News Column

Awkward tenor put drama ahead of the music

August 13, 2014

Michael Tumelty; Kate Molleson; Michael Tumelty; Kate Molleson

Ian Bostridge/ Julius Drake

Queen's Hall

GIVEN the roars that greeted the performances by tenor Ian Bostridge I'll probably be lynched after what I say about his singing of Mahler. So before we fall out, let me assert that the strongest elements in the programme included the tenor's performance of three of Kurt Weill'sWalt Whitman songs which made high art, and the most compassionate art at that, out of Weill's wonderful, seamless fusion of cabaret, blues and swing idioms.

These were war songs, ranging from Pearl Harbour back to the 19th century, and Bostridge's powerful evocations touched everyone, not least with the moving Dirge for Two Veterans.

The delivery of a selection from Britten's last song cycle, Who are these Children?, which marries the poetry of William Soutar and English language poetry, was no less potent, brimming, not just with the passion and bleakness that characterised the texts, but with the extraordinary pianism of Julius Drake, whose towering presence throughout this uneven recital gave it a strength and an integrity that otherwise, arguably, it lacked.

Now I know Bostridge's performance of Mahler songs, including some of the folksy, earlier songs as well as the great Songs of a Wayfarer, had many listeners, to borrow their words, gushing or shattered.

I felt Bostridge was awkward, uncomfortable and grim throughout the Mahler sets. He went for the drama rather than the music. His actual sound was hard, cold and inflexible. That voice did not feel or sound at ease. One former musician, kinder than me, felt the singer was "looming towards an expressionist" interpretation. Hmm; I got nothing from it.

Quartet for the End of Time

Greyfriars Kirk

I FELT like an idiot on Monday night, emerging from the Greyfriars Kirk Festival performance of Messiaen's epic Quartet for the End of Time.

I seemed to have been struck dumb. "Never better,"I reiterated quietly; "never better". I was clearly in shock. I was verb-less. It was contagious. I was standing next to a Radio 3 producer who was in a similar state of wonder: "Dream team," she quoted someone as having described the ensemble. "Dream team."

Out in the street, someone else managed a bit of a verb: "If ever there was a classical supergroup...."

We were not alone in our reactions. I have never seen a bigger audience in this kirk that I love; and, following a long, spellbound silence at the end, there erupted a tumultuous ovation such as I have not heard from any audience for any piece of modern music, anywhere, any time since 1990.

If there is a God in heaven, he blessed this performance of this particular piece of music. People stamped, cheered and got to their feet. I just sat, numbed and wet-cheeked from the heart-stopping and truly-transcendent effect on me that this performance had conjured and released.

Never has a state of timelessness and near-stasis been so close as in the first movement performance by violinist Antje Weithaas, clarinettist Jorg Widmann, cellist Alban Gerhardt and pianist Steven Osborne; nor such a bottomless abyss as that explored by Widmann in the third, nor suspension of Time as in the violinist's and cellist's two Praises, of eternal length; and nor such warmth as in the softly-pulsing chords from Osborne in the finale. I am speechless. For now.

The Sixteen

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

THIS concert opened with the gentlemen of The Sixteen intoning in stern unison: "L'homme, l'homme, l'homme arme". It's a French renaissance ditty that was popular in its day - over 40 mass settings incorporate it - and at first glance the tune has the simple dimensions of something you could whistle, catchy and buoyant.

Here, though, its message was altogether more menacing. The text tells forebodingly of an armed stranger clad in armour who should be feared.

This little tune is the nub of this year's International Festival programme: it's the earliest manifestation of the theme of artistic responses to conflict.

The Sixteen closed with Francis Poulenc's Figure humaine: eight passionate settings of poems by Paul Eluard that end in a rousing flourish with the French Resistance ode Liberte.

This music dates from a good three centuries after the choir's core repertoire - they are Renaissance specialists, first and foremost - and although their full ensemble sound was the beefiest I've heard from them, their delivery remained on the chaste side for such ardent, visceral music.

The rest of the programme flitted between 16th century Flanders (movements from Josquin des Prez's Missa 'L'homme arme' sexti toni), the Tudor court of Cardinal Wolsey (Taverner's Mass 'O Michael') and 20th century Paris (Poulenc's sensuous Quatre motets pour en temps de penitence).

Did conductor Harry Christophers assume the worst of Edinburgh attention spans during the festival?

The most arresting moments of the night came in John Sheppard's serene In manus tuas settings: these gave The Sixteen a chance to settle into their pristine blend and show off the special luminous spaces they create between their vocal lines.

Jordi Savall & Co

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Jordi Savall described this concert as "a vast musical fresco" and that it was: the celebrated Catalan viol player gave us a generous guided tour of a century of music from southern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, told in chronological order and punctuated with drum rolls and Gallic voice-overs.

The theme was War and Peace and Savall had gathered his troops; on stage were his two instrumental ensembles (Hesperion XXI and Le Concert des Nations), his vocal group (La Capella Reial de Catalunya) and a quartet of Turkish traditional musicians. The colour spectrum produced by the amassed gaggle of ancient instruments was spectacular.

The century in question was 1614-1714 - which (in case the historic dates were not at the tip of your memory) mark the beginning of the Thirty Years' War and the end of the Spanish Succession.

As you would expect from Savall, the programme was meticulously researched and artfully put together. Each major conflict and peace treaty was illustrated with a work from the relevant time and place. Some were more interesting than others: there are surely more exciting choices from the 1640s than John Jenkins' deadly dull Newark Siege.

Performance quality varied, too. The voices were not generally strong enough to carry in the Usher Hall, and the modal twists of John Blow's Praise The Lord got the better of one unfortunate tenor. But there were many beautiful moments: the dark-hued Aramaic lament; the rhythmic tugs and gutsy bass lines of Cabanilles's Batalla Imperial; the hypnotic rounds of Vasily Titov's O Virgo, gem of the Russian baroque.

Savall himself had arranged a plangent Catalan 'patriotic lamentation' to mark the 1714 Capitulation of Barcelona: a nod, perhaps, from one independence movement to another?

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Source: Herald, The (Scotland)

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