Ian Bostridge, tenor; Wenwen Du, piano: Songs of Mahler, Stephan, Butterworth, Weill and Britten, Playhouse, May 18, 2016.

Ian Bostridge and Wenwen Du toured North America with ‘Songs of World War I’ in the spring of 2015. The duo gave Vancouver a very fine Winterreise at that time, pushing the war songs ahead to this year.  Although the recital’s reference to World War I is largely a debt to the centenary celebrations of 2014, it comprises a stimulating and varied collection of pieces responding to war in general, ranging from Mahler to Butterworth and Britten, and including some less often heard offerings of Rudi Stephan and Kurt Weill.  In fact, it was only the young Stephan and Butterworth who were direct casualties of the Great War. Press from last year indicates just how striking this recital was for many observers.  David Allen wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Bostridge’s tenor became a weapon of pure, cold metal. Beauty was not the intention; rather, emotional savagery. Vowels lacerated like bayonets; consonants spat, as if they were spent shells.”  While recognizing that Mr. Allen (as a former colleague) often writes with the same poetic bravado as Mr. Bostridge sings, I admit that did not feel the same gripping metallic chill on this occasion.  I thought the repertoire was captivating, but perhaps the passage of a year has taken some polish off the steel: this was an altogether less savage and threatening presentation, and one which, at points, might have actually benefitted from a greater sharpness of utterance.

One certainly welcomes the full expression of pain and derision in the context of war -- and the presentation of these attributes were a highlight here – but the other side of the war experience is the encroaching numbness created by fear, disbelief, and pity that takes one to a very quiet, surreal state, almost disembodiment. Bostridge is a master of these distilled, removed utterances, yet I found less suspension of this kind throughout. Perhaps the hall’s acoustic was a problem: there seemed to be less quiet all round and a feeling of over-projection arose at times.  As well, while I always enjoy Wenwen Du’s tonal solidity and beauty, and obvious musicality, I might have preferred her to sometimes paint with leaner colours and less pedal in this acoustic. 

There can be no doubt that one real find was the six Rudi Stephan songs.  Meeting his death at only 28, this young German’s offerings have a wonderfully clean flow and freshness, and find both emotional reach and harmonic innovation. One notes refined yearning fragrances in ‘Kythere’ (Cythera), a compelling sensuality and passion in ‘Pantherlied’ (Panther song), yet a lovely tenderness and radiance springs from both ‘Abenfrieden’ (Evening Peace) and ‘Glück zu Zweien’ (‘Happiness Together’).  ‘Das Hohelied der Nacht’ (High Song of the Night) exhibits a most fragrant sensuality to place alongside its innocence.  Here the balance and scale of the performance seemed just right: charming, often touchingly intimate, and always finding a fluid sense of motion.

The four Weill songs are a relative rarity, and it must have taken considerable ingenuity to place them here.  The first two, ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ and ‘O Captain! My Captain!’, are essentially ‘all out’ pieces, and one could only admire Bostridge’s very long swooping phrases and dynamic punctuations, which brought both vivid point and lyrical sweep to the adventure.  Wenwen Du’s piano had estimable rhythmic drive as well, though perhaps she might have broken her purposiveness with a touch of whimsy sometimes.  Bostridge’s treatment of the trauma in the middle of ‘Come up from the Fields’, was also striking, but I felt the song ended too warmly. Sparser, more acerbic textures, with greater suspension of line would have been more emotionally entrancing.  Something of the same might be said for ‘Dirge for Two Veterans’, which seemed to need more sense of removal, though the tenor’s singing at the very end was beautiful.

A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad was a book of poems often taken to the battlefield. Of the six Butterworth settings, the familiar ‘When I was one-and-twenty’ was delightfully portrayed. ‘Is my team ploughing’ was cinematic and commanding, full of emphasis on particular words (for example, the swell on ‘jingle’ in the first stanza), and very successful.  Yet I probably wanted something simpler in ‘Loveliest of Trees’ which, for all its characterization, seemed over-sophisticated.

The concert started from powerful and vivid treatments of three songs from Mahler’s ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’.  I do not necessarily warm to ‘bleeding chunks’ of Mahler, though these pieces are ‘military’ enough to fit with the rest. ‘Revelge’ (Reveille), was much more than sneering and derision, full of adventurous bulges and long legato phrases from the singer, aided by the pianist’s hammering chords, full of wildness and protestation.  ‘Der Tambourgsg’sell’ (The Drummer Boy) was equally vivid, pushing out to find rich nerve ends and ample drama. Wenwen Du did a particularly fine job at bringing out Mahler’s variety and imagination in the piano part. These treatments were quite remarkable in their hint of out-of-control abandon, but perhaps they are only for some moods. I am also certain that the final song, ’Wo die schönen Tropeten Blaser’ (When the splendid trumpets sound), for all its tender long lines and emotional outpouring early on, needed to withdraw to greater intimacy at its quiet close.  Something was too forthright here.

It was thoroughly appropriate to end with four songs from the unflinching pacifist, Benjamin Britten, and these were done relatively well. ‘Nightmare’ had a well-judged dramatic center but might have been slightly more personal. ‘Slaughter’ got to the heart of the matter, and I found it endearing that Bostridge’s enunciation reminded me of Peter Pears. The last two songs are remarkably poignant statements. ‘Who are these children?’ found many intriguing wisps of feeling but I think it could have settled into a world that was even more remote and strange.  The haunting, repeated 3-note motive of ‘For Children’ took us home with the right sense of inward contemplation and stillness (“The earth is darkened with a darkening stain…The blood of children corrupts the hearts of men”)  but, again, I thought this could be even softer and more suspended.

With some qualifications, this recital turned out to be a very interesting study of ‘shades’ of war.  There was a great deal of fine singing, exhibiting the imagination that only Ian Bostridge can bring. Yet war remains a complex, often impenetrable, phenomenon, and it seems that a smaller range of extremes surfaced than I expected. The more ardent anger and sarcastic defiance were conveyed quite spectacularly; its chilling, somber pain noticeably less so.  Perhaps some of my concern simply lies with the programme itself, or the somewhat tricky acoustic at hand, but it is still my suspicion that we did not see this recital in its most riveting and concentrated glory. 


© Geoffrey Newman 2016