Estrangement and Repressed Bitterness in Bostridge’s Winterreise

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Ian Bostridge (tenor), Thomas Adès (piano), Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh Festival, 22.06.14 (CS)

Schubert: Winterreise

Ian Bostridge made his acclaimed Aldeburgh Festival debut in 1994, performing Schubert’s Winterreise.  Since then, the tenor must have embodied the wanderer – traversing the frozen landscape, vainly seeking his beloved, led astray by the false will o’ the wisp, dreaming of springtime warmth, awakening to ice, storm and darkness – countless times.  Bostridge’s interpretations have become renowned for their attentiveness to every nuance of Wilhelm Müller’s poetry and for the singer’s unreserved commitment, honesty and willingness to take musical risks in portraying the protagonist’s hopes, fears and despair.  He has often seemed not merely to sing the music but to live the experiences depicted.

Twenty years after that first Aldeburgh performance, Bostridge returned to the stage of Snape Maltings, accompanied by pianist Thomas Adès, to re-enact the poet-speaker’s journey once more.  Yet while the characteristic range of vocal colour, from bright lyricism to gritty accentuation, and textual meticulousness were much in evidence, this performance had something different, and new: a sense of introspective estrangement and repressed bitterness which was not released until the final songs when the emotions finally surged in an outpouring of disillusionment and wrath, before exhaustion overwhelmed all other feeling.

Adès’ unusual voicing of the accompanying lines played no small part in this emphasis on the inwardness of the traveller’s experience.  The pianist’s introduction to the first song, ‘Gute Nacht’, had a poetic delicacy that retreated into a miraculously restrained pianissimo with the singer’s entry; the arpeggiac flourishes at the start of ‘Die Wetterfahne’ were fleeting and light, the weather vane spinning mockingly in the breeze.  The frozen tears of ‘Gefror’ne Thräne’ were chillingly evoked by the piano’s dry staccato crotchets and eerie accents; rippling, mellifluous triplets at the start of ‘Erstarrung’ (Numbness) were underpinned by a pointedly shaped quiet bass line.  The upper register introduction to ‘Die Krähe’ (The crow) was limpid and crystalline; the ceaseless steady quavers – transferred to the bass – were eloquent and wistful.  All the while, a forward-leaning momentum was sustained through the musical landscapes, creating a subtle, brooding restlessness and unease.

The sweetness of the wanderer’s dreams beneath the lime tree, and the elusiveness of the wind which lures him to ‘rest’, was evoked by Adès’ almost imperceptible discreetness in ‘Der Lindenbaum’.  Similarly, ‘Fruhlingstraum’ (Dream of springtime) was veiled and wistful, punctuated only by the piano’s brief, stabbing flourishes.  In contrast, ‘Rückbluck’ (Looking back) swelled with barely suppressed tension and resentment.

Bostridge displayed diversity and depth in his vocal characterisation – assertive and muscular in ‘Die Wetterfahne, blooming with angry lyrical intensity in ‘Erstarrung’, and rhetorical and rich in ‘Auf dem Flusse’ as the poet-speaker urgently demands, ‘Mein Herz, in diesem Bache/ erkennst du nun dein Bild?’ (My heart, in this brook, do you now recognise your likeness?)  There was a controlled evenness in ‘Rast’ (Rest) in which the weary lethargy of the poet-speaker was enhanced by Bostridge’s smooth octave plummets at phrase-ends.  As the singer tells of the serpent within his heart, rearing up with its searing sting, his tenor assumed an eerie tone as the twisting motifs rose to the upper register.

Rhythmic precision was a significant factor in defining the taut relationship between singer and accompaniment: in ‘Irrlicht’ (Wiil-o’-the-wisp) the various voices’ interlocking and crossing dotted rhythms were etched with clarity, like the web of the spirit enticing the traveller from his path into the deep clefts of rock.  At such moments the mood was distinctly, and strikingly, ‘modern’.

The concluding section of ‘Einsamkeit’ (Loneliness) marked the initiation of an ever-growing emotional instability and in the second section of the cycle motivic outbursts were more frequent, spontaneous and penetrating.   In the minor key stanza of ‘Die Post’ (The Post Coach) Bostridge’s wrenching cries ‘Mein Herz’ rang out above Adès’ clarion-like accompaniment, while the concluding repetition was sharply curtailed, as if the traveller was overwhelmed and silenced by anguish.  The pianist fastidiously painted the dissonances of ‘Der greise Kopf’ (The hoary head), harmonic waywardness complemented by subtle rhythmic flexibility in both vocal line and accompaniment.

Towards the end of ‘Die Krähe’, Bostridge began to bring more extroversion to his response to the text: the open sound of the high extended ‘Grabe’ – ‘Krähe, laß mich endlich seh’n/ Treue bis zum Grabe!’ (Crow, let me at last behold fidelity to the grave!) – exposed the wanderer’s pain, before the line sank to a low, focussed pianissimo.  The off-beat accents and asymmetries of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ (Last hope) were disquieting.

There was a sense of acceleration towards the last songs of the cycle and a growing feeling of dislocation and disturbance.  The parodic waltz of ‘Täuschung’ (Pretence) dripped with irony and encapsulated the traveller’s isolation from human companionship.  The steady walking rhythms of ‘Der Wegweiser’ (The Signpost) recalled the opening ‘Gute Nacht’, but now the repeating quavers and step-wise tread of the vocal line had a hollowness which culminated in the depletion of Bostridge’s monotone as the traveller espies the sign pointing to the path by which one does not return.

After the impassioned defiance of ‘Mut!’ (Courage), the poignant beauty of Bostridge’s simple, confined melody in ‘Die Nebensonnen’ was deeply moving, its serenity a symbol not of peace but of delusion.  But, passion swelled again in the concluding ‘Der Leiermann’ (The Organ-Grinder), Adès’ accents lurching ominously, Bostridge’s tone swelling from pained dejection to disorientation and angry despair.

At the close the performers were visibly drained.  This encounter with the hurdy-gurdy man was not the long-for human intimacy but a confrontation with the figure of Death.  The singer asks, ‘Wunderlicher Alter,/ soll uch mit dir geh’n?/Willst zu meinen Liedern/ deine Leier dreh’n?’ (Curious old fellow, shall I go with you?  When I sing my songs, will you play your hurdy-gurdy too?).   Adès’ final bars dissolved into a sustained, unbroken silence – as if the wanderer had slipped away into the frozen waste.

Claire Seymour

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