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Ian Bostridge's Slightly Touched Winter Journey

Franz Schubert's Winterreise is one of the monuments of music history. It may be the composer's masterpiece, in a bountiful corpus of compositions completed over the course of a tragically short life, and the greatest song cycle ever composed. Laden as it is with many layers of significance -- in the poet's life, in the composer's life, in the lives of listeners and performers alike -- it means many things to many people. Tenor Ian Bostridge gave the latest of his many performances of the work, over one hundred by his own tally, on Saturday afternoon at the Library of Congress, in a recital that did little to change my mind that his voice is not quite right for this music.

available at Amazon
I. Bostridge, Schubert's Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession
(Knopf, 2015)

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Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin / Winterreise / Schwanengesang, I. Bostridge (3 CDs + DVD)
(Erato, 2015)

available at Amazon
S. Youens, Retracing a Winter's Journey: Franz Schubert's "Winterreise"
(Cornell University Press, 1991)
The original keys Schubert chose for the songs in Winterreise were intended for a tenor, but baritones always seem to sound best in this cycle to my ears, and Bostridge's recording, made with Leif Ove Andsnes, did not change my opinion on the matter. That impression was borne out in concert, as the lowest notes in this transposition seemed not quite in Bostridge's range, requiring him in some cases to snarl in a guttural way, and not always on pitch. When the high notes could be floated softly, Bostridge's unusual tone -- detached, heady, light -- was just right, as in the concluding song Der Leiermann, but not always so when it required force, as in Mein Herz.

It had been a while since my last experience of Bostridge live, at the Library of Congress in 2006 and in a Shriver Hall Schubertiade in 2009. Besides his normal bizarre gyrations and facial contortions while singing, he did a few genuinely weird things, like a sort of affected smile of surprise that accompanied the narrator's description of the will-o'-the-wisp near the start of Irrlicht. The musical effect made this sort of emoting unnecessary, as he and his accompanist, the talented Julius Drake, gave the whole song a slippery rubato of sudden accelerations, perhaps evoking the apparition's shifting lights.

Rather than sounding like he was reciting poetry through music, Bostridge's interpretation often struck me as stilted, with some unimportant words hammered and some phrases whispered or murmured in a way made incomprehensible by its softness. This was matched by similarly odd gestures in the accompaniment, with Drake alternately banging and coaxing out various threads at the keyboard. Attacca transitions ran some of the songs together, but some slow tempi dragged the length of the performance out to about 80 minutes. The timbre of Bostridge's voice just could not communicate much menace, which is where this cycle's narrator seems to lean, and Schubert at least to my ears cast the songs with an ear for that kind of sound.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Tenor Ian Bostridge performs a compelling rendition of ‘Winterreise’ (Washington Post, February 9)

Michael Dirda, Ian Bostridge’s ‘Schubert’s Winter Journey’ examines the composer’s melancholy work (Washington Post, February 4)

David Weininger, In a new book, Bostridge explores Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ (Boston Globe, January 29)

Matthew Guerrieri, ‘Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession’ by Ian Bostridge (Boston Globe, January 24)

Michael O'Donnell, A Masterpiece to Make You Shiver (Wall Street Journal, January 23)
This performance comes on the heels of Bostridge's new book on Winterreise, a song-by-song analysis of the cycle that relies in large part on literary associations and on Bostridge's personal experience with the work. Bostridge wrote the book, by his own admission, without "the technical qualifications to analyse music in the traditional, musicological sense," making its value principally as a performer's memoir. Although I have not yet read the entire book, my impression so far is that one is still better served by the masterful study of musicologist Susan Youens as far as understanding the historical background of the music and its poetry. Bostridge, for example, suggests that we may fill out the poet's sketch of his narrator by turning to a literary example: perhaps, like Saint-Preux in Rousseau's Julie, he is a tutor to the daughter of a wealthy family, forced to leave when she is married to another. Bostridge relates this to the composer's devotion to Countess Karoline Esterházy, whom Schubert served as music tutor, even wading into the polemic battles between Maynard Solomon and Rita Steblin over Schubert's sexual orientation. Youens, more circumspect, relates the narrator's situation to an unrequited love in the youth of the poet Wilhelm Müller, the man who wrote the words.

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