Two figures occupied Usher Hall’s large stage. More accurately, two performers, as there was also a very focused page turner, removing played pages as though they were explosives. Seated at the piano was Lars Vogt, last seen in this hall during Edinburgh Festival 2012 in a joyous performance of Lutosławski’s Piano Concerto. His role here was more supportive than demonstrative: he sat calmly, his black attire complementing Ian Bostridge’s white tie and tails.

Ian Bostridge © Simon Fowler
Ian Bostridge
© Simon Fowler

The Charles Ives’ songs with which the duo opened offered several contrasts to the coming Brahms and Schumann. For one thing, there was comedy. The 1897 Memories is divided into “(A) Very Pleasant and “(B) Rather Sad”. The former, marked “as fast as it will go”, describes in music hall style the moments before an opera house performance. Bostridge delivered an echo phrase intended to be whistled on a kazoo. Given the size of the auditorium, I’d have been tempted to do the same. This surprise raised a laugh as did the penultimate sung word, “Sh's's's” and the final, shouted “Curtain!” The song’s partner was (for Ives) harmonically very simple. Relying on primary chords, it recalled in one phrase The Beatles' “Hey Jude”.

The following Feldeinsamkeit (In Summer Fields) allowed both musicians to open up expressively. Vogt seemed to be enjoying the accompaniment’s more colourful, Schumannesque arpeggios and Bostridge the soft sibilance of this idyll’s “schönen weissen” (white clouds). The reflective vein continued through the eight-bar “Remembrance” before comedy’s return in the brief cross-rhythm-filled “1, 2, 3”. The final offering, drawn from 114 published songs (from Ives’ output of around 200) was Thoreau, one his many tributes to the solitude-seeking inventor of the term “civil disobedience”. This fact I gleaned from Calum MacDonald's fine programme notes – his writing is always an enjoyable part of my festival-going. The song opens with a few spoken lines from "Sounds", the fourth chapter of Thoreau’s Walden. Above Ivesian ambiguous harmony, Bostridge's single-note opening seemed to reflect the stillness one associates with the New England transcendentalists.

Setting texts by August Platen (1796–1835) and Georg Friederich Daumer (1800–1875), Brahms’ 1864 Lieder und Gesänge explores love and loss – particularly the latter. I was particularly taken with the emotional complexity of “Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen” (Never to go to you again) in which Bostridge and Vogt alternated very touchingly the sinking feeling of failing resolve with the animation of false hope in love. I became acutely aware of Bostridge’s dramatic body language – he would lean on the Steinway as though for support. At one point, during a postlude, he looked searchingly into the piano as though staring disbelievingly into a grave.

Much as I love the songs and their performance here, I struggled with Daumer’s poetry, particularly in Bitteres zu sagen denkst du (You mean to say bitter things). Its deconstruction here would needlessly evaporate precious word count but suffice to say, it irked on many levels.

The second half was devoted to Schumann’s 1840 Kernerlieder. Hearing the two lieder composers side by side, I had to conclude that Schumann’s heaviness is somehow lighter than Brahms’. Unbelievably, I felt this most acutely in “Stirb, Lieb und Freud” (Die, love and joy) in which Justinius Kerner’s text recounts the tale of a young girl giving herself up to convent life, unaware of a broken-hearted onlooker. Its seven-line stanzas have an interesting structure. The opening four, set to hymn-like music, have a syllable count of 8/6/8/6. The closing three lines each have four, with the exception of the central stanza. On the page this stands out. In the air it is unmistakable. Time seemed to stop during these lines, despite their repeated pattern of four descending notes. This was especially true in the penultimate stanza when Bostridge took on the voice of the young girl. His use of upper register here to change age and gender was very affecting. Vogt led in the final stanza with three beautifully-timed chords. Although thicker than much of the preceding accompaniment, they had a wonderful lightness about them.

The following Wanderlied (Song of Travel) was a complete contrast. Stillness now replaced by joyful animation, I was, perhaps somewhat irreverently, reminded of the Ives’ music hall feel. Bostridge’s lovely tone and sensitive phrasing shone in the appoggiatura-rich “Stille Tränen” (Silent tears). There is a beautifully inconclusive feel to the song and Vogt’s playing was very sensitive in the valedictory sojourn. Two further, very still songs bring the cycle, and the narrator’s life to an end.

The very warm response, with many on their feet, resulted in three encores: Brahms’ Meerfahrt; a beautifully delivered Mondnacht from Schumann's Liederkreis followed by Brahms’ setting of the same Eichendorff text.

****1