Sincerity, sentimentality and sorrow from Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake at Snape Maltings

A virtuoso linguist, a fecund neologist, facilely and exuberantly toying
with form and metre, R¸ckert was and is seen by some as an affected and
artificial versifier: a stylist rather than a poet. Not so the composers
whom his work inspired: among them, Schubert, Robert and Clara Schumann,
Brahms, Mahler, Richard Strauss, Zemlinsky, BartÛk, Berg, Wolf, Hindemith
and Henze.

One might feel, in fact, that the six R¸ckert settings by Schubert with
which the recital commenced were chosen for their simplicity and
directness, not for their affectation, though they were certainly not
lacking in sensibility. ‘Die Wallfahrt’ (The pilgrimage) emerged only in
1968, when a copy of the song was discovered by Reinhard Van Hoorickx in
the Cornaro family library. Barely 16 bars long, just over a minute in
length, this song’s piano accompaniment supports the voice with broadly
spaced spread chords, and the sombre vocal line falls dark and deep: it is
hardly the sort of song with which one might expect a tenor to open a
recital. Indeed, it was originally written for bass voice; but its
combination of spirituality and humanity (the text was published in
R¸ckert’s ÷stliche Rosen in the early 1820s) set the tone for the
whole recital.

The opening piano chords of ‘Greisengesang’ (Old man’s song) were imposing,
and the sparseness of the voice-piano unisons and homophony were chilling;
but the old man’s memories of youth and love lingered and lived, as
Bostridge’s tender, time-transporting head voice revealed. The winter has
whitened his hair, but the flush of youthful passion glows in his cheeks.
Did the poet-speaker’s voice, softening, shadowed, sink at the close into a
deep forest of dreams or into the underworld? Were the piano’s three rich
cadential chords a warm bed of rest or tolling bells? We could not know.

‘Lachen und Weinen’ (Laughter and tears) promised liveliness and joy, but
paradoxically epitomised their very brevity. Pauses and silences before
doubtful and questioning vocal utterances seemed to render the piano’s
light-hearted ornaments dishonest. ‘Du bist die Ruh’ (You are repose)
initially intimated the vocal transfiguration that Bostridge can so
beguilingly and tenderly offer, but the intensity of the final stanza
seemed riven with pain as much as with passion. Similarly, ‘Dafl sie hier
gewesen!’ (That she was here!) was quizzical rather than certain: shored up
with belief and hope, torn down by doubt and fear, each word of the vocal
line interrupted by a brief silence. In the final stanza, the
duo pulled the rhythm this way and that to trouble us further, and the
final repetition of the title line was desperate and fraught, rather than

Finally, ‘Sei mir gegr¸flt’ (I greet you): slow, reflective, introspective.
Bostridge seemed lost in reverie, head bowed, leaning on the piano. The
visions of passion – ‘Sei mir gegr¸flt, Sei mir gek¸flt’ – were not realised
by repetition but pushed ever further into the hinterland of dreams. I’m
not entirely certain, but I think that Bostridge mis-ordered the text of
the final two stanzas, so that we concluded not with the poet’s imagined
embrace – ‘I close you in my arms’ – but with the urgency of ‘my soul’s
most ardent outpouring’. If so, then the sudden surge of erotic fulfilment
was, ironically, welcome.

Bostridge’s interpretations of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn are
familiar from his recent

recording and performances with Antonio Pappano

. The grotesque, the ironic, the distorted, the empty: such abstracts were
just as present here, but I felt that Drake’s encompassment of a spectrum
of ‘orchestral’ colours, as well as his ability to play the same small
motif with infinite variety of nuance and emphasis, made, paradoxically,
the bitterness both more bracing and more bearable, the human breath more
tangible, than on the occasion I heard Bostridge sing these songs in the
Barbican Hall.

In ‘Revelge’ (Reveille) the piano growled but was never ponderous, despite
the ferocity of some of the left hand’s leaping, martial fourths. The
shocking image, ‘My comrades strewn so thick, Lie like mown grass on the
ground’, unleased God’s thunder from the keyboard. Bostridge twisted
through the torturous ‘tralalees’, brazenly facing the audience, daring us
to flinch. He flagellated us with the image of the marchers passing the
drummer’s sweetheart’s house, pounding us with her vision of his bones at
the head of a human tombstone, ‘Dafl sie ihn sehen kann’ (That she may see
him there).

Bostridge’s energy then seemed spent, burnt up by anger. ‘Wo die schˆnene
Trompeten blasen’ (Where the beautiful trumpets blow’) was searching, at
times gently penetrative – as when the nightingale mourns the lovers’
future loss. But there was a sharp bite in the piano’s martial motifs and
Bostridge’s piercing stare at the close – when the departing soldier speaks
with love of the ‘home of green turf’ to which he will return’ – again
dared us to look away. By this point, Drake’s grotesque trills in ‘Der
Tamboursg’sell’ (The drummer boy) were almost too much to bear, and the
anger spilled over into the pained vocal cries as the drummer walked
towards the gallows: ‘Weil I weifl, dafl I g’hˆr dran’ (For I know what you
mean to me). As the marching motifs pushed the boy towards his death, so
Drake’s languorous trills tugged him back: the tension was painful. At the
close there was only death: ‘Gute Nacht’. In the silence and stillness of
the Maltings, it seemed no one dared to breath … until Julius Drake stood,
necessarily drawing us, and Bostridge, back to the land of the living.

