Tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake presented a stunning program of Lieder by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and his protégé Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) on 7 March at the Perelman Theater of the Kimmel Center, as part of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s fine series. The small hall, nearly full, lent itself perfectly to the intimate performance of Lieder. The songs, even those not composed as a set, were offered without a break, flowing smoothly and immediately from one to the other.

Ian Bostridge, © Simon Fowler
Ian Bostridge,
© Simon Fowler

The first half of the program was devoted to 13 songs by Brahms, written between 1867 and 1888, and set to texts of various lesser-known poets who were fashionable in his time. Brahms was an avid reader of poetry, and, though he could on occasion summon lighter emotions, usually chose to explore the deeper and darker themes of unrequited love, loneliness, and death. His criterion for choosing poetry was whether or not he could add anything to the poetry with his music (in 1876 he told George Henschel that all of Goethe's poems seemed to him “so perfect in themselves that no music can improve them”…).

In contrast to Brahms’ thick, dark writing, the second half of the program featured the more light-infused writing of Schumann, with 13 songs from Schumann’s “year of song” of 1840 – drawn from his Op. 24 Liederkreis cycle and four Lieder that did not make it into his Dichterliebe cycle – each of which were a microcosm distilled from the common Romantic themes of love and nature. All of the songs were set to poems by Heinrich Heine, a favorite of Romantic composers. Heine, a master of emotional ambivalence, found a perfect partner in Schumann, who cultivated the art song genre more diligently than any other composer of the day. Schumann wrote that the composer endeavours “to produce a resonant echo of the poem and its smallest features by means of a refined musical content,” and hence becomes a poet himself.

Bostridge and Drake were a dynamic musical team, and there was a dialogue between the two that highlighted the inseparable partnership of voice and piano. Each song was sheer perfection on all counts. Every nuance of emotion was crystal clear, from tender to disturbed to humorous. Bostridge, who has sometimes been criticized for his unusual stage manner, here made a strong and intentional connection with his listeners, inviting them into the worlds he conjured. He virtually embodied the music and the text in a way that many teachers of voice would discourage in their students – wandering about the stage, slouching onto the piano – but we were spellbound by an artist possessed by the spirit of music.

Likewise unique in Bostridge’s work is his use of diction as a tonal and artistic color. Unlike many singers who simply sing things “straight,” Bostridge never crosses a “t” or dots an “i” the same way twice. This contributes not only to a clearer interpretation of the work’s intent, but to its eternal freshness – inviting us to partake of what seemed to be a new work, created in the moment. One never knows what to expect in the next measure. Also, his background in Baroque rhetoric carries through and informs his interpretation of Romantic lieder.

The audience gave the duo three standing ovations, which, to our delight, resulted in three encores – Brahms’s ‘Meerfahrt’, Op. 96 no. 4, and Schumann’s ‘Mondnacht’, Op. 39 no. 5 and ‘Die Beiden Grenadiere’, Op. 49 no. 1.

*****