INKPOT#62 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: SCHUBERT Lieder. Bostridge (EMI)
IAN BOSTRIDGE tenor
JULIUS DRAKE piano
EMI Classics 5 56347-2
Full libretto and translations in English Notes in English, German and French
List of Songs on this disc:
by Ng Yeuk Fan
This is a collection of favourite Schubert songs, filled with beautiful and easily palatable melodies. Any self-respecting Schubert enthusiast would recognise at least three quarters of the programme. For the new or uninitiated, it is an especially easy disc to start with; most, if not all, of the programme consists of fascinating melodies and rhythms put to poems written by German poets of Schubert’s day. One can hear a wide array of the composer’s styles and instrument colours, including in the famous Erlknig.
It is mentioned that in 1816, the 19-year-old Schubert made a gift of a set of songs set to Goethe’s poems to the great Goethe himself – then already well-known as a poet-sage in Germany. The songs were returned without a word of acknowledgement from the poet. This unopened set would have included five of the current offering: Heidenrslein, Der Fischer, Erster Verlust, Wanderers Nachtlied and the almost theatrical Erlknig.
It is heard again that in 1825, Schubert again prepared prints of songs set to Goethe’s poems and sent them to the great sage. Though Goethe did note receipt in his diary, he did not open the package, nor did he send an acknowledgement. This set contained the rest of the Goethe songs in this offering – namely Ganymed, Der Musensohn and the second Wanderers Nachtlied.
This apparent dismissal of Schubert’s immense talent may have meant much to the young composer; but history has its revenge eventually, for now, Goethe’s fame outside of Germany – in the minds of most music-lovers – is largely as a result of Schubert’s songs. (Goethe – painting left – is otherwise famous for nothing less than his dramatic setting of the Faust legend, the best known of all settings.)
The other songs on the offering include one – Du bist die Ruh by the famous Friedrich Rckert, whose name may be mentioned in the same breadth as Goethe. The rest are a mixed bag of songs set to second and third-rate poems (relatively speaking) by various poets, including a translation of Shakespeare verses. Though Schubert knew well the quality of the poems he chose for his music, he nevertheless had exact intentions and knew what he wanted to achieve in these settings. It is clear in the songs included that through his immaculate mastery of the art song (lieder), Schubert achieved his aim with great efficiency and spareness – thus his very apt nickname – the King of the Song.
This is another offering in the Bostridge/Drake partnership. I had mentioned earlier in my review of Bostridge’s Schumann recital that one just cannot get enough of his sweet voice. I hadn’t known that by the time that review was published, this Schubert recital was already hitting stores in the US and UK.
Bostridge (left) brings to these Schubert songs his characteristic treatment, very cerebral, very agreeable and entirely applaudable. Words are painted with cunning skill and tones coloured with marvellous vocal technique. Certain passages, especially the highest ones, suffer from the same tightness heard in his Schumann recording. I am tempted to say that between the Schumann and the current Schubert recording, no new development in vocal technique can be heard in Bostridge’s voice. In fact, more problems are heard in this Schubert disc than in the former – a little insipidity, not apparent in the Schumann recital, seems to have seeped into some of the songs, marring what would have been sustained greatness. Additionally, the pianist Julius Drake will require more imagination and much more flair if this partnership is to match the prowess of Fischer-Dieskau and Moore combined (their Die schne Mllerin is reviewed here).
However, despite these problems, few would argue that Bostridge’s interpretations are for the most part, excellent examples of how scholarship (and I would like to add that high IQ) can benefit the performance of lieder. Detractors, however, may choose to pass them off as being overly studied – the way which I felt when I heard Cheryl Studer in a programme of Schubert some years ago. Whatever the case may be, Bostridge’s approach to lieder is uniquely his. Readers out there who have not heard him will still well benefit from this offering that is well-programmed, familiar and generous.
For myself, perhaps because of the success of his Schumann recital, I had come to expect more of Bostridge’s Schubert. I forget that singers take time to mature… (that is exactly what I had said about his voice in my earlier review) This said, there are many moments in this disc that caught my attention for sheer interpretative insight. In his rendition of Erlknig for example, Bostridge cunningly uses Schubert’s triplet to imitate the giggling of the devious Erlking. Collectors eager to explore Bostridge’s ‘cerebral’ approach would be well-rewarded with this disc.
All in all, I reiterate my belief that it is a matter of time that Bostridge will become a member of Lieder’s ‘Hall of Fame’, as it were, joining greats like Schwarzkopf, Fischer-Dieskau, Della-Casa, Baker and Wunderlich. For now, I can only wait, and patiently I must be, for Bostridge to open up his deep throat vowels “oo” and “oh”, loosen his upper registers through continued vocal exercise while achieving a sweet and light mezza-voce…
In Singapore, this CD is available at or can be ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City), Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City), HMV (The Heeren) and Borders (Wheelock Place).
299: 27.9.1998 Ng Yeuk Fan