Monday, 27 July 2009

An mein Hammerklavier - Schubert, Drake and Bostridge

Lieder is a partnership between singer and pianist. I've loved Julius Drake for more than 15 years. In May I heard him rescue an indifferent recital by the sheer wonder of his playing. So it was a surprise to hear him at the Wigmore Hall on 25/7.

The programme was promising, an intelligent mix of much-loved Schubert staples with relative rarities which the Wigmore Hall's specialist audience eagerly anticipated. By its very nature Lieder is more extreme than ordinary song. Good Lieder recitals shouldn't be tame. But the reckless pace at which Drake was playing seemed to stem from something quite outside the music. His tempi were so fast that all sense of phrasing was lost. Drake has the technical facility to play at breakneck speeds without losing notes, but this relentless pressure distorted line and meaning. And Lieder without meaning isn't Lieder.

Since each song is individual, its character needs to be respected. Drake lurched from one song to the next without a break, sometimes almost before the resonant echoes of the last had faded. Switching from the contemplative Freiwilliges Versinken (D700), with its images of a pale moon and resignation, to the stormy Der zürnenden Diana (D707b) might in some circumstances be dramatic, but when every song and every traverse is treated the same hurried way, the songs tumble into a jumble.

The audience was disregarded, too. Pauses between songs allow listeners to reflect on what they've heard, for Lieder is about making listeners think. Now there wasn't even time to turn a page, or to cough to break tension. Only after the performance ended did Drake take an extended break, claiming he couldn't find the score for the encore, laughing as if it were a joke. Since the encore was Die Forelle (D 550), and we all knew there'd be an encore, this seemed contrived.

When Drake wasn't aiming for an Olympic speed record, his touch was heavy. An mein Klavier (D 342) refers to a fortepiano. The melody lilts, for it's a "sanftes Klavier". This clavier, instead, gave extra meaning to the term Hammer-klavier.

To Ian Bostridge's credit, he managed to match Drake's pace for the most part. In the last few years, he's developed much greater control and depth. Indeed, a friend of mine heard this concert a few weeks ago at Schwarzenberg and said that, if anything, Bostridge's voice was in even better form this evening. My friend, who hears 50 or more Lieder recitals a year, hasn't in the past been a big Bostridge fan, but has become convinced by the singer's increasing poise and confidence,. Now that's tinged with respect for the way Bostridge handled the wayward dynamics.

Der Wanderer (D 489, von Lübeck) showed how Bostridge can float legato with the fluidity of a clarinet, yet imbue words with great meaning. Lieder isn't a medium for bland purity: a singer has to care about the words. This is one of Bostridge's great strengths. He'd clearly thought through less well known songs like Die Perle (D 466, Jacobi) where the poet knows he'll never find the pearl he's searching for. A pity that the marking schrietend (at a walking pace) was so rushed that it pushed the poet to his death before giving him a chance to savour his predicament with true Romantic pathos.

Ballads like Lied des Gefangenen Jägers (D843) and Normans Gesang (D846) both to texts by Sir Walter Scott, need vivid expression to create interest, which Bostridge's emphasis on meaning provided. Then, in a burst of impassioned energy, he threw himself into the Mayrhofer song An die Freude (D654), giving it greater portent than I've heard before. Mayrhofer, a neurotic with whom Schubert later fell out, contemplates death, when friends will bring flowers to his grave. "Rejoice"sings the poet "Dies alles ist dem Toten gliech" ("all this means nothing to me now"). Despite the turbulent piano, Bostridge had perspective, and sang with grace.

Wonderful programme notes by Richard Stokes. Most programme notes are ephemera, geared to basic readership. Stokes's notes combine insight into the music and poems with knowledge of wider cultural background. He gives details even the astute Wigmore Hall audience might miss. For example, Das Zügenglöcklein (D871) isn't just any bell but one traditionally rung in Austrian villages when parishioners lay dying, to prepare them for the next world. In this frantic modern world, we don't reflect on simple, quiet things like that. Stokes makes us realize just how relevant Schubert is to us today.

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