Beethoven’s Songs and Folksongs: Bostridge and Pappano

Listening to Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, which sets six poems by Alois Jeitteles and is considered a
ground-breaking innovation in the development of the genre, I usually
find myself seeking and relishing that narrative and unity, reflecting
on the strophic simplicity of the songs, the single, focused affect of
each being alleviated through subtle variations of the stanzas; on the
piano’s inter-song connecting phrases that create the sense of evolving
thoughts and feelings; on the harmonic structure which takes some
twists and turns but arcs back to its starting point; on the binding
derivation of songs two to six from motives drawn from the first song,
‘Auf dem H¸gel’; and on the ‘return’ effected at the close of the last
song, ‘Nimm sie hin, den diese Lieder’, through rhyme-scheme echoes,
melodic restatement and the reprise of certainty, “Und ein liebend Herz
erreichet/ Was ein liebend Herz geweiht!” And a loving heart will
attain what a loving heart has blessed! Thus, is distance overcome, a
union of hearts realised.

However, when I listened to Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano perform An die ferne Geliebte
at the start of the duo’s new recording of Beethoven’s songs and
folksong arrangements it was not so much the unity of the whole but
rather the diversity within it that struck me. And, this changefulness
seems to enhance the fanciful nature of the protagonist’s imagined
fulfilment, making the moments of reality that occasionally overpower
the subjective dreaming all the more powerful and poignant.

‘Auf dem H¸gel’ is the sort of song to which Bostridge’s tender, warm
tenor is perfectly suited. The tempo here is a little slower than I
expected, and the effect is to heighten the sense of illusion as the
poet-speaker looks down from the hill where he sits, across the misty
blue countryside, seeking his distant beloved beyond the mountains and
valleys which separate them. The expressive touches are gentle but
telling: the warming propulsion of the piano’s off-beat bass quavers as
the poet’s fiery gaze wings its way; the enrichening of the anguished
question, “Will den nichts mehr zu dir dringen?” (Will nothing ever
reach you again?); the flinch of pain – “Die dir

meine Pein!” The poet puts his faith in his singing: songs will put to
flight all space and all time. Bostridge makes this feel just a
youthful dream, the impetuous acceleration in the closing lines
conveying a deluded belief in an impossible consummation.

The piano’s strange harmonic swivel, from Eb major to G major, thus
seems more disconcerting than comforting, the major tonality itself
unnerving, even ironic, and the repetitive small rises and falls of the
vocal line in ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ a self-deceiving hypnotist’s
trick. The beautiful, light melodiousness only serves to make reality
seem even further away, and the voice’s monotone murmurings in the
central section of the song carry the protagonist still further into
his own introspective meditations. Bostridge suggests that the
protagonist is vivified by his intensity, his “Innere Pein” (inner
pain) quickening and quivering like a candle flame, and the ensuing
song ‘Leichte Segler in den Hˆhen’ duly darts forwards, Pappano’s rippling triplets evoking the
brook, clouds, birds and winds which the poet-speaker urges to carry
his love towards his chosen one. Bostridge’s breathless staccato
quavers are the pulsations of a burning heart.

The final line of this song, “Mein Tr‰nen ohne Zahl !”, is sustained into the ensuing ‘Diese Wolken in den Hˆhen’ and lifts the poet further into flights of fancy. Here, the decorative
mordants and trills of the piano’s high-lying echoes tease and mock the
blithe dreamer whose absolute conviction Bostridge brilliantly conveys.
But, ‘Es kehret der Maien’ brings the shock of blunt reality. Initially
the protagonist ignores the warning latent in the piano’s syncopations,
sforzandi, trills and fragmentation, and instead accepts Pappano’s invitation to
join in delighted imaginings of the blissful union which will come as
surely as the warmth and rebirth of spring follow winter. Bostridge
does not employ excessive heightening or mannerism to reveal the poet’s
disillusionment. Instead, directness and simplicity are more powerful
expressive tools. First, a slight ritardando indicates the growing realisation that, unlike the forward-flowing
bubbling brook and the returning swallow, the poet is trapped in the
lonely, unchanging present: “Nur ich kann nicht ziehen von hinnen.” All
the ever-increasing hope and belief of the preceding songs here
dissolves, and the vitality dissipates from the vocal line, “Und Tr‰nen
und all ihr Gewinnen”. Tears are the only prize that their love will
bring confirms Beethoven, preceding the repetition of the final poetic
phrase with a sombre, stark, ‘ja’, the sentiments cruelly underlined by
the slow slippage into the minor key.

Only dreaming will provide relief and salve, and so another harmonic
swivel takes the final song back to its starting place. Again, the
performers’ restrained tempo and Bostridge’s vocal tenderness convey
retreat from painful reality into the consolation of song, and the
tenor rises to a wonderful
peak above the smudgy softness of the piano’s chordal sextuplets as the
red evening sun fades behind the mountain heights, and then again, with
his heart full only of longing: “Nur der Sehnsucht sich bewuflt.” In the
final bars, musical echoes and repetitions bring about the
transformation of such longing into fulfilment: no matter that is
imagined and illusory, music makes it real and unquestionable.

