸ren;/ Neulich im Traum
grubst du sie mir in’s Herz!’ (Never, never let me feel your
claws’; Lately, in a dream, you sank them deep into my heart!). The
wreath-like misty illusions of ‘Abendfrieden’ (Evening’s Peace) brought the
dreams and delusions of Schubert’s ‘Nebensonnen’ to mind, the mood being
enhanced by the subsequent interiority of ‘In Nachbars Garten duftet’ (In
the neighbour’s garden) at the end of which Bostridge’s head voice seemed
to evaporate into ecstasy, the protagonist’s eyes overflowing with ‘burning
pain’ at the sight of two lovers entwined beneath a linden tree, wrenched
asunder from the piano’s low ostinato of reality. A paradoxical blend of
hollowness and warmth made ‘Gl¸ck zu Zweien’ (Happiness for Two)
unsettling, while the final drooping line of ‘Das Hohenlied der Nacht’ (The
High Song of the Night) was almost unbearably laden with the weight of
sublime passion.

After the interval, Weill’s Four Walt Whitman Songs, written
shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, made a similarly visceral
impact. Weill explained that he had chosen Whitman’s ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’
because of its ‘extraordinary timeliness … as a passionate call to arms
to everybody in the nation’, and apparently his first choice to sing the
four songs was Paul Robeson, though that did not come to fruition. Again,
we were transported from the world of ‘lieder’ to ‘music theatre’, with
words made physical by gestures such as Pappano’s violent ‘thump’ at the
close of ‘Beat! Beat!’ – a terrible call-to-arms, the dreadfulness of which
was enhanced by Bostridge’s expressive raucousness. The suave rhythms of ‘O
Captain! My Captain!’ exerted a different type of persuasive rhetoric, one
undermined by the final image: ‘But I with mournful tread,/ Walk the deck
my Captain lies,/Fallen cold and dead.’ In the long ‘Come up from the
fields, father’, Bostridge and Pappano sustained the narrative tension and
the final image of the mother’s longing to be with ‘her dear dead son’
presented a bitter contrast between the consoling sweetness of Bostridge’s
head voice and the abrupt curtailment of the cadence.

Four of Benjamin Britten’s songs from Who Are These Children?
(which are not included on the Warner Classics CD) concluded the recital, a
cycle that Britten wrote in the traumatic shadow of the fire that destroyed
Snape Maltings in 1969, and which was his final substantial song-cycle for
tenor and piano, setting ‘Lyrics, Rhymes and Riddles’ by the Scots poet
William Soutar. In fact, we had only the lyrics here, the violent images of
‘Nightmare’ and ‘Slaughter’ being deprived of the contrasting whimsey of
‘The Aulk’ and the youthful vigour of ‘A Laddie’s Sang’. One might feel
that this was a Blake-ian ‘experience’ without the contrasting ‘innocence’,
and shorn of the daunting Scots dialect – one thinks of the role of the
Proverbs which are in dialogue with the Songs in Britten’s Blake settings.

That said, Bostridge inhabited the dissonant wrenches of ‘Nightmare’ and
the metaphysical bleakness of the landscape of ‘Slaughter’ with almost
overwhelming immediacy, making a strange, compelling beauty of ugliness:
‘The phantoms of the dead remain/ And from our faces show.’ The piano’s
reflective patterning in ‘Who are these children?’ could not resist
dissolution into questioning ‘nothingness’; and, in the final song, ‘The
Children’ who ‘Upon the street lie/Beside the broken stone’ were removed
from our world by an austerity that was terrible and terrifying.

There was some assuagement. I found myself longing to hear the ambiguous
but ultimately restful strains of Ivor Gurney’s ‘Sleep’ to wash away the
stains, stabs and suffering; but, the lyrical tenderness of Schubert’s
‘Litanei’ was just as soothing, though I left the Barbican Hall wrought and
wracked by the expressive power of Bostridge’s singing. It’s hard to
imagine a voice that could communicate more harrowingly and honestly, in
Wilfred Owen’s words, ‘the pity war distilled’.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Antonio Pappano (piano)

Mahler: Three songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (‘Revelge’, ‘Der
Tambourg’sell’, ‘Wo die schˆnen Trompeten blasen’); Stephan –Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied, Butterworth – Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad; Weill – Four Walt Whitman Songs; Britten – Four
songs from Who Are These Children (‘Nightmare’, ‘Slaughter’, ‘Who
are these children?’, ‘The Children’)

Barbican Hall, London; Wednesday 5th December 2018.

product_title=Requiem: The Pity of War: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano, Barbican Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Antonio Pappano (piano), Ian Bostridge (tenor)