Ian Bostridge delivers first-class artistry in German lieder

Sat Apr 17, 2021 at 2:07 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Tenor Ian Bostridge performed songs of Beethoven and Schumann with pianist Imogen Cooper in a streamed recital presented by UChicago Presents.

As in every large American city, the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent painful but necessary closing of concert venues eviscerated a year of high-profile events on Chicago’s music calendar—not least Lyric Opera’s long-planned Ring cycle. 

But the loss of the 2020-21 season for the area’s smaller presenters was just as deeply felt. The University of Chicago Presents series had slated an especially rich and bountiful season that included such artists as Hélène Grimaud, Ian Bostridge, Susan Graham, Paul Jacobs, and Quatuor Diotima performing the late Beethoven quartets and complete Bartok quartets.  

Like many presenting organizations, UChicago Presents under executive director Amy Iwano, is attempting to fill the current live-performance void with streamed concerts of some of the artists scheduled. Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations last weekend and Friday night the series offered Bostridge and pianist Imogen Cooper. The prerecorded stream will be available online through Sunday.

Bostridge’s cancelled Mandel Hall recital was to be an all-Schubert evening, but this program of Beethoven and Schumann—taped live last September before a masked and socially distanced audience at London’s Wigmore Hall—proved just as apt and rewarding.

Still, if the past year has proven anything, it’s that streaming events—whatever place they may have going forward—are not a substitute for attending performances in the flesh. That is due not only to the more natural sound, excitement and spontaneity of live music-making but due to the constant potential of technical distractions, an issue that surfaced last night.

With an introduction by Iwano, the Wigmore recording itself was fine, a worthy, unfussy, in-the-hall perspective with nicely understated direction. The issue was the lack of flexibility with viewing it on the Vimeo Pro platform.

Unlike an instrumental or chamber program, in a vocal recital many listeners do a subtle visual/consciousness pas de deux, switching between the live visuals and the text and translations to get some sense of each song. 

Unfortunately, Vimeo offered only two options: full screen, in which one was not able to access the open program; or minimized in which one could access the texts— but in which the UCP credits, bizarrely, obscured half of the screen. Even for the vast majority of the audience who were not also taking simultaneous notes, the inflexibility of viewing options and the text over the screen created an often frustrating experience, as one was forced to switch back and forth between the two modes.

That issue apart, the performance itself was on the highest artistic level, as one might expect from Bostridge, one of the foremost lieder interpreters of our time. At 56, the English tenor still looks and sounds much like the young, rail-thin Oxford scholar who took the classical world by storm in the mid-1990s. If anything, his plaintive, flexible voice has taken on greater ballast and weight at the low end, making his performances richer and even more impactful. 

Most of the numerous performances planned around the world to celebrate Beethoven’s 250th birthday fell victim to the coronavirus closings. So it was fitting that Bostridge devoted half of this 55-minute program to the composer’s songs—possibly the only genre in which Beethoven’s music receives less frequent performances than it deserves.

Bostridge was in superb, vibrant voice from the start in his first set of three Beethoven songs. The tenor brought great ardency to “Resignation,” imbued “Sehnsucht,” with dignified yearning, and rendered “Ich liebe dich” with touching romantic simplicity. One belated start apart, pianist Imogen Cooper proved an equal partner, bringing glove-like accompaniment and interpretive sympathy throughout.

In An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved) Beethoven virtually created the song-cycle as a significant form, one which his later compatriots—Schubert, especially—would expand and deepen even further. To these six brief settings, Bostridge brought consistent insight, balancing the romantic longing and nature imagery. Perhaps the jabbing staccato of “Leichte Segler” was a bit overstressed but otherwise Bostridge was exemplary, putting across the al fresco joy of “Diese Wolken”—Cooper’s spring-like central solo embodying the flowing brooklet delightfully—and impassioned in the final setting. 

Nature imagery is even more to the fore in Robert Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op. 39, the second cycle he gave this title. Set to poems by Joseph von Eichendorf, the cycle is less a cohesive narrative than 12 short songs that reflect Schumann’s range of mercurial emotions, even during this happy time of his relationship with Clara.     

Bostridge brought a darker tone and dramatic heft to this cycle, befitting its uber-romantic essence. The singer found the lyric essence of “Intermezzo,” and invested the Loreley’s climactic curse in “Waldesgesprach” with quietly chilling intensity (“You shall never leave this forest again”). 

In “Mondnacht”—arguably the finest song in the cycle—Bostridge plumbed the existential stasis of the setting with rapt sensitivity, leaning his long, angular form way down as if about to disappear within the open Steinway. Also notable was the fanciful frenzy of “Schoen Fremde,” the singer’s baritonal depths in a haunting “Auf einer Burg” and the barely hinged Florestanian fever of “In Der Fremde.”

Bostridge and Cooper wrapped the program on a contrasting lighter note with an encore of Beethoven’s whimsical “Es war einmal ein Konig.” This Goethe setting relates the satiric tale of a king’s pampered flea, and the usually serious tenor showed wry humor and agility, tossing off the lightning final lines at warp speed like Teutonic Gilbert & Sullivan.

The recital by Ian Bostridge and Imogen Cooper is available through Sunday April 18. 

The UChicago Presents series next offers Quince performing David Lang’s love fail on May 21. chicagopresents.uchicago.edu

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