Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano: "BRITTEN: Songs"
With Yang, guitar. Texts. EMI 4334302
In this Britten centennial year of 2013, one of the two most obvious gaps in Ian Bostridge's discography has been filled. Apparently we will not be getting a document of his Aschenbach in Death in Venice, but this new disc gives us Bostridge's version of Britten's magnificent Thomas Hardy cycle Winter Words. Bostridge has been singing it in recitals, sometimes with Britten's Five Canticles and sometimes with the first half of Schubert's Winterreise. This performance, recorded last January, is notable for the way in which Bostridge adjusts his interpretation in light of his partnership with pianist Antonio Pappano. The two musicians know that it is only the aggregate effect of the second song — the legato singing of the tenor over the jumpy, detached notes of the piano — that portrays the sleepy boy on the jerky train ride. Bostridge doesn't try to finish off the song "Wagtail and Baby" himself; he knows that the quizzical ending is completed by the piano part. In "The Choirmaster's Burial," one of the many candidates for Britten's greatest song, Pappano gives an assertive (perhaps too assertive) primary-colored account of the piece. The neo-primitivism of the final song is difficult to bring off in performance. Here, Bostridge and Pappano prepare for it by allowing the penultimate song, "At the Railway Station, Upway," to seem a collection of unfinished fragments. The performance, and the song itself, make a perfect match for the poem, and the emotional weight is thus shifted onto the last song.
In its own unassuming way, this CD is an important contribution to the Britten year. Since Winter Words is Britten's Opus 52, and the cycles Songs from the Chinese and Six Hölderlin Fragments are his opuses 58 and 61, the program paints a detailed picture of Britten's musical concerns during one short span of his compositional life. (The operas Gloriana and The Turn of the Screw came on either side of Winter Words.) In the Hölderlin settings, Bostridge and Pappano make an interpretive focal point of the fifth song, leaving an almost stunned quality, less a summation than a postlude, for the sixth and final one. Bostridge is particularly good at conveying the intoxicated world-weariness of "Hälfte des Lebens" and the platonic flirtatiousness of "Sokrates und Alcibiades." The Songs from the Chinese, settings in English of nearly epigrammatic poems, are rarities on record and in recital. This is perhaps because of the difficulty of the guitar part, here played beautifully by Xuefei Yang. Certainly they are some of Britten's most fascinating songs; he always had a few extra tricks up his sleeve.
Bostridge and Pappano offer only the four English songs from the twelve-song cycle Who Are These Children?, which make an unfulfilling effect by themselves. (We might more profitably have been given the two Hardy settings pruned from Winter Words, which are now published.) The early cycle Michelangelo Sonnets is, perhaps, one of the few Britten pieces not to have aged particularly well. Or perhaps it suffers most from the tubby, lifeless recorded sound, which may partially account for an intermittent note-by-note pokiness in Pappano's pianism. But the Hardy, Hölderlin and Chinese cycles here are nonetheless tremendous.
WILLIAM R. BRAUN
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