United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2013 (14) – Ives, Brahms, Schumann: Ian Bostridge (tenor), Lars Vogt (piano), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 22.8.2013. (SRT)
Song recitals in the Usher Hall are seldom entirely successful. I’m certain they must only happen because of diary and venue clashes. The huge space of the hall dwarfs the lonely-looking singer and pianist on the large, empty stage, and the auditorium is only ever half full at best. It must be a fairly dispiriting environment in which to sing, and not nearly as grateful as the altogether more intimate (and suitable) Queen’s Hall. Great as his singing was, Ian Bostridge’s recital suffered from the same issues tonight, although he did his best to overcome them. Bostridge is a stage performer down to his fingertips, as seen by his vast experience in the opera house, and this led to him investing a huge amount of himself into his stage persona here. He acted his way through many of the songs with mixed results. It spoke well for his commitment that he was prepared to throw himself into the persona of the wounded lover, though it got a bit samey (and, I wonder, a little superficial?) when it was so oft repeated in the limited space he gave himself next to the piano.
When it worked, it did so very well, and nowhere more successfully than in Schumann’s marvellous Kernerlieder. Why, oh why isn’t this wonderful set heard more often?! Schumann’s identification with Kerner’s poetry is so complete that I’ve always found these songs every inch the equal of, say, Dichterliebe or Frauenliebe. Bostridge could screw his emotions into heights of supreme expression in, say, Stille Liebe or Stille Tränen, and the sincerity of his portrayals were intensely moving. He also showed his great gift as a storyteller in the ebullience of Wanderlied or, most successfully of all, in Stirb Lieb’ und Freud’. Underpinning the haunting, poignant quality of Bostridge’s voice was the sculptural accompaniment of Lars Vogt, anchoring the vocal line firmly in the Romantic piano tradition as well.
The Brahms settings of Op. 32 were also very strong, especially in Brahms’ great nature paintings. The opening set of Ives songs was rather puzzling, though. Songs of profound depth, such as Remembrance or Thoreau sat next to deliberately skittish numbers like 1, 2, 3 or Memories. This, the song that opened the recital, contained humorous patter and even a part for a kazoo, but it’s the sort of thing that normally ends a recital rather than begins it. The inconsistency of the Ives set as a whole meant that it was very difficult to settle into a particular mood or feeling, so extreme were the swings between songs. Perhaps it was Bostridge’s intention to undermine expectations, but I found it unsettling when, particularly in a venue such as this one, you need more connection with the singer, not a distancing effect.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 1st September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk