Just another pretty voice” is a big compliment in this town. Singers who can make the richest, rosiest, ripest sounds—Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt—have the biggest careers, especially in opera. Then there are those singers who are labeled “interesting,” which generally means provocative interpreters or voices with an edgy, acquired-taste quality. The British tenor Ian Bostridge surely belongs in the interesting category, and during the past decade, extravagantly praised by his countrymen and heavily promoted by EMI, he has polarized audiences. Unsurprisingly, opinions were split about his recent performance of Schubert’s Winterreise cycle in Carnegie Hall, with Leif Ove Andsnes at the piano. I was among the awed—their performance left me shaken, as an account of this bleak wintry journey should.
Usually a confrontational recitalist whose restless stage manner and beady stares can make his listeners actively uncomfortable, Bostridge was relatively subdued, although the intensity of his gaze on this exhausting 70-minute descent into madness was relentless. Tellingly, the tenor prefaces his new EMI recording of Winterreise, also with Andsnes, with a quote from Beckett’s The Expelled: “When I am abroad in the morning I go to meet the sun, and in the evening, when I am abroad, I follow it, till I am down among the dead. . . . Living souls, you will see how alike they are.” That precisely describes how Bostridge connects Schubert’s 24 songs and enters their desolate world. Andsnes’s characterization of the piano’s role as a sane, comforting companion constantly trying to pull his friend back from the edge, made the cycle seem that much more shattering.
Some, of course, simply do not take to Bostridge’s sound, which seems more threaded and loosely woven than ever, even if many of the individual strands still strike my ear as spun from pure silver. And there is that achingly plangent tone that never quite leaves his voice, no matter how much pressure he applies. However one responds, this was a Winterreise to haunt the imagination long after the notes died away.
Anthony Dean Griffey is a young American tenor whose work is less controversial. His voice has a warm, fresh, fuzzy appeal to match this engaging singer’s friendly style, which radiated sunnily at his recent recital debut in Zankel Hall. And what an enterprising program, sung in English and involving many talents: pianist Warren Jones for songs by Griffes and Barber, the Fountain Ensemble in Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge cycle, violist Daniel Panner in three Frank Bridge songs, guitarist Johannes Tonio Kreusch playing his own arrangement of Copland’s first set of Old American Songs, and André Previn providing piano accompaniment for his own songs.
Griffey sang everything utterly naturally, devoid of artifice yet still full of character and nuance, whether probing the bitterness of Vaughan Williams’s Shropshire lad or slyly enumerating the treasures of Copland’s chortling farmer who “bought me a cat.” I suspect there is a future Lohengrin or maybe even a Tristan lurking somewhere in Griffey’s sturdy voice and lyrical approach, but for now savor the moment and his career choices. This is a big vocal talent.