Dreams and delusions from Ian Bostridge and Imogen Cooper at Wigmore Hall

Providing an opportunity to hear Bostridge perform some of the lieder
included on his recently released disc of

Beethoven’s songs and folksongs

alongside Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.39 of 1840 – settings of
Eichendorff which are sometimes over-shadowed by the other cycles of
Schumann’s ‘year of song’, Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und Leben – this recital promised to hearten my soul
and mind as the autumnal nights draw in and portentous gloom enshrouds us.

But, ‘streaming’ comes in diverse forms and in the event that of the autumn
head-cold variety forced me to take my musical pleasures via the digital
kind. Sneezing and spluttering in a mask is neither easy nor pleasant, and
to avoid alarming my fellow Wigmore Hall patrons I forewent my chance to
sink into the familiar comfort of a Wigmore Hall seat and donned my
headphones instead, grateful that I could still be part of the ‘audience’
for this performance but also aware that what I would hear, and
subsequently describe, was not what precisely that which those in the Hall
itself would experience.

The concert began with three songs by Beethoven. I was surprised by the way
Imogen Cooper shaped the image which opens ‘Resignation’, sustaining the
terse motif through the written rests. “Lisch aus, mein Licht!”, the
poet-speaker pleads, and I hear the initial rocking fall as that metaphoric
light being gently snuffed. Bostridge, who sang with a calm firmness
indicative of inevitability and acceptance, shaped the imagery with
pointedness, enrichening his tenor and dramatically rolling the ‘r’ of
“irregehet” to depict the spluttering flame, then softening to a tender
head voice as the flame dissolved. The different moods of Beethoven’s four
settings of Goethe’s ‘Sehnsucht’ were finely drawn, the simplicity of the
varying tempi and forms allowed to speak for themselves. In ‘Ich liebe
dich’, Bostridge used the strength of his lower register to convey the
poet-speaker’s self-certainty, quietly retreating to re-create a remembered
moment of shared distress and tears.

In ‘Auf dem H¸gel’, the opening song of An die ferne Geliebte, the
protagonist seemed more ‘present’ on the hillside, above the distant
meadows, than in Bostridge’s recording with Sir Antonio Pappano, less lost
in his solipsistic imaginings, and this served to make the nuanced
heightening of his avowal, “Singen will ich, Lieder singen,/ Die dir klagen
meine Pein!”, (I shall sing, sing songs/ That speak to you of my
distress!), all the more touching and vulnerable. I found Cooper’s
accompaniment a little heavy at the start of ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ and
then a trifle uncoloured when the voice recites on a monotone, but it’s
difficult to know what the listeners in the Hall heard, and, flexibly
shaping the changing tempi, the duo certainly captured the restlessness of
the protagonist’s longings.

The piano’s racing triplets in ‘Leichte Segler in den Hˆhen’ were
wonderfully crystalline though, sparkling like the glinting brook and as
light as the airy vaults of heaven wherein the poet-speaker imagines his
image will appear to his beloved. Bostridge varied his vocal colour to
convey first hopefulness, then intensity of suffering and finally
earnestness as he pleaded with the winds, sun and brook to reveal to the
distant beloved his pain and his tears, which are never-ending – unlike the
written repetition, “ohne Zahl”, which Bostridge did not sustain into the
next song. The piano’s syncopated animation and tight trills conveyed the
easeful delusion of the confidence that the protagonist draws from the
natural world, in ‘Es kehret der Maien’, but Bostridge increasingly
suffused the vocal line with energy and drama, pushing forwards to the
honest admission, “Nu ich kann nicht ziehen von hinnen” (I alone cannot
move on), which was enunciated with bitterness, and closed in frenetic
despair. With ‘Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder’, the circle was closed and
though there was a lethargic weight in the image of the fading sun’s rays,
and vulnerability in the yearning, it was with a desperate urgency that the
cycle closed, as if by sheer force of will music could reconnect two

If narrative and musical ‘continuity’ characterise An die ferne Geliebte, then Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.39,
with its diverse poetic sources and personas, offers no such coherence –
though that hasn’t stopped commentators from seeking and purporting to find
in these twelve songs a consistent emotional trajectory, one that journeys
from the despairing alienation of the ‘In der Fremde’ to the perceived
fulfilment of ‘Fr¸hlingsnacht’.

Bostridge and Cooper did not seem to seek to impose order and logic on
Eichendorff’s phantasmagoric imagery and enigmatic twists, emphasising
instead the hallucinatory, quasi-improvisational quality of Schumann’s
settings which is conjured by harmonic ambiguities and introspective
motivic echoes. That’s not to suggest that the sequence lacked shape or
persuasiveness. Cooper’s controlled, pure accompaniments perfectly
complemented Bostridge’s characteristically immersive and discerning
engagement with Eichendorff’s strange worlds and disorientating
time-shifts. His diction ever immaculate, as Bostridge lived the
unidentified protagonists’ experiences he drew the listener with him into
the moonlit forests and murmuring woods, with their lonely nightingales,
silent castles, glittering stars, white and red roses, and mysterious
enchantresses – the shuddering trees, dungeon cells and weeping brides
casting a patina of menace and unease.

