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The Distancing Effect

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Listening) Permanent link   All Posts

When the 2012 Grammy Award nominations were announced recently, Ian Bostridge's name was prominent on the list — in the category of Best Classical Vocal Solo, for his EMI CD Three Baroque Tenors. It's Bostridge's twelfth Grammy nomination, and he's won twice before — a remarkable achievement for an artist who spends most of his artistic life quite outside the classical-music mainstream.

I heard Bostridge most recently on November 28, when he appeared in recital at Carnegie Hall accompanied at the piano by composer Thomas Adès. It was a strange — also strangely memorable — evening that I'm still puzzling over to some extent. Bostridge has always spiked his recitals with peculiar poses and lurches about the stage that often make it difficult to determine exactly what his specific motivation might be. He did so again at the Carnegie Hall performance, and he was matched moment by moment by Adès, who attacked the keyboard almost ferociously at times, punching out individual notes rather than sculpting phrases. One odd detail about Adès's playing: he often picked up one hand from the keyboard and stared at it momentarily, as if he was surprised that it had shown up for the performance. The overall effect was that the music sometimes seemed pulled instead of merely allowed to take shape. This unnerved me most of all during their performance of Schumann's Dichterliebe which has to go down as one of the most eccentric performances of this cycle I've ever heard. The entire recital was built around the theme of loss and personal isolation, so many of their choices made sense dramatically. Yet underneath it all, I had a strong feeling — which I'm encountering in performance more and more these days — that the artists onstage weren't particularly interested in bringing the audience into the experience of portraying alienation. For me, the high point was Dowland's magnificent "In Darkness Let Me Dwell." I couldn't help but wish that more of the recital had managed to be so chillingly desolate and illuminating at the same time. spacer 


I have been put off both Bostridge and Ades by their overwhelming egos. Naturally they don't bring you into the music: all they are presenting is out-of-control ego. Cf. Jon Vickers; same problem.
Posted by: Barbara Wollman at 12/28/2011 9:31 AM

Jon Vickers had one of the greatest dramatic tenor voices of the 20th century, as well as a monumental ego. Mr. Bostridge is a fine singer, Mr. Ades a successful composer. Vickers is unique, and (although certainly Benjamin Britten, for one, would have disagreed) in my experience, always served the work, albeit in his own, egotistical, highly idiosyncratic way. Bostridge--and Ades--do not approach Vickers in any way except the size of their egos.
Posted by: Shaun Greenleaf at 3/22/2012 4:41 PM

I half-agree. When I heard Vickers (in Carnegie Hall) he went out of his way to include the audience in the musical experience, not easy in a venue that size. By contrast, Bostridge turned Alice Tully into a chilly lecture hall, glaring at anyone who made a noise between songs. All singers have gigantic egos, but not all treat the paying customers as a nuisance. Perhaps Mr. Bostridge would be happier spending all his time in the studio, like Glenn Gould.
Posted by: Sharon Thomas at 4/26/2012 10:20 PM

I love Vickers as well - I'm not surprised to learn he has a monumental ego! BTW, I recently saw a lieder recital by Goerne and sensed the same thing as Kellow sensed w/ Bostridge - I'm a huge fan of Goerne, but wish he would engage the audience a bit more. Seemed as if he hardly noticed the audience was there except during the ovation at the end. Sometimes I think singers - including/especially very good singers - can tend to over-intellectualize things and strain too much for "high art," which can ultimately feel a bit sterile. I'd much rather genuine emotional engagement than a straining for uniqueness at all turns.
Posted by: Rebecca at 4/28/2012 2:00 PM

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