Bring Your Overcoat for This Winterreise

ItalyItaly Schubert, Die Winterreise: Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano), Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Sala Sinopoli, Rome, 24.2.2012 (JB)

William Walton used to say that Peter Pears ruined a whole generation of English tenors. He had a point. Pears was probably the most musical English singer to have made records as well as the most intelligent –and that includes musical intelligence in addition to other forms of intelligence. Moreover, in Benjamin Britten, he had a musical partnership and another profound partnership which is almost without equal in musical history. The trouble was that Pears did not have much of a voice.

He famously studied singing with Lucie Manén. Frau Manén claimed to teach bel canto singing. She did no such thing, in spite of having been a pupil of Pauline Viardot. The Manén method was based on a thorough grasp of the physiological mechanisms which enable the human voice to sing. Understand these mechanisms and how to get the best out of them and how to avoid what will damage them and you will become a great singer. I simplify a bit here, but that was the gist of Manén’s approach.

You will see from this that it follows (still oversimplifying) that anyone can become a great singer. Lucie’s task was to help the student to get the best out of what God had given them. Elizabeth Harwood and Garient Evans were two other successful pupils. Once the technique was well-oiled and freely flowing, death alone could stop it. That was not just the theory. It worked in practice in all the cases I have mentioned.

It helped if the student had the intelligence to thoroughly understand the vocal mechanisms. In this, Peter Pears was better endowed than Lucie Manén, and so he remained eternally grateful to her in showing him the way to a lifetime’s technical prowess. The voice remained what it was but the reproduction was superb.

But when younger tenors began to imitate the Pears voice, Walton’s protestation comes into place. Moreover, in a short time, there emerged a theory (which might have better been called a creed) that for singing Lieder a beautiful voice is a waste of time; what really matters is musical intelligence. The musical intelligence race was on.

Among my recordings, it is Christa Ludwig who has the most beautiful voice. But that recording has James Levine as pianist, and he has the unfortunate attribute of the worst amateur accompanists of waiting to see what the singer will do and then following her, thus never quite managing to be with her.

Matthias Goerne is also possessed of a beautiful voice but it sounds like he has set some of this asset aside to give all his attention to his very considerable musicianship. His accompanist is the greatest of them all – Graham Johnson, whose 100-page booklet of notes of their Hyperion recording is in itself a treasure trove of information.

And so we arrive at Ian Bostridge, Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford and acclaimed researcher in literary history. Dr. Bostridge’s distinguished academic background sounds in his singing. That is both his strength and weakness. He is unfailingly loyal to Wilhelm Müller (the poems sound as though they are part of his blood and breathing, with superb German diction), but a little less loyal to Franz Schubert, as I shall show.

Early on in the cycle I noticed a curiosity about his voice: his finest vocal asset is in the weakest part of his voice. Such are his lower notes. This is where he permits himself some chest support so that the sound is unforced. He made beautiful sounds in Auf Dem Flusse with an admirable sense of musical direction. Wherever the music is slow and low he is perfectly in tune with the Schubert aesthetic. At the same time, some of these notes are uncomfortably low for him and have to be skimmed rather than voiced. And that is a matter of which Julius Drake is well aware and caters to, as an accompanist must.

Elsewhere, Bostridge squeezes the sense out of these poems, they are studiedly forced. And this puts him firmly in the Pears tradition, raising Sir William’s objection. More seriously, the Schubert sensibility is in peril. Dr. Bostridge is extremely tall and slender, attributes which ought to be advantageous. But he does everything to impede the sound such as raising himself on his toes and leaning forward – both movements which block sound and necessitate the forcing. It is as though for him, not forcing is not singing.

You will also need to be wearing your winter overcoat to listen to the Bostridge Winterreise. You might think that that is fair enough. After all, this is a Winter’s Journey. It ought to be chilling. But chilling in this context ought to mean heart-warming too. What I am objecting to is the preordained artifice which comes with the Bostridge performance. This may well be convincing to some ears. But not to mine. And make no mistake, I am no enemy of artifice. I only maintain that it has no place in Schubert.

I could hardly wait to return home and play the Goerne recording, whose warm, velvety tones offer up to Schubert a much wider spectrum of vocal colours. Now that, I realize, is in some ways, an unfair comparison: the baritone voice is naturally warmer than the tenor. (Though stop to think about it, there are exceptions there too, like Caruso.) In any case, Ian Bostridge’s vocal heating system was on strike last night, if indeed he has such a system.

Julius Drake sounded uncomfortable with the Accademia’s Steinway Grand, which was being tuned by the Steinway leading tuner as I arrived early at the hall. I had better admit that when I am sure no one is listening, I sit at the piano and sing and play these songs for private amusement. And on this occasion I was following the programme with the score. There were many notes in Mr Drake’s performance which failed to sound, especially in the lower part of the keyboard. Rhythmic inaccuracies also disturbed the flow. That was seriously disconcerting. But the partnership with his singer could hardly have been bettered.

Jack Buckley