Sunday 18 June 2023

Rückert lieder: Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake in songs by Robert & Clara Schumann, Schubert, Henze and Mahler

Friedrich Rückert
Friedrich Rückert

Robert & Clara Schumann, Schubert, Henze and Mahler; Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake; Temple Music at Middle Temple Hall
Reviewed 17 June 2023

All about the song; Ian Bostridge in remarkably direct and intense performances that spin magic in a wide-ranging programme

Faced with mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton's sudden withdrawal from her concert for Temple Music on Saturday 17 June 2023, pianist Julius Drake and Temple Music swiftly replaced the programme with the intriguing prospect of tenor Ian Bostridge in an entire evening of settings of the poetry of Friedrich Rückert stretching from Schubert's six Rückert settings, songs by Robert and Clara Schumann including songs from their Gedichte aus 'Liebesfrühling' to Henze's Das Paradies and four of Mahler's Rückert Lieder.

Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) studied at the universities of Würzburg and Heidelberg, spent a year in Rome and eventually became a professor of Oriental languages in Erlangen and then Berlin, before retiring to his estate near Coburg. The beginning of his literary career coincided with Germany's struggles with Napoleon and his first, pseudonymously published Deutsche Gedichte (German Poems) expressed patriotic sentiments. His Östliche Rosen (Eastern Roses) came in 1822, and from 1834 to 1838 his Gesammelte Gedichte (Collected Poems) were published in six volumes. His best known work was Liebesfrühling (Spring Songs), some 400 love poems originally addressed to his beloved, a collection that Robert and Clara Schumann very much took as their own. 

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake began with Robert Schumann's Widmung from Myrthen, his wedding present for Clara. Bostridge's approach was quite serious, the intensity was in the phrasing, his use of the words, colour and placement of the notes, all sung with a bright forward line. He did not look at music, there was no music stand, just a discreet prompt copy on the piano lid, which meant that he sang direct to us. Throughout the recital, even in the complex Henze song, there was this feeling of direct contact; it was all about the music. Schneeglöckchen (from Lederalbum für die Jugend) came next, light and full of colours and vocal inflections, this was Bostridge relishing telling us a story. We then returned to Myrthen for Aus den 'Östliche Rosen', which was light and intimate.

After their marriage in 1840, Robert and Clara collaborated on a collection of songs with texts taken from Liebesfrühling. 12 songs in all, including three duets, we heard the nine solo songs of which three are by Clara. Whilst her songs from the group are quite well known, Robert's are less so and listening to the nine as a whole, you sensed that perhaps some of Robert's songs were there to set his wife's off.

Robert's Der Himmel eine Träne geweint was considered and serious, sung with lovely tone and a return to the sense of story telling. In high contrast, Clara's Er ist gekommen was stormy, both Bostridge and Drake matching each other for vivid impulsiveness, yet then there was the lovely throw away postlude. Robert's O ihr Herren returned us to more serious matters, and this ode to simplicity was rather hymn-like. Clara's Liebst du um Schönheit was direct to us, considered but rather moving. A delicate, almost skittish piano led us into Robert's Ich hab' in mich gesogen, characterful with Bostridge paying full attention to expressive articulation of the words. Whilst the opening chords of Robert's Flügel! Flügel! um zu fliegen were dark and intense, the song became vivid and impulsive, until the sixth verse when things halted in mid air, the poet suddenly pained, though the opening's vividness did return. Robert's Rose, Meer und Sonne was about the simple, expressive beauty of the melody, and again a lovely postlude, whilst O Sonn', o Meer, o Rose! was quite free, yet full of feeling. We ended this group with Clara's Warum willst du andre fragen, intimate, with finely shaped phrases.

The first half ended with two of Schubert's six Rückert settings. Die Wallfahrt was only discovered in the 1960s, it is short and mysterious, an account of a pilgrimage that ends in death, sung here to music that was free and intense. Greisengesang sets only some of Rückert's verses, the text Schubert chose concentrates on old age's troubles yet his music has a positive cast at the end, a sort of benediction. The vocal line was strong, often just in unison with the piano and it was striking here, two artists so in sympathy, and the ending was full of tenderness.

The second half returned to Schubert. Lachen und Weinen was all character, articulation and vocal colour, whilst Dass sie hier gewesen was wonderfully free, the voice almost starting mid-phrase and ending in a haunting manner. Du bist die Ruh was about the simple, expressive beauty of a phrase, with Bostridge spinning magical lines. The same was true of Sei mir gegrüsst, another strophic song which was all about expressive line and subtle inflections.

Hans Werner Henze wrote his song cycle, Sechs Gesänge aus dem Arabischen for Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake in 1997/98. A plan to set poems by Henze's friend, the late Ingeborg Bachmann turned into Henze setting his own poems inspired by his trips to the Kenyan island of Lamu. The last song of the cycle sets Rückert 's translation of Hafiz, and it was this, Das Paradies that Bostridge and Drake performed next.

What struck me first was that for all the density of the piano writing and the complex chromaticism of the vocal line, the atmosphere was the same as the earlier songs. Bostridge sang with the same intensity of line and word, whilst Drake brought a similar expressive fluidity to the piano writing. It was terrific. Henze set the individual lines of the poem as a series of invocations, a slow build in intensity to something approaching rapture and ending with almost haunting mysticism, 'I clamber up to your castle, fair moon, let me pale before you, come, come, give me your hand'.

The response to this was the almost immediate piano introduction to Mahler's Ich atmet' einen linden Duft, a magical transition. There was a lovely sense of airy expansiveness in Bostridge and Drake's performance, as if we had all the time in the world. By contrast, Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder was all nervous intensity, with Bostridge highly articulating some words, and then there was the way the drama continued in the postlude as Bostridge reacted to the music. Liebst du um Schönheit returned us to words we had heard earlier, but here we had strong phrasing and a steady tempo full of expressive rubato, and a real attention to the words. Finally Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, and in Drake's hands the piano was all we needed to conjure this magical world, no orchestra was necessary. Bostridge sang with a controlled, intense line, creating something mesmeric. Thoughtful and interior, the ending became completely hushed and was pure magic.

On stage, Bostridge was quite a restless performer, as if the need to convey every nuance of the song impelled him not to be still. Yet everything - text, colour, articulation - hung on his highly expressive line. There was not chopping phrases for effect, instead a sort of mesmeric seduction, with Bostridge's manner having a superb directness to it. No simpering to the audience, not going off for breather half-way, instead there was just him, Drake and the music. This was all about the song.

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