Shakespeare Songs turned out to be more of a Shakespeare feast at a packed Wigmore on Monday. This wasn’t just another anniversary tick to Shakespeare. Featuring a hot line-up of artists they sang, acted, spoke, conducted, played and even brandished a sword, transporting us through a melange of Shakespearean songs and poems. Sir Antonio Pappano and Ian Bostridge topped the billing, but they were backed up heftily by Eve Best as the Speaker, Adam Walker (flute), Michael Collins (clarinet), Lawrence Power (viola) and Elizabeth Kenny (lute). One of the elements which singled out this evening was that unique atmosphere which only exists when artists and players are of a superlative standard; it’s relaxed, almost like watching a rehearsal whilst gripping to witness such talent.

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

In this situation, it’s delightful to see artists trying, tongue in cheek, other mediums. Pappano spoke a few lines, as did Bostridge, and Eve Best bravely sang a duet. At the end of the concert Nigel Simeone, who wrote the programme notes, interviewed Bostridge and Pappano – a foolhardy idea as both artists were on their knees by then. Ian Bostridge devised the programme which, for Pappano, was a complete discovery, especially the music of Gerald Finzi.

Let us garlands bring features five songs from Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Cymbeline and As You Like it. Pappano and Bostridge set the tone and the standard right from the start. Each note was executed almost as if it were being lovingly stroked. Bostridge's baritonal quality filled the hall richly and his top notes floated delicately.  Likewise, Pappano was note perfect, unswaying in his support, emotional but never overstepping the mark of the accompanist. It couldn’t have been more accomplished, making the violent excerpt from Henry V with the brilliant Eve Best and sword shouting “Yield, cur!” contrarily welcome. Although it was thoroughly enjoyable listening to Bostridge and Pappano, by devising a concert interlinked with singing, music and poems, Bostridge took the evening to another level.

Nothing is more evocatively Shakespearean than a lute and Elizabeth Kenny’s played with melting beauty William Byrd’s Caleno Custure me and Thomas Morley It was a lover and his lass, (the latter being the first hey nonny no of the evening).

It was an interesting treat to hear Schubert’s Who is Silvia? with words from The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Released from the constraints of English, Pappano and Bostridge blossomed. European composers were mingled in with English in the second half which was much longer than the first. Korngold's songs were long and self-indulgent although his “Ha” on the last note aimed at Eve Best was special. Likewise Tippett’s Songs for Ariel and Come unto these yellow sands from The Tempest but again Bostridge surprised us with a barked “Bow-wow”. Only Stravinsky required the flute, viola and clarinet at which point Pappano picked up his baton. Sonnet no. 8 and When daisies pied from Love Labours Lost proved fairly unyielding. 

They finished with an anonymous composer’s When that I was and a little tiny boy from Twelfth Night and Eve Best gamely sang a duet with Bostridge. A predominantly English evening saved from dour piety with just enough European intervention and a truly classy cast.

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