Bostridge in Zurich Excels with Mahler Lieder: a Master-Class

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Mahler, Brahms: Musikkollegium Winterthur, Ian Bostridge (tenor) St. Peter’s Church Zurich, 10.4.2017. (JR)

Photo credit: Ben Ealovega.
Ian Bostridge (c) Ben Ealovega.

Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Brahms – Serenade No.1 op.11
Mahler – Four songs from Rückert Lieder

Winterthur is a small industrial town (with very fine art collections) not far from Zurich and they are fortunate, to say the least, in garnering Ian Bostridge as their “Artist in Resonance” this season. The management of the town’s orchestra, the excellent Musikkollegium Winterthur, wisely decided to bring Bostridge to Zurich. The concert took place in Zurich’s oldest church, St. Peter, famous for having the largest clock face in Europe. It had to be in Switzerland.

Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer – or Journeyman) result from the end of an unhappy love affair with a singer, Johanna Richter; lyrics are by Mahler himself though based on Des Knaben Wunderhorn, one of Mahler’s favourite books, a collection of German folk poems. The short cycle has more than an echo of Winterreise, complete with linden tree (Bostridge, in his recent book on Winterreise devotes several pages to the significance of the linden tree). Bostridge brought a suitably yearning quality to the first bitter-sweet song, ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’ in which the journeyman (an apprentice, as Mahler was when he wrote the songs) sings of the natural sorrow he feels watching a woman he loved get married – to someone else. Bostridge emphasised that this was ‘einen traurigen Tag’ (a sad day). Right at the end of the song (‘Denk ich an mein Leide’) was the only place where Bostridge revealed that the very lowest register is not his natural vocal territory.

‘Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld’, the happiest song in the cycle, was charmingly rendered with more than a touch of melancholy at the point when the wayfarer realises his happiness will not blossom in future; Bostridge’s crisp high-German diction is clearer than most Swiss can manage. Intonation was in the master-class category.

‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ was properly chilling; ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ finished the cycle, Bostridge singing the most beautiful final section “Unter dem Lindenbaum” with almost a hangdog expression – most moving.

There are strong links between the songs and Mahler’s First Symphony, where he re-used two of the charming melodies. English composer Colin Matthews, a Mahler specialist, had arranged the songs for small chamber orchestra at the request of the orchestra.

No interval, but Bostridge rested while a nonette played Brahms’ “Serenade No.1”, an early work full of charm, though its first movement sounded banal after the sublime Mahler. The piece really only comes to life in its final two movements, a couple of Minuets and an animated Rondo. Ralph Orendain (leader) and Chie Tanaka (viola) stood out as did the very secure horn-playing of Kenneth Henderson.

Then it was back to Bostridge and four songs from the Rückert Lieder. Rückert was a German poet in the first half of the 1800s, much admired by the well-read Mahler. There were more references to Linden trees in ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ in a song which had traces of Chinoiserie, a forerunner of Das Lied von der Erde. ‘Liebst Du um Schönheit’ was, as Mahler later wrote, a love song to his future wife Alma (Schindler); Bostridge sang it most touchingly. But the best was left to last, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, which is a masterpiece, and Bostridge repeated it as his encore. It was spellbinding but even better second time around where Bostridge was just a bit more relaxed. He used a score for the Rückert songs, whilst for the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – for which he showed a particular affinity – he dispensed with one. Orchestration for chamber ensemble (including accordion) was by Gerhard Müller-Hornbach.

A truly splendid recital.

John Rhodes

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