A connection to the Schubert of the start of the recital was established
when we heard four of Mahler’s R¸ckert settings. The carefree circular
meanderings of Mahler’s wayfarer in ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (I
breath a gentle fragrance!) bring him to the Lindenbaum – Bostridge’s voice
seemed both to cleanse the air and bear aloft the scent of bracing lime –
but this is a very different point of arrival to the turning-point which
Schubert’s wanderer must confront in Winterreise. The re-ordering
of Mahler’s cycle must have been intended to create a new narrative, but
while I could not quite discern this, it did not matter: each song thrived
on its own terms. ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ (Do not look into my
song!) was urgent: a representation of creativity both fervent and
feverish. With ‘Liebst du um Schˆnheit’ (If you love for beauty) we were
restored to the paradoxically consoling restless sehnsucht of a
Schubert lied. This is the painful beauty that Bostridge can evoke, for me,
like no other singer. At the close he seemed overcome: ‘Liebe mich immer,
dich lieb’ ich immerdar.’ (Love me forever, I’ll love you evermore.) He
turned away from us, carried elsewhere, inwards.

‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’. I am lost to the world. This is the
first line of Mahler’s third R¸ckert song, which followed, unbearably
poignant. Quite simply the vocal beauty, the enchantment of the melismas,
the magic of Drake’s postlude carried me – and, I’m sure, many in the
Maltings – far away too.

Between these two Romantic ‘pillars’ lay the ‘modern Romanticism’ of Hans
Werner Henze. Bostridge and Drake first met Henze at Snape Maltings in
1996, when they were performing three of Henze’s settings of W.H. Auden in
celebration of the composer’s 70th birthday. Bostridge described
their first encounter in an article in

The Guardian

ten years later, explaining that following their performance Henze offered
to write a new song cycle for him: the result was the 45-minute Sechs Ges‰nge aus dem Arabischen which the duo premiered at
Wigmore Hall in 1999. The songs set Henze’s own texts, excepting the final
invocation to the moon by the 14th-century Persian poet, Hafiz,
as translated by R¸ckert.

These songs may be challenging for the listener unfamiliar with their
sophisticated poetic, philosophical and musical arguments, and with Henze’s
attention-demanding idiom, but they offer an immersive, entrancing depth
and range of colour, emotion and dramatic mood. Bostridge and Drake gave us
just two of the songs. The fourth, ‘C‰sarion’ (Caesarion), tells of the
sailor Selim, whose sea journey has been a struggle of epic, Shakespearian
dimensions as love and war, man and nature tussle for power and
survival. Drake and Bostridge graphically, and grippingly, depicted the
storm without and within, the vocal and pianistic rhetoric by turns grand
and turbulent, tormented and resigned, as Selim, lured by the witches’ song
and tossed by the waves, lands naked, stretched out on the shore, ‘a
ladies’ man, laid low by the sea voyage’.

Delivering the virtuosic storm-painting with enviably calm control, Drake
relished the piano’s startling contrasts, and technical and expressive
demands. And, to counter the theatrical oratory – including yelps and
growls – which Bostridge delivered with his back curved, shoulders hunched,
his chin pressing onto his chest, there was tenderness. An unaccompanied
vocal passage looked beyond the earth, star-ward, as the sailor-narrator’s
thoughts followed the ‘lines inscribed by God in his network of veins’.
Bostridge submerged himself in the mystical, recounted the narrative and
lived the theatrical. At times the vocal line seemed improvisatory,
elsewhere more declamatory; but always fervent, often incantatory. During
the long piano postlude, the tenor stared into the depths of the piano’s
body, as the powerful resonances of the final, towering, pressing chords
faded into infinity, the overtones and harmonics slowly dissolving until
the essential fifth and then single tone were all that remained as haunting
impressions on the surface of the silence.

The final song, ‘Das Paradies’, offered peace, of a kind, with its
repetitions and regularities and gentler idiom. But, the insistent refrain,
‘reich mir die Hand’ (give me your hand), possesses its own conflicts –
‘Komm,dass ich dich fasse, reich mir deine Hand’: my and your, desperation
and deliverance – just as the unornate vocal line is hectored by the
piano’s rhapsodising. Bostridge managed to conjure a serenity that was
paradoxically riven with sadness: not so much a Wagnerian anti-resolution,
as a Mahlerian denial of despair through a redemption by love.

And so, there was a purposefulness at the close, a reaching for the sublime
– both within grasp and unattainable – as Bostridge issued a quasi-falsetto
plea to the moon: ‘I clamber up to your castle, fair moon,/let me pale
before you. Come, come, give me your hand.’ In the aforementioned Guardian article, Bostridge describes this final song as ‘a sort
of letting-go … the song itself has an extraordinary air of transcendence’.
As I drove home from Snape Maltings, through the unlit roads of Suffolk,
the waning moon hung low – a sagging, watery pendant in the black sky, a
shimmering pink blush. Otherworldly and divine.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano)

Schubert – song settings of poetry by R¸ckert; Henze – ‘C‰sarion’
and ‘Das Paradies’ from Sechs Ges‰nge aus dem Arabischen; Mahler – songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and R¸ckert Lieder

Snape Proms, Snape Maltings, Suffolk; Tuesday 20th August 2019.

product_title=Snape Proms: Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Ian Bostridge

Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke