Winterreise to Waly – Bostridge in Rome

ItalyItaly Schubert, Ives, Britten  Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano)  Accademia Filarmonica Romana at Teatro Argentina, Rome  27.03.2014 (JB)

A poem known from memory changes our lives: it becomes part of us, surfacing at unexpected moments, subtly but directly influencing decisions, conscious and not conscious.  Education in the most profound sense of the word, you might say.

Ian Bostridge was a distinguished academic before he was a singer, an honorary fellow of both Corpus Cristi and St John’sColleges, Oxford, no less.    English poetry was part of him in his early career.  And it still is.  It is remarkably and profoundly in evidence in his singing.   His superb musical intelligence is deeply informed by the poetry which he has made his own.  Don’t sing notes, sing words, Charles Kennedy Scott would always urge his singing students.  Dr Bostridge does not need that advice.  There is a very real sense in which his words are  his music.

For my own part, I’m somewhat this-way, that-way about the Bostridge voice, straight out of the Peter Pears tradition.  As Britten’s lover and model tenor, Sir Peter has to be seen as “authentic” in the best Britten  sense.  And beside, he too has that remarkable musical intelligence mentioned above.  It’s just foolish to complain that Pears doesn’t sound like Caruso, even though his remarkable teacher, Lucie Manén, insisted she was teaching the Italian tradition.  She was doing no such thing.  But what she did for her pupils was to give them the right physiological voice  support to be able to deliver the maximum of musical expression which that particular voice  had.  Often the actual voices she taught were limited in what they could express.  Nevertheless, equipped with this technique, the singer would be able to go on for ever with his or her art.  Pears did.  He was singing right up to the time of his death.  No doubt Bostridge will too.  But in both cases one hears them straining for effects which their actual voices are unable to express.  And this in spite of the outstanding musicianship.

Tonight’s programme proved irresistible to me.  I was sure I would be glad I had put any Bostridge reservations aside.

The first part was the early version of Winterreise. (12 songs) In Gute Nacht  it sounded as though tenor and pianist had seriously miscalculated the acoustic of the Teatro Argentina.  Rossini’s Barbiere  had its world premiere in this traditional horse-shoe shaped opera house which, during WW 2 was hit by a bomb.  That closed it for thirty or more years while restoration took place but the restoration was worth waiting for.  Only six-hundred seats but excellent acoustics, though some boxes have a restricted view of the stage.

Gute Nacht  sounded uncomfortably low for the Bostridge voice and the pianist, Julius Drake, took a very unsentimental approach to it –fair enough, but there were moments when he sounded as though he couldn’t get to the end of it fast enough.  However, in Auf dem Flusse  he was beautifully measured, breathing in and out of the rests which  Schubert thoughtfully supplies as part of the phrasing.  Frühlingstraum  was a perfect voice and piano partnership; half the pleasure of this song cycle lies in that partnership.  Einsamkeit  is one of the hardest to bring off: both voice and piano are totally exposed.  In fact, both fell short of bringing the Shubert magic about.

Dr Bostridge has developed what in another singer would be called mannerisms.  But such is his all-consummate artistry that they feel natural; we really feel as though the man wants to take us into his confidence and is relaxed about it: putting his hands in his pocket(s), stroking the piano lid with a hand or sometimes a finger, he wore no tie and thrusting a left hand inside his jacket to clutch his left breast would have been an affectation in anyone else, but here it felt as though he was just trying to reassure himself.  It reassured the audience too!

The six brief songs which make up  Memories of Charles Ives are sheer fun.  And Ian Bostridge is mostly rather good at this.  Very Pleasant  is in the vein of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song.  The words are key here and Bostridge’s diction was not up to his usual standards.  Even with the text in front of me I had difficulty following.  The others are jokes –very brief ones; so brief in fact that the predominantly Italian audience missed them.

I can never decide which is the greater in Winter Words –Hardy’s wonderful poems or Britten’s setting of them.  Even though I know some of these songs from memory, I couldn’t make out where Bostridge was in the text.  This failing of diction is new and I hope temporary.  A special word of praise for Julius Drake’s perfect conveyance of the inevitability of the train’s movements in Midnight on the Great Western.  Wagtail and baby  and The little old table  came across as mannered and affected; both Hardy and Britten call for a daring simplicity here, which was sorely missing.

The encore was the Britten folk-song arrangement, Waly, Waly (the water is wide and I can’t get o’er).  This was the star of the evening in its perfect simplicity from tenor and pianist.  One could almost be convinced that there is a great singer lurking in the depths of Ian Bostridge which he  only occasionally lets out.

Jack Buckley

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