Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake conjure Schubert’s Winterreise

Ian Bostridge

Wednesday, March 24 at 8 pm
UCLA Live! performing arts series
Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles

By Rodney Punt

Winterreise, as performed by tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake in their debuts last evening at UCLA's Royce Hall, is a disturbing, theatrical psychodrama set to music.

Bostridge makes one thing clear from the beginning of his performance - actually before the beginning: no matter how many times we have heard the song cycle, we have never before encountered this particular “traveling horn player.” You see it in the odd stance he assumes when he and Drake take their initial places. Impossibly tall and lanky already, Bostridge does not so much stand in front of the piano as hover over it, birdlike and elongated, in a fixed gaze. It’s the look of a giant crane waiting for swimming prey.

Somewhere you have seen this bird-like human before, but it doesn’t quite hit you until the first few songs fly by. Then you recognize the lanky youth. It’s Bostridge channeling Tony Perkins as Norman Bates. Here is where the discomfort sets in.

Our concept of the protagonist-as-victim in Winterreise has been turned on its head. We are accustomed to rooting for a dejected itinerant musician who introduces himself as “a stranger I came, a stranger I depart.” His sorrow stems from a ladylove who has turned down his ardent proposal of marriage.

But the fellow in this Winterreise is immediately perceived as mentally off-balance, in a Shakespearian King Lear sense, both victim and perpetrator of his own tragedy. There is probably a valid reason why the mother of his inamorata suddenly changes her mind from initial notions of marrying her daughter off to him. This fellow clearly marches to the beat of his own drummer, and the drummer is marching him off a cliff. The line between demented and demonic is blurred.

Bostridge’s character moves about like a wounded lunatic – eyes glancing sideways, body swooping, spinning, levitating, in effect flying down the story to the audience. He lives, even at the start of his journey, in a detached, alternate reality. We are not comfortable being afraid of a victim we thought we were supposed to pity, but it is oddly exhilarating to be swept along on his inexorable slide into oblivion.

Comfort is, of course, the last thing Bostridge and Drake want us to feel.

Bostridge the singer takes liberties with vocalization. His natural vocal palate tends to the silvery bright, far from opulent or plummy yet capable of powerful projection. In this performance he keeps that power in reserve for the big moments. Vocal lines are delivered in declamatory stabs; the volume can vary from soft to loud in the span of a few words, the voice coloring is often dry and vibrato-less. Yet he can and does float his beautiful soap bubble tones when the mood requires. Singing seems not for its own pretty sake, but presumably at the noble service of story telling.

The musical atmospherics provided by pianist Drake come in heavy, exaggerated effects: over-stressed accents, elongated phrases, unexpectedly rushed passages, distorted tempos, and long silent pauses at critical moments. This, along with an overall brisk delivery, is not accident but the residue of design. It is the atmosphere of madness, mixed with painful, wrenching tragedy. Drake conjures up this world with a magician’s touch and a poet’s articulation.

There is a danger in turning the itinerant horn player into a demented personality. It threatens to evaporate the sympathy of the audience for his lonely plight. The danger is similar to that of Die Schöne Müllerin, where modern performances often treat the romance of the wandering boy and the miller’s daughter as a fancy of his imagination, diluting the tension of actual rivalry for the maiden’s attentions with the intruding hunter lad.

If based only on a fancy, is the delusion of the miller boy felt as tragically as a real failed romance? Likewise of Winterreise, is the rejection and ultimate depression of a mentally imbalanced man as empathetically pitiable as that of a sane one? These questions are not answered, nor necessarily need they be here.

Here is a performance that breathes new life into the occasionally congealed tradition of the stone-sober, plodding Winterreise. It uncovers fresh insights into the mind-set of the enigmatic protagonist and his strange visions. It raises questions about the relationship of obsession and madness. It messes with us.

One gauge of success: the audience was on the edge of its seats for the full 69 minutes of shock and awe. (Clapping after the first song indicated many who did not know the protocol of song cycle performance – a good sign of new audiences testing the waters, but also an annoying intrusion, a spell momentarily broken.)

