I could draw a mathematical-looking diagram of a circle inside broken arcs to illustrate the way that Ian Bostridge and Lars Vogt have combined Schubert’s Schwanengesang (“Swan Song”) with Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved) in their current recital tour. The Schubert songs are by different poets and were put together as a collection after his death. Thus, they don’t form a continuous, logical unit, so Bostridge and Vogt split the Schubert in two, inserting the Beethoven between the Rellstab and Heine settings.

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

A nice outcome of this structure was that the final Rellstab song, Abschied, came just before the interval, and allowed Bostridge and Vogt the chance to have a lot of fun, Bostridge declaiming the words of farewell in the manner of the guest who keeps saying, “I really must go now”, but without leaving, whilst Vogt’s piano tugged at his sleeve, urging him to get a move on.

This jocular Abschied provided release after the rising emotional tension that Bostridge and Vogt had developed over the preceding six Rellstab settings, beginning with a conversational Liebesbotschaft and building up to bitterness and spite in In der Ferne. Bostridge’s slight tailing off in the repetitive beat of the German participles (“-ende”) that close each line, and the vocal power of his drawn-out endings to each verse in this last song, drove home the poem’s sardonic mood, looking ahead to the Heine settings to come later.

In the first few songs, Vogt took a back seat, gently enhancing the narrative, but this meant that the plodding march in Krieger’s Ahnung was almost lost. The soldier in this song seems to be determined to not to wallow in his sadness, although with the weariness that ended this song, Bostridge and Vogt implied that he couldn’t quite help himself, and this carried over into self-imposed cheerfulness at the beginning of Frühlingssehnsucht. There was drama and even terror in Aufenthalt, with Vogt bringing out crashing waves of tears.

Sandwiched between the Schubert settings, Beethoven’s romanticism felt like something from an earlier, more innocent age. I felt that in these songs Bostridge had let go of all the serious thinking that clearly lies behind his Schubert interpretations, and that he was now just singing and letting the melodies speak, beginning with lovely lyrical arcs in Auf dem Hügel sitz’ich.  

An die ferne Geliebte kick-started the idea of the unified song-cycle; its six songs run together without a break, and the cycle comes full circle, with music and words from the first song ending the last. Whenever I listen to these songs, I feel there’s an emotional circle being closed too, when Nimm sie hin denn, dieser Lieder draws everything together. Bostridge and Vogt achieved this with great tenderness at the beginning of this last song, before opening it out into a feverish triumph as they charged victoriously through the final phrases.

Vogt was particularly effective in drawing out all Beethoven’s naturalistic word-painting: in Leichte Segler in den Höhen, his crystalline, detached playing added sparkles to the little stream, followed by very floaty rubato as the song rose upwards on the breezes. In other parts of the cycle, there was more clean precision to enjoy from Vogt: in playful trills of birdsong, in the swooping motions of the darting swallows and in the deep tranquility when he and Bostridge disappeared into the pianissimo depths of the forest.

The sweetness underpinning Beethoven’s songs was swept away by the return to Schubert. The first of the Heine settings, Der Atlas, swung between despair and mockery. Vogt gave so much weight to the left-hand chords in the opening that his whole body pitched downwards, man and music together staggering under the weight of their burden. Like Vogt, Bostridge is a very physical performer, ranging around the platform, leaning on the piano, turning away and all the while engaging intensely with the audience and with Vogt, his bodily and facial movements adding an expressiveness that isn’t always there in his highly controlled singing.

The Heine songs are steeped in atmosphere; mist and water predominate, and the songs seem laden with misunderstanding. Bostridge’s flirting with the fisher girl felt cynical and insincere, and it was followed by outraged surprise for him, but not for us, two songs later when he is poisoned by her tears. The ghostly mood of Ihr Bild and Die Stadt climaxed in Der Doppelgänger, Vogt initially tiptoeing through the streets, hardly daring to make a sound, before smashing the stillness with dangerously loud chords punctuating the despair in the words.

Like Abschied, the breezy Taubenpost – the final song in the cycle – lightens the tension and feels like an encore itself, although Vogt and Bostridge then returned to give us another of Heine’s water-themed poems, Brahms’ Op.96 Meerfahrt.