A very special Schumanniade, hosted by Bostridge, Coote and Drake, closes a season to cherish at Wigmore Hall

After keeping the music alive and the song flowing during an incredibly challenging 2020-21 season, Wigmore Hall’s artistic and executive director, John Gilhooly, offered one final feast of lieder to close the 2021 summer series: a Schumanniade hosted by Ian Bostridge, Alice Coote and Julius Drake.   This was a recital of both intimacy and emotive power, traversing diverse moods from relaxed camaraderie to fervent passion and bitter isolation. 

Robert Schumann composed over 250 songs, 139 of them dating from the so-called Liederjahr of 1840, the year in which, after a lengthy and acrimonious legal fight to overturn the objections of her father, Friedrich Wieck, the composer was finally able to marry his beloved Clara.  Almost a decade was to pass until Schumann resumed song composition, producing more than 100 solo songs in the years 1849-51.  These later years in some ways parallel the earlier period, in that, as in 1840 Schumann had been able to look forward to a happy domestic and professional life, so in 1850 he moved with his family to Düsseldorf, hoping to find a more receptive musical community in which to live and work.  This recital presented songs, and some duets, from both ends of the decade, including well-known lieder from early collections such as Liederkreis Op.24 and Myrthen Op.25 and less frequently heard songs from the Op.40 Hans Christan Andersen settings (1840), the Lieder-Album für die Jugend Op.79 (1848) and the Op.90 settings of Nikolaus Lenau (1851).

It’s difficult to imagine more eloquent interpreters of these lieder.  Both singers probed Schumann’s songs discerningly and communicated their meaning and emotions with vivid insight and unforced feeling.  Coote’s mezzo-soprano – ample, golden and with depth of tone – was a perfect complement to Bostridge’s light but characterful tenor which retains its sweet, freshness in the middle register but has in recent years acquired greater darkness and weight at the bottom.  Both musicians employed a wide tonal palette, at times singing with pained fervour or swelling passion, but more often creating introspective worlds and drawing the listener into the protagonists’ heads and hearts.  The poetic texts were unfailingly lucid, evoking ‘lived’ experiences.  And, Julius Drake, ever unobtrusive, always attentive, demonstrated once again what an exceptionally responsive and thoughtful accompanist he is, the piano’s arguments and gestures, large and small, absolutely pointed and persuasive.

Alice Coote opened the programme with the three Tragödie songs Op.64 No.3, the impetuous playfulness of the first song ‘Entflieh mit mir’ (Elope with me) giving way to the whispered poignancy of ‘Es Fiel ein Reif in der Fruhlingsnacht’ (In the spring night frost fell), its brief tale of youthful passion and demise unfolding with delicate tenderness and halting frailty.  The pathos was deepened by the sweet simplicity of the third song, ‘Auf ihrem Grab’ (Over their grave), Bostridge joining Coote in an understated expression of a loss beyond words, the two voices drawing and holding the listener’s attention.

There were fewer shadows in the wood through which the singer’s carriage rolls in ‘Mein Wagen rollet langsam’, and Drake evoked the relaxed, leisurely movement with freely tumbling cascades.   When Bostridge’s vocal line dipped low it had a sombre air, as the traveller mused dreamily on his beloved.  This was one of the four Heine settings included in this programme that had originally been intended for Dichterliebe but which Schumann excised prior to publication.  ‘Es leuchtet meine Liebe’ recounts the sad tale of a young knight who dies defending his beloved against an ‘ogre from the wilderness’ – an ironic reference, perhaps, to the obstructive, obstreperous Herr Wieck.  Drake’s quavers spilled forth in a gleaming wave, turbulent and gusting, and Bostridge spun his yarn with vigour and an angry directness, the final phrase a stabbing accusation, “Wenn ich begraben werde,/  Dann ist das Märchen aus.” (And when I’m dead and buried, this story shall be done.)

‘Dein Angesicht so lieb und schön’ (Your face so lovely and fair) was tender and even, Bostridge’s phrases mellifluous and mesmerizingly sweet.  But the song was not lacking ambiguity and the gentle rubatos of Drake’s postlude intimated the imminent extinguishing of heavenly light from the beloved’s innocent eyes.  ‘Lehn’ deine Wang’ (Rest your cheek) pulsed with passion, as Coote and Drake exploited the ecstatic heights of Schumann’s setting of Heine’s explicit poem of sexual anticipation and satisfaction.  Brief, intense, thundering downwards with replete desire at the close, this was a breathless outpouring of love.

Quite different was the wry succinctness of two ‘Lieder aus dem Schenkenbuch’ (Songs from the Book of the Cupbearer), two of several from Myrthen, Schumann’s wedding gift to his new wife, included in this programme.  Surely a riposte to Wieck’s accusation that Schumann drank excessively, what better way of singing these ironic songs than from the margins, with a glass of wine and one’s own thoughts for company?  Coote dispensed with the wine but delivered the first of these delicious musical rejoinders from her chair at the edge of the Wigmore platform, with dry pointedness, strolling in the second to tease Drake with an invitation to join her in her pleasure-seeking.

In contrast, in ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ (You are like a flower) her mezzo was clear and true, the blissful sentiments of the text expanded still further by Bostridge in ‘Widmung’ (Dedication), in which the tenor’s flowering phrases rhapsodised on both the pain and pleasures of love.  A lovely diminuendo marked the preciousness of the declaration, “Du bist die Ruh, du bist der Frieden,/ Du bist vom Himmel mir beschieden.” (You are repose, you are peace, you are bestowed on me from heaven), Drake’s triplets palpitating softly, and there was belief and assurance in the protagonist’s closing avowal: “Du hebst mich liebend über mich, Mein guter Geist, mein bess’res Ich!” (You raise me lovingly above myself, my guardian angel, my better self!)