It was a Winterreise stretched to the breaking point of inherited musical tradition – perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but never boring and always provocative - a performance at once bracing, riveting, and effective.

Of how many song recitals can that be said today?

Background on Winterreise

Franz Schubert’s Winterreise is, by most accounts, the Mount Everest of song cycles. Its narrative depicts the solitary walk of a despondent man, away from a town of his rejected love and toward another of ominous portent. Brooding on themes of alienation and death, the poetic imagery is dark, the musical atmospherics stark.

It is tempting to ascribe Schubert’s autobiographical circumstances – he had contracted syphilis in 1822 - as the prime motivation for the songs. But it was a contemporaneous poet who never met the composer, the Dessau-born Wilhelm Müller, who wrote and published 24 poems between 1823 and 1824, hoping a musician of talent would set them. Müller’s earlier Die schöne Müllerin poems had in fact already inspired a Schubert song cycle.

But the Winterreise poems chimed even more deeply with Schubert’s state of mind. And it was the composer who would immortalize them, tellingly reorganizing their order and ennobling their natural, even naïve imagery with a fusion of poignant melody, daring harmony, and varied but inexorable rhythm. With a mystical hand he bestowed upon the cycle an unsurpassed, penetrating psychological intensity.

When Schubert previewed the songs for his friends in late 1827, they hadn’t a clue what to make of them. Where were the spring flowers, the swimming trout and summer romances that graced so many of the composer’s earlier songs? Even the ultimately tragic miller songs of four years before had begun with happy prospects.

Schubert told his friends they would eventually take to the songs. His death a year later at age 31 brought the emotional landscape of these strange melodies into sharp focus. Winterreise soon established itself as the ultimate musical catharsis for those who have loved and lost, or who must face their deaths unfulfilled.

Bostridge in Los Angeles

There are some things a young singer can master only through experience. One is coming to terms with Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise. Another is how to deal with jet lag. Both of these lessons are, of course, associated with long journeys.

Tenor Ian Bostridge had essayed Winterreise early in his career, achieving a certain youthful acclaim with it in London as early as 1993. Hearing from LA Opera impresario Peter Hemmings the buzz surrounding the then 29-year-old singer, I had quickly booked him for a couple of live radio broadcasts over KUSC-FM, and arranged a private recital in Santa Monica. The public concerts were to be part of 1994’s UK/LA Festival and Bostridge’s U.S. debut.

Alas, the Fates intervened. The unseasoned traveler, shortly after booking with us, had a nasty surprise encounter with jet lag at his first North American performance in Toronto. Thrown for a loop, he cancelled his L.A. engagements to regain his bearings in London and consider how to handle this scourge of the traveler.

Last evening the silver lining in the enforced 16-year wait to hear Ian Bostridge sing Winterreise in L.A. finally glistened, courtesy of the performing arts series, UCLA Live!. Behind him now is a nearly two-decade relationship with the cycle - recitals and recordings, including theatrical enactments on film and video.

Experience has been a good teacher. It was evident in every gesture of the singer and his pianist that theatrical elements in their film and video productions had crept into the recital. At 45 years of age and at a vocal peak, Bostridge demonstrated no longer a youthful singer’s precocity, but a mature - if also a highly idiosyncratic - command of the bleak terrain in Winterreise.

Spooky Coincidences

Bostridge is also a scholar of the occult, holding a doctorate from Oxford and authoring an influential book, Witchcraft and its Transformations 1650 to 1750, which deals with the transition from dark superstition to scientific rationalism in English public life as it entered the pre-Enlightenment period of European history.

Your humble scribe can relate to that, as his many-generations before grandmother, the then 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse, was wrongfully accused and hung as a witch in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, at that time very much an English colony right in the middle of Bostridge’s book subject and timeframe. I shared that grisly piece of history with the singer last evening after the performance, to his wide-eyed surprise. 

You just never know the skeletons one has in one’s closet.

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