British lyric tenor Ian Bostridge is widely considered one of the great interpreters of the art song. When he recently took his position on stage at the Schubertiade − joined by the superb pianist, Julius Drake − the audience tingled with anticipation. Standing at strict attention, his hands folded before him like a choirboy, Bostridge was several seconds into his first Brahms song before he began to loosen. The longer he sang, the more animated he became. 20 minutes into the performance, he was leaning out from his grip on the grand piano lid like a captain at the helm of a mighty ship.

Ian Bostridge © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Ian Bostridge
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Often compared to the mellifluous tenor Peter Pears − for whom Benjamin Britten composed a great body of music − Ian Bostridge has gone on to define a new dimension in the art song. Alone his interpretation of Schubert has been said to balance the formal craft of vocal excellence and concise composition − with a parallel in spiritual vision and a profound philosophical insight. Julius Drake, by building a highly nuanced play of light and shadow around Bostridge’s silvery voice, does an exemplary job of supporting that interpretation. The two have performed and recorded together often, and their musical partnership is a finely tuned instrument in its own right.

The first half of the programme was devoted to twelve Brahms songs. In Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenze (Love is so delightful in the Spring) a shepherdess makes tender wreaths of flowers to pass on to her beloved. Bostridge used different voices to distinguish the characters in the Heinrich Heine poem, and threw a golden light on individual words: “nightingale” for example, symbol both of eternity and freedom from troubles, was so enunciated such that the small bird became a celestial being.

Further, to evoke the gripping reality of lost love in Liebesglut (The coals of love), Bostridge gnashed his teeth behind “...that I am a piece of dust strewn over your path...” That line speaks of an injustice that steals the protagonist’s “honour, conviction, and reason”, and for it, the singer drew out the word “steals” far enough to pull the very innards out of his breathless audience.

Interestingly, Bostridge is not only a lyric tenor of passionate intensity; he is also an accredited scholar. In 1990, his doctoral thesis at Oxford was on the subject of “Witchcraft and Its Transformations, c. 1650-1750”. “Even as a child, I was unnaturally obsessed with love and death,” he has said, “so in a sense I really was born to sing Lieder”. Not surprisingly, his choice of repertoire now and again allows him a demonic overlay he delights in presenting. Sometimes it’s just more fun, one would guess, to play the bad guy.

He is at home in the same mixture of innocent pastoral and overwhelming terror that Goethe cited as “Himmelhoch jauchzend, zu Tode betrübt”... (on top of the world, or in the depths of despair). And yes, the lyrics Brahms and Schubert set to music have much the makings of pubescent love songs: it’s all or nothing at all. No wonder Bostridge said about the Schubert lieder that “when you get down to it, it’s quite embarrassing, adolescent stuff”. 

Following the Brahms songs, Bostridge sang a dense collection of selected works by Franz Schubert, who, by the time he died at age 31, had composed in excess of 600 songs. In An die Turen will ich schleichen, (I will creep from door to door), he sang a beggar’s acknowledgement of his own pitiful state, nevertheless assuring the listener that he didn’t need the world’s pity, and would “go on”. Bostridge surveyed the audience like a hawk, pacing his syllables like in a funeral dirge, making us believe we were the ones who had condemned his beggar. Further, in Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass (He would never ate his bread in tears), nothing could prepare us for the peeked emotion of the singer’s reconciliation in the last line ... “for all guilt avenges itself on earth”.) The final word was sung three times, with no fewer modulations, the last in a barely audible pianissimo.

And by contrast, but proving his versatility, Bostridge sang as the boyish bright-faced lad who, in Die Knabenzeit, (Boyhood) would much rather chase butterflies than face the agony of studying Latin. Bostridge became a little boy, finishing the song with a kind of goofy smile that left the audience chuckling.

At the end of the concert, Julius Drake played three solo piano works around lesser known fragments of Schubert songs, then accompanied an Abschied von der Erde, (Farewell to the Earth) monologue, that Bostridge − like a venerable old poet − narrated from a chair centre stage. Many of us would have loved to hear a strong vocal note end the programme, an Erlkönig, perhaps, or the stunning Du bist die Ruh that − for many listeners − matches the emotive power of Fischer-Dieskau. Not to be. We justified the lack thereof by this: no truly responsible artist simply spoon-feeds an audience only what it wants to hear. The Abschied had simply been the final intellectual challenge.