Bostridge’s Winterreise: A Journey Too Far

24/09/2018

Schubert: Ian Bostridge (tenor), Thomas Adès (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 17.9.2018. (CSa)

Ian Bostridge; (C) Sim Canetty-Clarke

Ian Bostridge; (C) Sim Canetty-Clarke

Schubert Winterreise

It’s an agreeable stroll on an unusually mild September evening past the crowded bars and cafes of Marylebone, en route to a packed Wigmore Hall and an eagerly awaited recital by tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Thomas Adès. This is not the best way to prepare for the bitterly cold and inhospitable journey that awaits the lonely traveller in Schubert’s great song cycle Winterreise. Composed in 1827, one year before his untimely death aged 31 from syphilis, Schubert’s 24 songs are poems by Wilhelm Muller. The work charts the physical and spiritual suffering of a grief-stricken young man, rejected by the girl he had hoped to marry, as he progresses through a barren winter landscape to an uncertain end. In anticipation, the cycle paradoxically begins with the funereal first stanza of Muller’s Gute Nacht’ and the lines ‘Fremd bin ich eingezogen, Fremd zeih’ ich wieder aus’ (‘a stranger I came, a stranger I depart’).

In fact, neither artist is a stranger to Winterreise. Indeed, Bostridge is probably one of the world’s greatest experts on the work. He first encountered it as a 12-year-old schoolboy. He has written about it in his deeply illuminating Anatomy of an Obsession, and he has performed it more than 100 times worldwide, on many occasions in collaboration with Adès. In the introduction to his book, Bostridge aims to explain and deepen our common response, to intensify the experience of those who already know the piece and reach out to those who have never heard it. ‘The lynchpin is always the piece itself – how do we perform it? How should we hear it?’ he asks.

So, while no one would doubt the technical mastery, intelligence and intellectual authority these two superb musicians brought to their concert last Monday night, one possible reaction to the question ‘How do we perform it?’ might be ‘Not like that.’

The principal problem was Bostridge’s failure to transmit to the audience the emotion he so clearly feels. His theatrical reading and exaggerated vocal delivery do not compensate for that. There’s no denying the dramatic, almost operatic elements in this introspective work, but it is important to remember that a concert platform performance of lieder, unlike opera, calls for subtle characterisation and minimal movement to convey the wanderer’s anguish. There are exceptions, of course, such as the memorable ballet version which Simon Keenlyside danced and sang. The genius of Schubert’s Winterreise, however, is the creation of a perfect synthesis in which the words suggest the music and the music provides the emotional drama. Over articulation, over amplification and extraneous physicality – and the work’s delicate balance can be quickly undermined and even destroyed.

Bostridge rarely stands still. Facing the audience with his eyes closed, and standing close within the bend of the piano, he frequently sways and turns his back to peer into its cavernous interior or wanders up stage towards his accompanist. These mannerisms are distracting, a shame since Bostridge has a magnificent tenor voice: pure and clarion clear in the upper register, an easy access to the lower notes and a silky legato. His diction is exemplary, and he is capable of extraordinary characterisation. In the second verse of ‘Gefror’ne Tränen’ (‘Frozen Tears’), for example, the voice transforms most movingly into something deep and quizzical at the point when the traveller realises that he has failed to notice that he has been weeping. On the other hand, passages in ‘Der Lindenbaum’ (‘The Linden Tree’) were spat out with an excess of bitterness, and the lines in ‘Wasserflut’, where the traveller declares in a forced crescendo his burning anguish, were simply too loud. There were nonetheless many thrilling moments. ‘Rückblick’ (‘A Backward Glance’) was sung with astonishing speed, and the turbulent storm was suitably menacing in ‘Der stürmische Morgen’ (‘The Stormy Morning’). The best came last, with an achingly poignant account of ‘Der Leiermann’ (‘The Hurdy-Gurdy Man’) which Bostridge describes as ‘a magical and totemic piece of music which seems to have a power and resonance beyond all rational explanation’. Interestingly, he avoids rehearsing this ‘untouchable’ song, preferring instead to wait for the inspiration of the moment of performance.

In this song cycle, Schubert intended the piano to provide more than accompaniment, more an equal partnership. In that role, Thomas Adès proved to be a sensitive and responsive collaborator, skilfully echoing the poet’s imagery in the music, but maintaining much needed balance and restraint when Bostridge’s interpretation wandered a bit too far.

Chris Sallon

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