This perplexing evening was shot through with so much nervy interiority on the tenor’s part that it felt more like REM sleep than a Requiem. The Armistice connection was lightly worn in an attractive programme of music with Remembrance connections but Ian Bostridge seemed reluctant to engage with his listeners or communicate texts to them. Chin in chest, eyes fixed downwards, it was rare to glimpse his countenance even from the Barbican Stalls. Goodness knows what they got in the Circle. If he were a lesser mortal I’d say he looked truculent.

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

Bostridge and Sir Antonio Pappano recently released a new CD on Warner Classics called Requiem – The Pity of War and it is very good. The disappointment of this tie-in recital, which consisted of the album contents plus a filler of Britten from an earlier collaboration, involved a sensation (nothing I can assert, just a suspicion) that neither singer nor pianist had spent long enough preparing it. Happily, Pappano, hunched over his scores and peering keenly at the notes, never put a foot wrong as he dug precious beauties from beneath his fingers (his dalliance with the major-minor shifts in Mahler’s Der Tamboursg’sell was mesmerising), but Bostridge cut a restless figure of angular anguish who stayed in his shell and sang to the floor. Instances of careless projection left his words indecipherable at times, even in English when singing Butterworth’s Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad. (The dead voice in Is My team Ploughing? was audible, but the living one curiously occluded.)

Those AE Housman favourites were the only predictable songs in a richly contrasted selection, a highlight of which were four Walt Whitman settings by Kurt Weill that deserve greater currency. Weill’s response to the potent post-American Civil War verse was a compelling group of free-flowing melodies whose harmonic language occasionally feels like Gershwin on a cloudy day.

The cycle Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied by Rudi Stephan is, if anything, even finer, albeit markedly different in its spare and individualistic beauty. Stephan was a German victim of the First World War: he died on the Eastern Front in 1915 aged just 28 but left behind this remarkable sequence set to subtly erotic poems by Gerda von Robertus. They are a major discovery, not least for the equal partnership that allows voice and piano to sound as a chamber duet rather than as singer and accompanist. Each song is brief, pertinent and transparent in its avoidance of histrionic flourishes, and we owe Bostridge and Pappano a debt of gratitude for unearthing it.

The same vocal nuance and pianistic plasticity marked the pair's reading of four songs from Britten’s William Soutar cycle Who Are These Children? that they first recorded five years ago. As then, it felt like a lazy option for singer and pianist merely to dip into these dour settings by avoiding the ones written in heavy dialect, for this is a cycle that in its complete form has a powerful musical momentum. Here, shorn of their rightful context, they felt like four random songs.

***11