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Ian Bostridge in Concert

by Heather Leviston

Ian Bostridge must be much tougher than his elegant appearance suggests. Following a torturous plane trip, various interviews and rehearsals, plus two performances of the demanding tenor part in Britten’s War Requiem, he gave a recital of works by Schubert and Vaughan Williams charged with musical and emotional energy. This was in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra series, Soloist in the Spotlight, at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

With Amir Farid as his sympathetic accompanist, Bostridge began a group of five Schubert songs with Einsamkeit (“Solitude”), a composition from 1818 and his longest single song; it is almost a mini song cycle in itself. Each stanza begins with the words “Gib mir die Fulle der” (“Give me my fill of’”) then proceeds to outline the merits and shortcomings of solitude, action, company, (romantic) bliss, gloom – and finally returns to solitude and the consolations of Nature.

Schubert’s gripping search for meaning and his endorsement of Romantic pantheism is a perfect vehicle for the special brand of dramatic colouring that Bostridge brings to both text and music. With his restless physicality he almost danced the songs. His idiosyncrasies may have proved a distraction for some, but his astonishing ability to inhabit every song on the program by appearing to recreate the impulses that generated each one was undeniable. Along with impeccable diction, his command of vocal technique enabled him to convey the meaning and spirit of Schubert’s songs with their shifting moods and characters to striking effect. Even the occasional over-emphasis of a word added to the emotional impetus.

Balancing the Angst embedded in some of these pieces, a slight change in the order of the program resulted in this bracket concluding on the happier note of Im Haine (“In the Wood”). Amir Farid’s gentle lyre-like caresses in An die Leier (“To the Lyre”) and rippling evocations of the sea in Am See (“By the Lake”) made a most pleasing contribution to the distinctive atmosphere of these songs.

The choice of having the piano at half stick for the Schubert Lieder resulted in some unfortunate dampening of the sound at times. Given Bostridge’s possession of a voice that occasionally verged on the operatic in its power and his ability to use the resonance of the hall to great effect, this option seemed to offer no advantage to either the singer or the music. Greater clarity came in Farid’s playing of Schubert’s Moments musicaux Nos. 1-3 with the lid at full height. He excelled at capturing the fantasy and gentler, more contemplative colours of Schubert’s musical imagination, as well as giving the more anguished moments of the Andantino and the Hungarian spirit of the final piece their due.

Principal string players of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra joined Bostridge and Farid for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ wonderfully evocative 1909 song cycle On Wenlock Edge. Although highly accomplished pianist Daniel de Borah gave an engaging performance of this song cycle with tenor Andrew Goodwin earlier this year in the Salon, Eoin Andersen, Matthew Tomkins, Christopher Moore and David Berlin demonstrated that the original setting for tenor, piano and string quartet can provide a more intense and satisfying realisation of the music and A. E Housman’s poems.

By the end of the concert, the audience was begging for more with rapturous applause. A repeat of the jaunty Oh, when I was in love with you was not enough and Ian Bostridge in his mellifluous speaking voice introduced a repeat of Bredon Hill with a description of the mutually beneficial exchanges between Vaughan Williams and Ravel in Paris, including Ravel’s assurance that he would add a little French polish to V W’s quintessentially English pastoral style. Even though Bredon Hill ends on a solemn note with its lingering pianissimo promise of mortality, it was a fitting conclusion. The bitter drama of Is my team ploughing?, so movingly heightened by David Berlin’s beautifully expressive cello playing, was left as a vivid memory that would surely have been weakened by repetition.

A standing ovation paid tribute to a recital featuring music making of the highest order in a venue that is tailor-made to showcase artistic excellence. Who could ask for more?

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