Crazy for the Lad

LIVE WAY: Ian Bostridge performs Britten's Les Illuminations.
Photo: Chris Lee

Ian Bostridge is a confrontational singer, and he makes some people uneasy. When I first encountered him, singing a German lieder recital at the Frick Collection a few years ago, his rail-thin figure, eyeball-to-eyeball engagement with his audience, and frighteningly intense identification with Schumann’s split musical personality suggested some sort of psychotic Shropshire lad singing his heart out. Indeed, the rattled music critic from the Times, a fellow Brit on duty that afternoon, couldn’t take it and wrote a review that made his horror all too apparent.

Well, since then, Bostridge has become the darling of the British musical Establishment and England’s most celebrated tenor since Peter Pears. At a time when the major record labels are in crisis and even the starriest singers go unrecorded, Bostridge turns out one disc after another, mostly for EMI Classics and its affiliates. In the past few months, his EMI releases have included the leading roles in Mozart’s Idomeneo and Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, while his recital discs have featured German lieder by Schubert and Schumann, Janácek’s Diary of One Who Vanished, a song cycle composed especially for him by Hans Werner Henze, and a crossover album devoted to the songs of Noël Coward. All this whetted appetites for Bostridge’s recent debut with the New York Philharmonic, Sir Colin Davis conducting, where he sang Britten’s Les Illuminations, a song cycle for high voice and strings based on the poems of Rimbaud.

Although not written specifically for Pears, the composer’s lifetime companion, Les Illuminations is still closely associated with this singular voice, its almost ethereal vibratoless purity and technical ease around the register break where most tenors run into problems. Bostridge has a rather different sort of voice, just as well-schooled but with a juicier, more plangent tone that he uses to achieve the expressive effects and vocal colors that make his style so arresting. He also points up the verbal twists and exotic imagery of the French text more tellingly than any singer I know, relishing the homoerotic element that the 26-year-old Britten has translated into music that still startles in its vivid pictorial strokes and aching sensuality. Britten never publicly came out, but he might just as well have after writing this uncharacteristically luscious piece in 1939. The composer’s recordings of the cycle with Pears remain in a class of their own, but it was salutary to hear Bostridge and Davis, two straight musicians, capture the essence of the piece so effectively in this haunting, exquisitely detailed performance.

Any number of different themes could be detected during the recent American Composers Orchestra concert in Carnegie Hall, the first under the direction of the ACO’s new music director, Steven Sloane. All the pieces related in some way to Psalms, which has been inspiring composers, believers and nonbelievers alike, for centuries. The other inescapable leitmotiv had to be Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, a classic that seemed to hover in the subconscious of all five living composers on the program. David Lang’s How to Pray, commissioned as a brief orchestral introduction to the concert, even borrows the distinctive solo piano line that threads through the opening measures of Stravinsky’s score, thereby creating a homage to this seminal twentieth-century masterpiece.

Five short works followed, two Psalm settings by Charles Ives, excerpts from Psalm by Jon Magnussen, Milton Babbitt’s From the Psalter, and Supplications for chorus and orchestra by Shulamit Ran. Interestingly, the Magnussen piece was composed in 2001–02 to accompany José Limón’s 1967 ballet Psalm, which Limón originally hoped would be danced to the Symphony of Psalms. The Babbitt work, a five-minute cantata for soprano and string orchestra, also pays its respects to Stravinsky, in this case the composer’s later serial style, in music that glows with Babbitt’s characteristic cool instrumental purity and lyrical sophistication.

The main event of the afternoon was John Harbison’s Four Psalms, written to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. This ambitious 40-minute piece is constructed around four Psalms sung in Hebrew by the chorus, interspersed with English commentary on contemporary Israel by living people. Several audience members walked out during the performance; whether they were offended by the words or the music is difficult to say – Harbison’s idiom is hardly inaccessible, and his choice of texts takes pains to give a fair representation of Israel’s “present moment.” Then again, it could be that the aesthetic of the whole piece is flawed. Harbison seems far more comfortable dealing with the elevated poetry of the psalmist than he does with the more down-to-earth language of his interviewees, which, more often than not, sounds awkwardly intrusive. Perhaps the four Psalms, eloquent statements by themselves, deserve a home in a different piece.

Just so there’s no confusion, the Metropolitan Opera’s upcoming telecast of Beethoven’s Fidelio next month, the day after Christmas, was filmed two seasons ago, with a cast quite different from the one performing in the current revival. Both are worthy of the occasion and respond eagerly to Jürgen Flimm’s grim but fluidly cinematic treatment of an opera with a theme – individual freedom versus brutal tyranny – that unfortunately never seems to become irrelevant. Flimm’s prison milieu is vaguely contemporary, but the people who inhabit it are real and timeless, as a homely domestic situation develops into a tense life-and-death struggle.

As Leonore, who goes through hell to free her unjustly imprisoned husband, Waltraud Meier may be functioning at the limits of her vocal capacities, but she does so honorably and the effort only increases the power of her impersonation. Johan Botha (Florestan), Richard Paul Fink (Pizarro), and Matti Salminen (Rocco) are all compelling, and the orchestra under Peter Schneider gives a thrillingly propulsive account of the score. I suspect that no competent cast can go wrong in this carefully thought-out and dramatically riveting production of Beethoven’s masterpiece.

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Crazy for the Lad