Bostridge and Middleton conjure the urgency and despair of Schubert’s winter wanderer at Leeds Lieder

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Leeds Lieder – Schubert: Ian Bostridge (tenor), Harriet Burns soprano, Joseph Middleton (piano). Leeds Town Hall (live stream), 29.10.2020. (CS)

Joseph Middleton and Ian Bostridge, at Leeds Town Hall

Schubert – Ellens Gesang I – ‘Raste Krieger! Krieg ist aus’, Ellens Gesang II – ‘Jäger, ruhe von der Jagd!’, Ellens Gesang III – Ave Maria, Winterreise

“Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?” the wanderer asks. In the concluding pages of his prize-winning book, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, Ian Bostridge suggests of the final song, ‘Der Leiermann’: ‘If the answer were to be a sturdy yes, then the crazy but logical procedure would be to go right back to the beginning of the whole cycle and start all over again …’ I’m beginning to feel that I am indeed ‘trapped’ in what Bostridge describes as ‘the endless repetition of this existential lament’ – or, at least, trapped by my own desire to hear the tenor’s ceaseless revisitations of Schubert’s masterpiece. I’ve lost count of the live performances I’ve heard, and written about, in venues large and small, with numerous pianists partnering Bostridge; and if I add the times I’ve listened to, and cogitated, his recordings with Leif Ove Andsnes and Thomas Adès – and throw in some performances of Zender’s Winterreise as staged by Netia Jones – then I’m probably descending into the realms of obsession too. The way that different pianists’ contributions shape the overall effect and particular moments is fascinating. And, even here there is constant evolution and immediacy of response: Bostridge’s performance with Adès at the Barbican Hall in 2015 felt a very different musical and emotive experience to that at Wigmore Hall in 2018.

So, now to Leeds Town Hall – well, in spirit, if not in person – and to another performance, with another pianist, the Director of the Leeds Lieder festival, Joseph Middleton. The programme began – in a fashion established by Oxford Lieder earlier this month – with a prefatory offering of Schubert songs from an ‘emerging artist’: on this occasion, soprano Harriet Burns, whose performances at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama I have enjoyed in recent years, and whom I heard perform in Schubert in 2018, in a concert that formed part of Graham Johnson’s Schubert: The Complete Songs series at Wigmore Hall. The ‘confidence and bright clarity’ that I noted on that occasion was a pleasingly characteristic of Burns’ performance of Schubert’s three Ellens Gesang. To Middleton’s light military flourishes, she added earnest exhortations in the first song, while the lullaby-like episodes lilted lyrically. She used the words effectively in the final imagery of the stamping of terrified horse and the frightened call of the sentry. Perhaps, while Burns worked hard – through her diction and manner – to evoke the different moods and sentiments, vocal colour might have been more varied. But, this was communicative singing. The second song hails a Hunter, and Burns’ appeals were engaging and lively – her voice has terrific agility and her accuracy is impressive – with Middleton buoyantly carrying her assurances to the sleeping huntsman. The concluding ‘Ave Maria’ was perhaps a little too blanched of colour, though projected through a rather full vibrato, but she shaped the evolving intensity and peaceful conclusion of the song effectively.

And, so, on to our winter journey. Middleton immediately put his personal stamp on proceedings: ‘Gute Nacht’ began with a taut step, propelled by anxiety, seeming to rush forward at times, elsewhere to stumble. There were moments of angry disdain from Bostridge’s wanderer – ‘Laß irre Hunde heulen/ Vor ihres Herren Haus’ (Let stray dogs howl outside their master’s house) – and, with the slightest lessening of the pulse, dreamy withdrawal: ‘Will dich im Traum nicht stören,/ Wär schad’ um deine Ruh’ (I will not disturb you in your dreaming, it would be a pity to spoil your rest.) And, there was bitterness and resentment, in the hint of a snarl in the closing phrase, ‘Damit du mögest sehen,/ An dich hab’ ich gedacht.’ (So that you may see that I have thought of you.)

The forward-falling movement was sustained through the opening songs. Middleton conjured the stinging whip of the wind in the opening of ‘Die Wetterfahne’, snatching at the tumbling semiquavers and stirring up the wanderer’s indignation that he should have looked for loyalty in love within his beloved’s house. The piano’s frozen tears in ‘Gefrorene Tränen’ mocked with their spiky teasing, and Bostridge’s wanderer seemed bewildered by their presence, tumbling in numbness into the snow (‘Erstarrung’), vainly searching for nature’s solace. Middleton’s left-hand triplets churned as turbulently as the protagonist’s emotions; transferred to the treble in the closing bars, they tormented – a mocking reminder of the lover’s melting image.