From the Op.24 Liederkreis we heard ‘Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden’ (Lovely cradle of my sorrows), Bostridge’s beautiful flowing line again deeply expressive and here evoking both heavenly bliss and melancholic resignation – the latter embodied, too, by the tenor’s slow retreat from the centre of the platform with the closing pronouncement of the rejected protagonist’s passing: “Bis mein müdes Haupt ich lege/ Ferne in ein kühles Grab.” (Until I lay my tired head down in a cool and distant grave.)  Coote’s interpretation of ‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen’ (I wandered among the trees), was one of the highlights of the recital, the mezzo-soprano’s burnished warmth heightening the temptation of memories of past love, her quiet urgency communicating the pain of its loss.

The Sechs Gedichte von N. Lenau and Requiem Op.90 (1850) have an air of farewell, an acknowledge that the peaks of youth and love have passed.  In ‘Einsamkeit’ (Solitude) Bostridge heightened the metrical and harmonic unpredictability, capturing the poet-speaker’s turbulent trauma and restlessness.  ‘Der Schwere Abend’ (The oppressive evening) was similarly unsettling and dramatic, the singer’s duple rhythms fighting against the triple pulse in the piano.  Bostridge was wonderfully articulate in this song, nowhere more so than in the closing emphasis, “Wünscht’ ich bekümmert beiden/ Im Herzen uns den Tod.” (I wished us both dead in the anguish of my heart.)  Coote had begun the melancholy journey through Lenau’s poems with the slow portentousness of ‘Meine Rose!’ and she concluded it with ‘Kommen und Scheiden’ (Meeting and parting) which oscillated dreamily between the real and the remembered.

Other highlights included the warmth and directness of Coote’s ‘Liebesbotschaft’ Op.36 No.6 with its wonderfully equivocal brightenings and harmonic meanderings at the close; Bostridge’s leisurely ‘Abends am Strand’ Op.45 No.3 with its image of old dreams stealing into the singer’s heart, sung with an inviting golden gleam by the tenor, and its colourful tales of journeys to distant lands; the soft, floating opening of ‘Stille Tränen’ (Silent tears) which built with control towards the cathartic weeping of the close; and the dramatic fury of Bostridge’s ‘Der Soldat’ Op.40, the piano’s wrenching thumps of war and strife contrasting painfully with the whispered closing confession, made ghostly by Bostridge’s head voice.

The two singers came together in Schumann’s duets, the lyrical romance of ‘Er und sie’, a setting of Justinius Kerner, contrasting with the placid contentment of ‘Familien-Gemälde’ (Family portrait), which unites memories of love past with anticipation of love future, both abiding and assured.  Coote’s wonderfully reverential ‘Nachtlied’ Op.96 No.1, which glistened with quiet elegance and profound feeling, preceded the final duet, ‘In der Nacht’ from Spanisches Liederspiel Op.74 (1849), which unfolded with quasi-Straussian intensity.

Earlier in the week, Ian Bostridge and Alice Coote had joined Sean Rafferty on BBC Radio Three’s Music Matters to discuss their Wigmore Hall programme, and the mezzo-soprano remarked that she and Bostridge had first shared a stage 30 years earlier, at the 1991 Kathleen Ferrier Award Final which was held at St John’s Smith Square, and at which, she noted wryly, they both failed to make much of a mark.  Excepting a recording of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in 2004, with Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert D’Astrée, this evening at Wigmore Hall was the first time that they had actually sung together live.  This wonderful Schumanniade makes one hope that it’s not the last.

Claire Seymour

Schumanniade: Er und Sie

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano), Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano)

Robert Schumann: Tragödie I Op.64 No.3, Tragödie II Op.64 No.3, Tragödie III Op.64 No.3, Mein Wagen rollet langsam Op.142 No.4, Liebesbotschaft Op.36 No.6, Es leuchtet meine Liebe Op.127 No.3, Lieder aus dem Schenkenbuch im Divan I (from Myrthen Op.25), Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden (from Liederkreis Op.24), Meine Rose (from 6 Gedichte von N Lenau und Requiem Op.90), Widmung, Du bist wie eine Blume (from Myrthen Op.25), Dein Angesicht Op.127 No.2, Lehn deine Wang Op.142 No.2, Abends am Strand Op.45 No.3, Er und Sie Op.78 No.2, Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen (from Liederkreis Op.24), Was will die einsame Träne? (from Myrthen Op.25), Einsamkeit, Der schwere Abend (from Sechs Gedichte von N Lenau und Requiem Op.90), Lieder aus dem Schenkenbuch im Divan II (from Myrthen Op.25), Zigeunerliedchen I,  Zigeunerliedchen II (from Lieder-Album für die Jugend Op.79), Stille Tränen (from Kerner Lieder Op.35), Der Soldat (from 5 Lieder Op.40), Kommen und Scheiden (from 6 Gedichte von N Lenau und Requiem Op.90), Des Sennen Abschied (from Lieder-Album für die Jugend Op.79), Familien-Gemälde Op.34 No.4, Lied Lynceus des Türmers (from Lieder-Album für die Jugend Op.79), Nachtlied Op.96 No.1, In der Nacht (from Spanisches Liederspiel Op.74)

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 1st August 2021.