The singer has been performing his greatest obsession for more than 30 yearsby Sameer Rahim / January 15, 2015 / Leave a comment
Ian Bostridge has been singing Franz Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey) for more than 30 years. In 1997, he was filmed by David Alden performing the song cycle in a entrancing film shot like a New Romantic pop video. He had just published an absorbing 500-page musical-cultural analysis of what he describes as “the first and greatest of concept albums.” Not for nothing does he subtitle his book Winter Journey an Anatomy of an Obsession.
Earlier this week, on a suitably blustery evening at the Barbican, Bostridge performed Winterreise accompanied by the composer and pianist Thomas Adès. Lithe and willowy, the seemingly ageless Bostridge (in fact he’s 50) performed not only with his tenor voice but also his whole being. He leant back on the piano, turned to the audience and glanced at Adès to see which way he was taking the piece. In a post-show interview Bostridge said that although he and Adès discussed how they would perform the piece, much of it was improvised.
The 24 songs in Winterreise, set by Schubert to the words of poet Wilhelm Müller, is narrated by a man cast out of his lover’s home and forced to wander through the cold German winter. Over the course of around 70 minutes, the protagonist reflects on life, death, love and the landscape. As Bostridge said, rather than a smoothly continuous whole the cycle is made of jagged fragments that need to be melded together by the singer. Some of the song-shards have a distinctly teenage feel: “Why should they care about my grief?” Bostridge sang achingly. “Where shall I find a flower?…the flowers have died.” We’re in Morrissey country here—and at points Bostridge seemed to channel the mardy rocker.
When Schubert first performed Winterreise his friends were shocked by its gloomy tone. The composer has such a gift for tunefulness—so wonderfully displayed in the string quartets, symphonies and hundreds of other Lieder he wrote—that it seemed to them strange he was denying his own gift. But the power of Winterreise, especially hearing it live, is that it makes so few concessions. The sharp, self-lacerating humour reminded me of a Beckett play, and indeed the Irish playwright was a fan of what he called “the grim journey”.
Still there are moments of lyricism. In “The Linden Tree” there is a melancholy warmth in the music that has made it a favourite in Germany. For me the most searing song, though, is the eleventh: “Dream of Spring.” Its first verse is appealingly radiant—the protagonist dreams of bright flowers and merry birds; but there is a brutal transition to the second verse where is woken from his complacent slumber by a cock crowing. The same back and forth in tones continues for the rest of the song. Here Bostridge was at his most thoughtful. In his book he discusses the “chocolate-box” qualities of the song’s opening, and last night he sang it with a saccharine sweetness bordering on the parodic. Yet by the time he got to the fourth verse, “I dreamt of mutual love / Of a lovely maiden,” there was a genuine sensuality in his words as love returns, however briefly.
Bostridge claimed that he would like Winter Journey to be as well known as Shakespeare or Van Gogh. His book is an attempt to popularise the work with an approachable, untechnical analysis of each song and wandering forays into the art history, culture and science of the period. (As well as being our leading exponent of lieder-singing, Bostridge has written a book on 17th-century witchcraft and is currently a professor of classical music at Oxford.) But there is no downplaying the sheer strangeness of Schubert’s cycle. That Bostridge and Adès were performing a cycle about deathly cold and isolation in a large, warm auditorium dressed in traditional tailcoats only added to the layers of shifting irony. It’s a powerful and discordant piece to listen to. I can’t imagine what it must be like to perform more than 100 times, as Bostridge has done. But as he once said in an interview, “even as a child I was unnaturally obsessed with love and death, so in that sense I really was born to sing Lieder.”