Magazine article Gramophone

Ian Bostridge: The English Tenor Draws Breath to Reflect on What Has, So Far, Been a Busy Year Celebrating Britten's Centenary

Magazine article Gramophone

Ian Bostridge: The English Tenor Draws Breath to Reflect on What Has, So Far, Been a Busy Year Celebrating Britten's Centenary

Article excerpt

It's Britten year, of course, 100 years since his birth, and my year is full as never before with Britten projects. It started with songs in Birmingham and Brussels, in recital with Julius Drake. Juxtaposing Britten (Winter Words) and Schubert (the first 12 songs of Winterreise, essentially Schubert's first version of the cycle) confirms the mastery of the former--he can stand in such company, the greatest song composer of the modern era--and his absorption of the model that Schubert was and is.

In Brussels, a mixed programme included four English-language songs from the William Soutar cycle Who are these Children, a very late work, and the stunning version of the Purcell lament The Queen's Epicedium, a great example of piano realisation unleashing the Baroque. And then it was on to Chilham in Kent--freezing cold as one might expect but with a fabulous acoustic--recording a whole slew of Britten songs for EMI with Tony Pappano and our accustomed and brilliant team of John Fraser, producer, and Arne Akselberg, engineer. The range of styles on the album is singular the italianita of the Michelangelo settings, the earnest Romanticism of the Holderlin Fragments, the English Biedermeier (as Graham Johnson has called it) of Winter Words--but the musical language is always original and authentic, never mere pastiche. By the time we got to the evanescent but deep Songs from the Chinese, with guitarist Xuefei Yang, the weather was up, maybe summoned by the Winterreise-ish climax of Britten's setting of Holderlin's 'Halite des Lebens' ('Im Winde klirren die Fahnen'--in the wind the weathervanes clatter) and we had to decamp to Abbey Road Studios.

A couple of weeks later I found myself in Warsaw, where it was snowing and the heating was on full--never good news for a singer. As part of the Lutosiawski celebrations--it's also his 100th birthday this year--we were performing his Paroles tissees for tenor and string orchestra and Britten's Les illuminations. Good programming, and the very different responses to surreal French textuality are a wonderful contrast: the Lutosiawski all cryptic and full of mystery, written bang in the middle of the Cold War by an artist at odds with the regime under which he was living; the Britten full of sensuality, but also foreboding. …

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