I don’t intend, readers may be relieved to hear, to treat all of the
songs on this disc to the same detailed dissection, just to say that
the other twelve art songs are explored by Bostridge and Pappano with
equal thoughtfulness and perspicacity, the moods and ‘meaning’,
emotions and experiences nurtured through music and sensitive
music-making. ‘Adelaide’ brims with barely contained rapture, and
Bostridge sustains a strong line as the melodic arcs peak and shimmer.
It’s interesting to hear Beethoven’s four settings of Goethe’s
‘Sehnsucht’ side by side, with their different expressive effects
arising from choices of tempo, phrase structure and tonality. The
Andante, quivers with tremulous agitation, while the asymmetrical phrases of
the second,
Poco Andante, deepen the feeling of incompleteness. The major key of the Adagio version, and Bostridge’s fluent vocal line, create a calmer mood, while
the final Poco Adagio
is the most intense, the melody twisting around itself within a narrow
tessitura and reaching a pained chromatic climax, “Mein Eingeweide” (My body blazes). These are straightforward strophic settings, but I feel
that there is detail in the piano accompaniments that Pappano does not
always exploit.

There is more Goethe. The duo have fun with the ‘Song of the Flea’ from Faust, Bostridge’s consonants and patter as spiky as Pappano’s itchy
staccatos. ‘Mailied’ sparkles with vivacity and joy at the magic of
nature’s glories. In contrast, ‘Ich liebe dich’ (Karl Freidrich Wilhelm
Herrosee) has the serenity and certainty of a prayer; ‘In questa tomba
oscura’ (Giuseppe Carpani) truly does seem to come from ‘the other
side’, Bostridge’s veiled whisper occasionally shuddering as it conveys
the pained memories of one betrayed, and then exploding with an anger
incarcerated that can never find release. The question which runs
through ‘Andenken’ (Friedrich von Matthisson), “Wann/Wo/Wie denkst du
mein?” (When/Where/How do you think of me?) captures the exquisite
paradoxes of Romantic solipsism. ‘Resignation’ (Paul von Haigwitz) is
not an easy song to perform, or understand; its structural disjunctions
seem to convey a desire to banish not just the fire of unrequited love
but also its own creative light – “Lisch aus, mein Licht!” –
representing an abandonment of the faith in art’s transfiguring power
expressed in An die ferne Geliebte. Bostridge, characteristically, takes painstaking care with both text
and phrasing.

Alongside these lieder Bostridge and Pappano present some of the Irish,
Scottish and Welsh folksong arrangements that Beethoven made for his
friend, the Scottish publisher George Thomson, following in the footsteps of Pleyel and
Haydn, but – ever the astute businessman – earning considerably than his
predecessors for his trouble. Beethoven began supplying these folksong
arrangements (sometimes not genuine folk song melodies and often with texts
supplied by Burns, Byron and others), to satisfying burgeoning markets for
domestic music-making in both the UK and Vienna, in 1809 and by 1820 had
composed more than 170 such song, mainly with piano trio accompaniment.

Bostridge and Pappano are joined by violinist Vilde Frang and cellist
Nicolas Altstaedt in eight songs. Bostridge doesn’t seem to be quite in his
comfort zone here, unsure occasionally whether to employ idiomatic Celtic
accents – ‘The pulse of an Irishman’ is rather inconsistent in this regard
– or how far to indulge the songs’ comedy, eccentricity and boisterousness.
Some seem to lay rather low, too, and as the voice falls the piano tends to
dominate, especially in the faster songs. Beethoven achieves a sensitive
balance between the four musical elements, but here the string players are
not served well by the engineers, and Frang’s commentaries in particular
struggle to make their mark. Some songs, such as ‘The lovely lass of
Inverness’ and ‘The Return to Ulster’ feel a bit ‘effortful’: the melodies
need to be allowed to spin their own spell. The Scottish song ‘O Mary, ye’s
be clad in silk’ communicates its sentiments with directness though, and
‘The Parting Kiss’, a Welsh melody, has a touching truthfulness and gentle

An early Goethe setting concludes the disc: ‘Marmotte’, composed in 1790,
which depicts a travelling Arab troubadour and his trained pet,
entertaining street-passers for their supper. The song has a folk-like
simplicity and here Bostridge proves a compelling scene-painter and

I was a late learner when it comes to recognising Beethoven’s achievement
as a composer of song. My first experiences of Beethoven came through
playing his symphonies and learning the violin sonatas; then, as a student,
through analysing the piano sonatas and string quartets. I wish I’d had
this disc when I was a young violinist, as it would surely have helped me
to appreciate how Beethoven ‘sings’, in whatever medium or genre.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Warner Classics 9029527643
product_title=Beethoven: Songs and Folksongs
product_by=Ian Bostridge (tenor), Antonio Pappano (piano), Vilde Frang (violin), Nicolas Altstaedt (cello)
product_id=Warner Classics 9029527643 [62:05]