Back in London after a sell-out US tour, English tenor Ian Bostridge CBE, with his wonderful pianist Julius Drake, proved his extraordinary range and versatility as a singer with a programme featuring music by Tippett, Britten, Bach, Haydn and Weill. This special concert had an extra resonance, as it marked Sir John Tusa’s last day as Chairman of the Wigmore Hall Trust.

© Simon Fowler
© Simon Fowler

Bostridge, who bears more than a passing resemblance to English artist Aubrey Beardsley, with his gawky height, floppy hair, and languid manner, has an elegant and lyrical tenor voice, which spoils the senses, utterly beguiling, addictive even. He is equally famous for his readings of Schubert’s lieder as his recordings of Handel arias, but anyone who was expecting art songs or Handelian “word painting” was going to be surprised by the content of this concert. Love, loss and longing seemed to be the overriding theme throughout the evening, with the second half focussing on the violent and destructive effects of war.

The programme opened with Purcell’s song ‘Music for a while’ (from his opera ‘Oedipus’) in an arrangement by Michael Tippett, a pacifist and conscientious objector. Sung to raise a ghost from the dead, the exhortation “Music for a while…shall all your cares beguile” seemed most appropriate for the first piece of the evening, and it was sung with a spare elegance and intensity, the text hung over the ‘cello-like ground bass accompaniment. The perfectly nuanced balance between singer and pianist was evident from the start, and continued throughout the evening.

J.S. Bach’s ‘Spiritual Songs’, arranged by Benjamin Britten, and first performed by Peter Pears in 1969, focus on resignation and death, and, typically of Bach, there is little difference between spiritual and secular. Several invite death and the afterlife, but also have the quality of sweet love songs. Understated and measured, Bostridge demonstrated his ability to sing beautifully in German, as well as in English (something some singers struggle to pull off convincingly). The Chorale-like elements were carefully highlighted, with some lovely shadings and colour.

Haydn’s ‘Five English Canzonettas’ were all written in the 1790s when he was in England. The themes are generally pastoral and secular. The first, ‘Content’, is a shepherd’s outpouring of his love, in perfectly articulated tumbling, turning triplets, sung with wit and humour, Bostridge lounging against the piano, like the lovesick swain; while the second, ‘Sailor’s Song’, is a rollicking celebration of the English navy. Bostridge really savoured the alliterative character of the text (“Rattling ropes and rolling seas”) with some very colourful singing, while the piano accompaniment enjoyed frothing waves, bugles and cannons. A complete change of mood in the third, ‘She Never Told Her Love’, the text taken from Shakepeare’s Twelfth Night’, this plaintive and moving song prefigures Schubert with its long introduction and a postcript meditating on the moment of grief, which is strikingly redolent of Schubert’s ‘Nacht und Traume’. Here, Bostridge opted for a sparer, more muted delivery, allowing the beauty and poignancy of the text, and the piano accompaniment, to speak.

The last two songs also contain many elements that look forward to Schubert, with their long-spun melodic lines, and ‘onomatopoeic’ accompaniment (the right-hand glissandi in ‘Fidelity’, for example, suggesting the might of the storm). Bostridge brought a haunting melancholy and mystery to ‘The Wanderer’, in which the pre-Schubertian “fremdling” sets out on a night-time journey, while in ‘Fidelity’ we had operatic drama set against moments of great lyricism, as the text dictated. Throughout, Bostridge fully “inhabited” the stage, his body language – lolling, prowling, lurching - together with his fine voice, enhancing the drama and emotional depth of the music.

Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s ‘The Queen’s Epicideum’, a funeral lament written for the death of Queen Mary, with words by the metaphysical poet, George Herbert, is an extended song of great beauty and vitality, with a wonderful Baroque freedom and grandeur. Sung in Latin (another language Bostridge manages deftly), it was declamatory, impassioned and touching.

Britten was, like Tippet, a pacifist, and in the song cycle ‘Who are these children’ (text by the Scottish poet William Soutar), a nightmarish world of violence, pain and death is sharply contrasted with the innocent world of children, a long-standing fascination for Britten in his music. The songs are stark and uncompromising, difficult and distressing, and it was here that Bostridge utilized his range – lyrical, wailing, spiky, angry, passionate, gentle - all set against a piano part that includes violent, throbbing quavers, harmonies based on actual air-raid sirens, and dreamy, Debussyian motifs.

Weill’s four settings of Walt Whitman’s poems inspired by the American Civil War were written as the composer’s own response to the horrors of Pearl Harbour in 1942. The first, ‘Beat! Beat! Drums!’ has a portentous tread in its Mahler-esque ‘agitato’ march, calling men to arms and a reminder that no one is spared the effects of war; while the second ‘Oh Captain, My Captain!’ is a sorrowful, tender lament, whose lazy, swaying melody belies the tragedy of its text. The third tells of a letter, delivered to the mother anxiously waiting for new from her son, at home in Ohio. It opens with great excitement, which Bostridge conveyed perfectly: the family’s anticipation before the awful realisation that the son is dead. The final song is a mother’s grief-laden lament for her dead son, and a valediction for all the casualties of war. In all four songs, Bostridge “told the story” movingly, and one felt he truly believed every single word he was singing, heartfelt, poised and tragic.

Fittingly, the concert closed with the opening piece, a reprise of ‘Music for a while’, sung as an elegant encore, and reminding us that music really can “all your cares beguile”.

It was a superb evening, beautiful, searing, and moving. Bostridge’s concerts tend to sell out fast, but I urge you to hear him, if not in concert then certainly on disc.