We needed the moment of pause in ‘Der Lindenbaum’, though Middleton’s fluttering triplets were no less fraught and Bostridge’s remembered words of loved seemed tainted with an ironic tint, his tenor dark and restrained, sometimes withheld to the point of secrecy. Middleton observed the written dotted rhythms in ‘Wasserflut’, creating an uneasy tension between piano and voice which surged through Bostridge’s peaks of searing grief (“heiße Weh”). And in ‘Auf dem Flusse’ the tension deepened further, the slow tempo and the piano’s dry staccato evoking the hard immobility of the crust of ice on the river, and the sudden contrasts of dynamics and changes of vocal tone suggesting the imagined torrents that surged beneath that-cold surface. The burden of restrained emotion, the threat of deluge, the loss of self, weighed heavily; Bostridge bowed forward, resting his forehead on the piano.

The ferocious burning ground in ‘Rückblick’ injected renewed vigour, and the stumbling haste of the fleeing wanderer was conveyed as much by Bostridge’s restless swaying and lurching across the platform as by his energised enunciation of the text, lightly accented, slightly breathless. But, despair – draining, deathly – trickled into ‘Irrlicht’. Bostridge seemed to sing the last phrase through teeth gritted in agony or weariness – “Jeder Strom wird’s Meer gewinnen,/ Jedes Leiden auch sein Grab” (Every river will find the sea, every sorrow will find its grave) – the weary resignation pricked only by the anguished portamento of the final rise and fall. Lured by the will-o’-the-wisp into introspective chasms, in ‘Rast’ this wanderer, hands clenched and knotted together, turned his back on his audience, shrouded in lethargy, pierced by inner torment. Middleton’s piano-steps lifted their feet wearily, only occasionally rising with a stinging stamp.

Dreams of meadows and birdsong (‘Frühlingstraum) were a deluded nightmare: Bostridge fairly spat out the images of crows and shrieking ravens, then retreated into airy otherness, his pained question a beautiful whisper – “Ihr lacht wohl über den Träumer,/ Der Blumen im Winter sah?” (Are you mocking the dreamer who saw flowers in winter?) – tinted with a bite of winter chill. The journey that had begun determinedly had consumed the fire which propelled it: the low, louring piano pedal in ‘Einsamkeit’ held the wanderer back as Middleton painted a vicious Gothic landscape against which Bostridge railed, frustrated and exhausted. The post horn (‘Die Post’) seemed to offer no promise and Bostridge sounded more bewildered than encouraged, and the sense of failure and futility seeped through the first falling phrases of ‘Der greise Kopf’, both piano and voice fading, Bostridge’s words almost grinding to a halt. Screwing up his eyes, grimacing, he wondered, “Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre!” (How far still to the grave!), his tenor dry and drained.

The crows circled with strange delicacy in ‘Die Krähe’. Were they real or images within a deluded, suicidal consciousness? With a bitter growl, Bostridge forced the low-lying lines from the side of his half-closed mouth: “Krähe, laß mich endlich seh’n,/ Treue bis zum Grabe!” (Oh crow, let me see at last faithfulness unto to the grave!) Middleton’s snatched spiccatos and savage accents made ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ fierce and frightening, musical instability inspiring the wanderer’s increasing desolation. The rattling chains and barking dogs of ‘Der Dorfe’ were not tangible musico-poetic images, rather mental imaginings cast into a hostile world, the wanderer’s delusion conveyed with dreadful poignancy by Bostridge aching, gentle piano.

Paradoxically, delusion drove ‘Der stürmische Morgen’ and ‘Täuschung’ forward, impelled by derangement and despair, angrily declaimed by Bostridge. Something of the direction of the journey’s beginning was regained, only to dissipate in ‘Der Wegweiser’, the vocal line slipping ironically into lyrical languor and restrained sweetness, the piano retreating, tentative, tender, unable to dislodge its quiet but stubborn ostinato. ‘Das Wirtshaus’ offered a warm chordal embrace, but Bostridge’s soft, restrained melody – his head voice so gentle – recognised its false hopes: “Bin matt zum Niedersinken, bin tödlich schwer verletzt.” (I am weary, ready to sink, fatally wounded.)

A stern ‘Mut’ endeavoured, with almost perverse willpower, to summon conviction. And, some of that determination ebbed into ‘Die Nebensonnen’, brightening and hardening the three suns in the sky, until – with soothing calm – the final submission: “Ging nur die dritt’ erst hinterdrein!/ Im Dunkeln wird mir wohler sein.” (Now the best two are down. If only the third one would go too! I would fare better in the darkness.) The hurdy-gurdy played with none of the idiosyncratic, quasi-existential, rhetoric that Adès injected at Wigmore Hall, but simplicity can be just as communicative as sophistication. The rhythms flexible, the phrases shaped with clarity, Bostridge sang directly to the Hall, sure at first and then sucked into the Leiermann’s own song, his voice subdued into silence: “Dreht und seine Leier Steht ihm nimmer still.” (He turns the handle, and his hurdy-gurdy Is never still.) A surge of defiance seemed to swell through the final question: “Willst zu meinen Liedern Deine Leier dreh’n?” But, with the musicians unmoving – Middleton straight-backed, Bostridge with back curved and head bent forward – a long silence followed. Perhaps the answer is too frightening to contemplate.

Claire Seymour

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