Ian Bostridge delivers riveting Schubert recital in Baltimore debut for Shriver Hall Concert Series
Fans of vocal music are often known to lament the present state of singing, usually along the lines of 'the voices all sound the same' or 'you should have heard so-and-so in the good old days.' Heck, I've been known to utter the same sort of comments, even if my perspective on the 'good old days' comes primarily from recordings. But the truth is that every age produces distinctive voices, including ours, and voices just don't get much more distinctive than that of Ian Bostridge.
The English tenor, who made his overdue Baltimore debut Sunday night presented by the Shriver Hall Concert Series, produces a basically reedy tone that has remarkable clarity and immediacy. The timbre may be thinner than that of tenors who typically excite audiences, but it is so full of subtle coloring that it grabs you instantly. And Bostridge employs this sensitive vocal instrument with uncanny musicality, enabling him to communicate a text and shape a melodic line so incisively that the effect can be transfixing. In terms of artistry, I think he can stand comparison to any great singer of the past, certainly any singer who ever ventured deep into lieder territory.
In terms of stage demeanor, he's in a rare class as well. I know some folks can't stand the way he wanders around while singing, or leans at odd angles against the piano (and sometimes turns to stare into it), or casually puts his hands in his pockets. It doesn't bother me. A lot of what he does physically reminds me of how a classy pop singer performs in an intimate setting (think Tony Bennett), and I don't see why that can't work for Schubert songs just as easily as for Cole Porter.
Bostridge brought a whole evening's worth of Schubert to Shriver. His choice of 20 from among the composer's 600 or so lieder was imaginative, with only one greatest hit (Die Forelle) and with many a connective thread holding them all together -- textual (the last line of Auf der Risenkoppe was the title of the next song in the program, for example); harmonic; atmospheric.
Fittingly, the recital opened with ...
a song rich in images of spring (Im Fruhling), and the gentle warmth of the tenor's singing, with its refined articulation and wealth of dynamic shading, was as heartening as all the pastel blossoms outside. Throughout the concert, Bostridge made great use of his ability to float soft high notes, as in Nachtviolen. Moments of forceful drama, especially if they involved his low register, were not always as impressive, but there wasn't a note that didn't register in a meaningful way.
In Totengrabers Heimweh, Bostridge reached a height of expressiveness in the concluding lines, about a gravedigger ready to embrace death himself. The tenor, gradually reducing his sound to a kind of whisper, produced a time-stopping, profoundly moving effect. (Having just come from the BSO's performance of Mahler's Ninth, with its own hints of expiration, I found Bostridge's account of that song particularly powerful.)
At every step of the way, pianist Julius Drake was as masterful at getting to the heart of Schubert's music as the singer was. Never just an accompanist, Drake show himself to be quite a poet at the keyboard. And his technical skills got as much of a workout as his expressive ones; in such perpetual motion challenges as Auf der Bruck and Im Walde he maintained exceptional control.
There were two encores of more Schubert (the audience at Carnegie Hall got three after the same program was performed the week before). I could have stayed for at least a dozen more.
For those of you who missed the recital, and those who were there and would like to relive a bit of it, here's a recording of Bostridge performing Im Fruhling.
BALTIMORE SUN FILE PHOTO