We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, October 25, 2019


Photo credits: Ian Bostridge by Sim Canetty-Clarke, Brad Mehldau by Michael Wilson
We have thrilled to the recorded sound of tenor Ian Bostridge and approached his recital at Zankel Hall with a great deal of anticipation; sadly we were woefully disappointed and are not likely to attend any of his future recitals. How could it happen that such a beautiful instrument failed to touch us? How is it possible that so many in the audience appeared to be thrilled when we were not?

It seems to us that Mr. Bostridge is a particular kind of artist that has acquired a cult following from a select group to which his particular style appeals. He seems to be intensely related to the text, overemphasizing variations of color and dynamics. His stage presence seems awkward and his physical movements distracting. He grabs the edge of the piano; he wanders aimlessly; he tilts his head forward so far one wonders how he gets that beautiful sound out. It seemed altogether mannered.

As much as he connects with the material, we didn't feel his connection with the audience. Perhaps others did but we and our companion didn't get "the feels".

At first we attributed it to the non-melodic song cycle composed by his collaborative pianist Brad Mehldau, on commission from Carnegie Hall, which was having its premiere.  A good piece of music stands on its own merit and doesn't require three and a half pages of mansplaining in the program. Apparently the cycle had something to do with desire and its protean manifestations.

For the most part some excellent poetry was selected--so excellent that attempting to set these works to music seemed gratuitous. The texts were often obscure and symbolic, requiring patient reading, reflection, and analysis. The music added nothing in our opinion. The poets included The Bard himself, represented by a pair of sonnets, and works by W.H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, and William Blake. 

Particularly disappointing was a setting of Goethe's "Ganymed" which will be sung long after Schubert's setting has been forgotten--but NOT A MOMENT BEFORE! It takes some arrogance to tamper with a song that is so perfect!

"the boys I mean are not refined" is a text by e.e.cummings, legendary for its filthiness; it rhymed and scanned and was fun to read, and was given a jazzy accompaniment.

"Über die Verführung von Engeln" by Berthold Brecht was, as the story goes, submitted to a magazine under the name of Thomas Mann as a prank. It is even filthier than the cummings and, therefore, more interesting! The English translation was not in the program but was read aloud by Mr. Bostridge in a very soft voice; we looked up the text as soon as we got home!

The closest the music came to being melodic was in an excerpt from "Sailing to Byzantium" by Yeats.

One thing that puzzled us was this.  If a composer is writing for a singer he knows well, why would he provide so many low notes that strained the singer's instrument to a point at which those notes seemed disconnected from the middle voice?

We convinced ourself during intermission that we would be sure to love the Schumann which followed. Contrary to what appeared on the Carnegie Hall website, Dichterliebe sounds nothing like a man missing his beloved. The texts chosen by Schumann from Heinrich Heine's Lyrisches Intermezzo loosely tell the story of profound disappointment in love! Heine's work comprised a prologue and 65 poems. From these, Schumann chose twenty, although the first four are rarely included. These sixteen remaining ones have a dramatic arc.

Searching for a benefit to be derived from this dispiriting evening, we decided to take pleasure in the hearing of these four songs and the gaining of  the knowledge of why they are rarely included. They are just not up to the quality of the other sixteen.

Starting with "Im wunderschönen Monat Mai", the poet sings of his ardent love for the beloved. His excitement in "Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne" are filled with youthful abandon. Mr. Bostridge and Mr. Mehldau took it at a very rapid tempo. 

There was no break between the songs. Mr. Mehldau's piano postlude in "Ich will meine Seele tauchen" was quite lovely. In "Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen" it was propulsive. We liked the mournful quality in "Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen", and we liked the way the chords punctuated the text in "Ich hab' im Traum geweinet". So much for the piano.

Vocally, we searched for something to admire and found it in the way Mr. Bostridge caressed each word in "Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen"; but we feel compelled to mention that the consonants were given short shrift more times than we could count--particularly the final "ch".

The audience was very enthusiastic and there were three encores. The first was a jazzy number from Noel Coward's Cavalcade, given a contemporary political twist; we could not make out the words. The second was "These Foolish Things" by Eric Maschwitz, writing under the pseudonym Holt Marvell, with music by Jack Strachey. Mr. Mehldau exhibited his jazz chops and Mr. Bostridge bent the notes like a jazz singer.

The final offering was Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye", another jazz standard which, along with the second encore, was made popular by Ella Fitzgerald.

© meche kroop

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