The freedom of the piano’s rolling, low arpeggios captured the inner unrest
of the protagonist of ‘In der Fremde’ (In a foreign land) which is driven
the paradoxical tension between his desire for and fear of eternal rest,
“Wie bald, ach wie bald kommt die stille Zeit,/ Da ruhe ich auch” (How soon, ah! how soon till that quiet time/ When I too shall rest).
This tension was enhanced by Bostridge’s darkening nuance, a slight shiver
vivifying the repeated final image, “und keiner kennt mich mehr
hier” (and nobody here remembers me anymore). The smoothly extending vocal
phrases seemed to embody that glance into an unknowable future. If the
sentiments of ‘Intermezzo’ seem more consoling, then the piano’s tugging
syncopations seemed to threaten the image of the beloved held deep within
the poet-speaker’s heart.

The inscrutability of the conversation with the wondrously fair bride
riding her steed through the forest, in ‘Waldesgespr‰ch’, was evoked by the
dreamy gentleness of Bostridge’s delivery of the Lorelei’s grief, following
the dark strength of the young man’s ebullient exclamations. The spitting
anger which propelled her final warning and prophecy, “Es ist schon sp‰t,
es ist schon kalt,/ Kommst nimmermehr aus diesem Wald!” (It It is already
late, already cold,/ You shall never leave this forest again!), was a
reminder of the perils within the enchantress’s forest. Indeed, the slow
restraint of the final section of ‘Die Stille’, which repeats the opening
profession of happiness, seemed to belie the protagonist’s blissful

‘Mondnacht’ (Moonlit Night) was beautifully expressive. Cooper’s celestial
glimmer sparkled while the slow tempo again created an expansiveness
suggesting the silver spread of the moonbeam over the earth. Bostridge used
his head voice tenderly, to contrast the whispers of the forest with the
strength and clarity of the stars in the night sky. In the piano postlude,
Cooper gently resolved the open-ended vocal line, suggesting that the
outspread soul might indeed have reached its imagined ‘home’, but the
incessant rustling oscillations and Bostridge’s twisting distortion of the
vocal rises in ‘Schˆne Fremde’ (In a beautiful foreign land) seemed to deny
the promise of rapture to come.

‘Auf einer Burg’ (In a castle) was a masterful union of poetry and voice.
With deathly languor Bostridge introduced us to the ancient knight, driving
with pained intensity towards the image of the centuries-old chevalier in
his silent cell, enhancing Schumann’s rhetoric by turning the extended
musical phrase into a piercing, slanting sneer, “oben in der stillen Klause.”, and thereby emphasising the temporal disorientation of
the poem. Withdrawing to a shivering whisper to describe the forest birds’
lonely songs, the tenor then blanched his voice of tone and colour to
depict with terrible irony the merry music of a wedding party on the sunlit
Rhine, beside which the bride weeps. Bending forward, peering
threateningly, Bostridge delivered the final line from the corner of his
mouth, spitting out the final consonant with startling ferocity: “und die
schone Braut, die weinet.”

The sparse urgency of ‘In der Fremde’ conveyed the poet-speaker’s
bewilderment, as Bostridge twisted and squirmed across the Wigmore Hall
platform, the song’s energy dissipating with the final recollection of the
beloved’s death, “so lange tot” (so long ago), and collapsing into Cooper’s
dark, exhausted chordal conclusion. The less dramatic delivery and
sustained phrasing of ‘Wehmut’ (Sadness) aptly captured the ‘deep sorrow’
at the heart of the song, while ‘Zwielicht’ was beautifully lyrical,
diminishing to a whispered but pointed image of the voices of distant
hunters that ‘to and fro’ through the forest, “Stimmen hin und wieder
wandern.” Bostridge employed a fraught, tense quasi-Sprechgesang
for the final warning, “H¸te dich, sei wach und munter!” (Be wary,
watchful, on your guard!). The softening of the final phrase of ‘Im Walde’
– “Und mich schauert’s im Herzensgrunde” (And deep in my heart I quiver
with fear.) – drew the listener within the consuming blackness of the
forest, and if the entire natural world – nightingales, moon and stars –
seems to confirm the protagonist’s consoling conviction, “Sie ist Deine,
sie ist Dein!”, then the pressing piano triplets seemed designed to shore
up his self-belief rather than complement his joy. After all, the cycle
closes with the young man alone, in darkness, in a ‘dreaming forest’.

In their encore, Bostridge and Cooper retreated from the unknown and
infinite, returning to more mundane matters, with a vocally and
pianistically visceral portrait of the suffering inflicted upon the lords
and ladies of the court by the King’s debonair flea, in Beethoven’s setting
of Goethe’s ‘Song of the Flea’. A different type of fantasy, but no less

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Imogen Cooper (piano)

Beethoven – ‘Resignation’ WoO.149, ‘Sehnsucht’ WoO.134, ‘Ich liebe dich’ ( Z‰rtliche Liebe) WoO.123, An die ferne Geliebte Op.98;
Schumann – Liederkreis Op.39

Streamed live from Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 30th
September 2020.

product_title=Ian Bostridge (tenor) and Imogen Cooper (piano) at Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Imogen Cooper and Ian Bostridge