Ian Bostridge and Brad Mehldau • Zankel Hall

Portrait of the Singer as an Artist

Ian Bostridge’s long record of successes and collaborations with the greatest conductors of our time speaks for itself. This is a truly exceptional artist of the highest order who continues to dig ever more deeply into his carefully chosen repertoire and offers intensely personal interpretations that are emotionally raw yet extremely well crafted. I am forever grateful that he has the bravery and mastery to deliver what, for me, once again (read my review of Bostridge’s 2016 Carnegie Hall recital of Schubert’s Winterreise here) amounted to one of the greatest acts I have ever seen.  

There are those who want their “classical” music to be simply beautiful and dignified. They clearly have not read or digested the poems that composers like Mahler, Schubert and Schumann have set to music, nor, arguably, are they able to detect the earth-shattering emotional subtext in the music these giants wrote.   To experience Ian Bostridge perform a song cycle is to go down the rabbit hole with him and explore deeply unnerving questions that grate at our sense of self. Are you ready for the ride? It might take you to very, very dark places. 

Performing Schumann’s Dichterliebe and The Folly of Desire, a fascinating new song cycle based on poems from the likes of William Blake, Shakespeare, e.e. cummings and W.H. Auden, composed for him by his latest accompanist and collaborator, Brad Mehldau, Ian Bostridge gave not a mere concert but a real performance that unfolded in real time and as if for the very first time, so densely filled with emotional inflections and intense micro-expressions that I, for one, repeatedly went into sensory overload. I can’t think of anyone who could match his intensity when it comes to the portrayal of the archetype of the anguished man who feels trapped by his feelings and desperately tries to cling to at least a modicum of dignity despite the deception and disappointment life has thrown in his face, blotched from the rush of blood we feel when shame, despair or anger befall us.

Some singers in recital cannot help placing their hands on the piano as an easy means to give their insecure posture some stability, a bad habit deliciously derided by Victor Borge in one of his classic skits during which he repeatedly admonishes a soprano, during her aria, to keep her hands off his piano (the skit inspired a brief moment in my own coaching video). Ian Bostridge proved that not only can one break such rules, one can rewrite them – if one approaches one’s entire performance, from the first to the last note, like the work of a singing actor. In doing so, Ian Bostridge has effectively re-invented the Lieder recital as a dramatic one-man show in which the singer becomes the protagonist – and the piano a stage prop. His long sensitive hands, as expressive as Jean Cocteau’s, absentmindedly caressed the piano’s curvature. At times, he leaned against it as if it were a bookshelf in his personal library where he was getting lost in deep thought.  At other times, he leaned into it, hovering over it to such a degree that I began to imagine that he would literally fall into it. There were moments when he peered so intensely into the open piano that he seemed to not merely watch the music unfold but gaze into a deep dark well, yearning for it to offer him answers to the existential questions his character was pondering.  

For some, Ian Bostridge may go too far in his extremely physical interpretations that eschew the traditional, dignified and static stage persona that concert audiences have come to expect in general. His body writhed and wrung like James Dean’s in Rebels without a Cause, assuming angular, tortured poses reminiscent of Egon Schiele’s famous self-portrait with blue-green shirt. He paced around the stage, clutching his hands in anguish or letting his arms hang from his lanky body like those of a lifeless scarecrow. Sometimes, he literally punched his sides as if to violently push himself into a different emotional state. Now and then, his face contorted in despair, conjuring a haunted madman, only to, seconds later, painstakingly regain a tortured composure, resigned to the burden of life.  And yet, the riveting, deeply genuine performance never veered into melodrama. And if you closed your eyes, you could hear how fine-tuned his vocal instrument is, creating a range of sounds that go from a tender, pianissimo caress to an angry bark, beautifully underscored with much finesse by Brad Mehldau.

One of Heinrich Heine’s poems in Dichterliebe ends with the words, Wenn ich begraben werde, dann ist das Märchen aus – once I am buried, the fairy tale is over. Delivering the line with bitter poignancy, Ian Bostridge looked defiantly into the room whilst the piano kept playing, as if to say to the world, I may still be alive but your fairy tales of happy ever after have long ceased to fool me. It was deeply unsettling – and heart breaking. Can you take it? Is it too close for comfort? Well, how comfortable do you think Heinrich Heine, Robert Schumann or Franz Schubert were in their lives when they wrote these poems or songs? And yet, the end of Schumann’s Dichterliebe offered a kind of redemption, conjuring a coffin in which to burry all the “evil, old songs”. The last sung words were, Do you know why the coffin might be so big and heavy? I lowered all my love and my sorrow into it as well. At that, a cascade of notes from Brad Mehldau’s gentle hands washed over us, like a rain of flower petals dropped onto a lowered coffin. It felt like a glimpse of hope for a better place.