Sunday, 12 October 2008

Die Schöne Müllerin - Bostridge Goerne Uchida

Ian Bostridge astounded the song world with his seminal Die Schöne Müllerin with Graham Johnson in 1994. He's pulled off the feat a second time, in this outstanding performance with Mitsuko Uchida. Indeed, this is even more distinctive for it's shaped with much more depth of insight.

Schubert's song cycles are much more than the sum of their parts: performing them requires a breadth of vision to illuminate the cycle as a whole. It is not enough to sing well: understanding and interpretation are paramount. What is fascinating is how Bostridge has lived with, and grown with, this cycle. With Johnson, Bostridge emphasized the painful vulnerability of the miller's lad, a portrayal of youthful anguish. Now, Bostridge brings to it the insight of a more mature observer, more attuned to the psychological drama that is at the heart of the cycle. It is a tour de force, reflecting an infinitely deeper understanding of what the cycle means. There is nothing quite like it. The nearest comparison is Matthias Goerne, whose depiction of the psychosis haunting the miller's lad shocked many by its intensity. Bostridge manages a different, if equally perceptive understanding, without Goerne's unorthodox tempi. He's also a tenor. Schubert envisioned the cycle for higher voice and was a tenor himself. This matters a lot, for this version expresses much of what might have been Schubert's personal subtext.

This is, therefore, almost as innovative as Goerne's groundbreaking version, but perhaps more accessible. Bostridge and Uchida make more of the brook's demonic struggle to overpower the boy than his inner demons. This makes their version closer to the Romantic spirit where magic and menace lurk close beneath the surface, where nature spirits can be malevolent. It also fits in with the theory that Schubert himself may have felt cursed by his illness, the result of a natural act of love. Danger and the supernatural are Bostridge's natural territory: witness his brilliant Janáček and Henze recordings where he elucidates terrifying mysteries beyond the realm of consciousness. This new interpretation has, therefore, all the virtues of an intelligent, modern psychological reading while remaining within the mainstream of the Romantic tradition.

Significantly, Bostridge emphasizes that the poet Wilhelm Müller said it was a set "Im Winter zu lesen" - to be read in winter, in barrenness and cold. The text may speak of Spring and flowers but it is, frankly about suicide of a very young man. Schubert connected love with death only too well, for he had been diagnosed with venereal disease shortly before setting the poems. It is not a pretty cycle, by any means. Bostridge and Uchida focus on the uneven dialogue between the brook, representing death, and the young man, dreaming of love.

Uchida is almost too dominant a partner, yet her evocation of the powerful, unyielding movement of the mill wheel expresses the unrelenting power of the waters. This brook has a demonic life of its own, calling to the boy, drawing him towards its crushing embrace. Bostridge's voice has developed deeper colours over the years and his portrayal of the lad is exquisite – lyrical yet richly shaded, making the contrast between the boy and the brook all the more poignant. He whispers, both in awe and excitement ist das denn meine Straβe ?". The brook has already shown who's boss. In the brief vignette of "reality", where the miller talks with his apprentices after work, Bostridge manages to portray the gathering vividly, yet the piano reminds us of the ferocity lurking outside, threatening to shatter the cosy scene. Der Neugierige (the questioner) is one of the critical turning points in the cycle. For Goerne it was as if we were inside the boy's troubled mind, a terrifying inner sanctum. For Bostridge, it is the curiosity of innocence, a moment when the demons in the brook for once are still, while the boy wonders about love. But not for long – Ungeduld starts almost immediately with its insistent, demented pressures. Bostridge sings the verse, when he thinks he's won love with heartfelt openness and triumph but Uchida has already told us that something's amiss. The contrast between lyricism and the violence of the piano part is striking.

In a Wigmore Hall recital in 2005, he sang the last verse of Morgengruβ with much more defiance than on the recording, which was much more effective, for it shows that there's still spirit and hope in the lad's mind. Soon after, though, follows Pause, which for Bostridge is the turning point of the cycle. The boy has hung his lute on the wall, and can sing no more. Bostridge's voice actually takes on a lute like quality from here on. It is as if the boy has already lost the power to be a proactive individual. The two "lute" songs, Pause and Mit dem grünen Lautenbande are balanced by two angry songs about the huntsman whom the miller's daughter clearly prefers. Bostridge and Uchida hardly stop to breathe between songs, allowing them to form a striking group that in turn connects to the "colour" songs, Der liebe Farbe and Die böse Farbe. As a unit of six, without a break, the drama is intensified. In the middle was a most ferocious Eifersucht und Stolz (Jealousy and Pride). It is somewhat restrained on this recording, compared to the fire with which Bostridge sings it in recital. His recent years in opera have certainly taught him expressive, passionate characterisation.

By the time Bostridge sings "Der Mai ist kommen, der Winter is aus!" we are left under no illusion that Spring really will come. The miller's lad and the brook have a final dialogue. Uchida starts Der Müller und die Bach as if she were playing a funeral march, for the brook is calling the boy to itself. Yet Bostridge infuses the last verses with revived lyricism. "Ach, Bächlein, liebes Bächlein ... aber weiβt du wie Liebe tut?" These are "his" last words in the cycle, and Bostridge has him depart with tenderness.

Just as Uchida started the cycle evoking the mechanical process of the mill wheel, she ends it with the same relentless turning over of the same small motif. In this context, I've often thought of the folktune "muss i' den" with a similar hurdy-gurdy type figure revolving over and over. Here, the coy, fake sentimentality of the folktune seems absolutely right - the brook's quaint song is ersatz. The brook has destroyed the lad and absorbed him into itself. Goerne managed a strange but brilliant synthesis, expressing sympathy for the boy while expressing anger at the waste of a destroyed life. For Bostridge the final Wiegenlied is no tender lullaby either, but the chilling voice of the brook and its lack of conscience. It possessively warns the flowers not to arouse the lad from his slumber, like the warped mother in the movie Psycho. It is all the more disturbing because Bostridge sings this with such understatement, letting the horror speak for itself.

Bostridge has emerged from a period of quiet in his career and become a more mature, deeper and sensitive performer than before. A true artist keeps creating, thinking things over and developing and to his credit, Bostridge seems to have endless reserves of musical intelligence. Creating one distinctive Schöne Müllerin enshrines him as one of the cycle's best performers. Creating a second, exceptional and far more original interpretation as this new version, earns him a place in the pantheon.

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