October 30, 2019

Acclaimed British Tenor Performs Schumann Song Cycle at Richardson Auditorium

By Nancy Plum

In a three-concert series entitled “Icons of Song,” Princeton University Concerts is examining both the concept of love and ways to expand the boundaries of chamber music. Composers through the centuries have explored the ups and downs of love through the solo song genre, and in the first of the “Icons of Song” series, Princeton University Concerts presented a program of two song cycles celebrating these very ideas. Accompanied by pianist Brad Mehldau, British tenor Ian Bostridge performed a contemporary song cycle by Mehldau, as well as Robert Schumann’s lyrically Romantic Dichterliebe. Throughout the more than 25 songs which made up the two cycles, the audience at Richardson Auditorium last Tuesday night listened in rapt attention as these two esteemed performers conveyed some of the most formidable yet tender poetry in literature.

A native of London, Bostridge received his musical education in England’s finest institutions, including as a choral scholar at Westminster School and a student at St. John’s College in Oxford and Cambridge. His recordings of both opera and lieder have won major international prizes and have been nominated for 15 Grammy awards. Bostridge and Mehldau have been collaborating since 2015, with Mehldau composing several works specifically for the tenor. Mehldau’s 11-song cycle, The Folly of Desire, premiered just this past January and toured by Mehldau and Bostridge this year, set the poetry of Blake, Yeats, Shakespeare, and Goethe, among others.

Co-commissioned by four performing arts organizations in England, Germany, and the United States, Mehldau’s work was described by the composer as an “inquiry into the limits of post-#MeToo romantic irony” and a musical discussion of privacy as a cherished freedom. Bostridge brought more than 30 years’ operatic and recital experience to his performance at Richardson Auditorium, conveying the often very adult text to the audience as if telling a story. His diction was clear and precise, and in such poetry as the third song sonnet by Shakespeare, sang as if the text were a soliloquy by a character in a Shakespeare play. These songs made use mostly of Bostridge’s middle and low registers and demonstrated expressive writing, especially with the poetry of Goethe. Mehldau incorporated word painting into both vocal line and piano accompaniment, allowing the piano to serve as the “great wings beating still” of Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan.” Mehldau’s extensive background as a jazz pianist, as well as his improvisatory skills, could be heard in several of the songs within the cycle.

Robert Schumann’s 1840 Dichterliebe, Op. 48 set poetry from Heinrich Heine’s collection of 66 romantic poems entitled Lyrisches Intermezzo. Schumann set 16 of these particular poems but looked to the works of Heine a total of 38 times in his all-too-short career. The poetry of Dichterliebe, written from the standpoint of the protagonist of the poems, rather than an observer, is based on the underlying theme that the joys and sorrows of love are inseparable. Heine’s poetry has attracted composers for almost two centuries, and, as performed by Mehldau and Bostridge, the music of Schumann’s song cycle washed over the audience at Richardson.

Bostridge took a pensive approach to much of the text; in the opening tribute to the month of May, he allowed spring to slowly emerge as if from a long winter, and kept the quick text precise in the third song, “The Rose, the Lily, the Dove, the Sun.” The varied characters in Schumann’s cycle could be heard in both voice and piano; Mehldau was particularly effective in providing a flowing piano accompaniment in the setting of “I Want to Bathe My Soul,” and he and Bostridge created a vast cathedral effect in conveying poetry about the “holy” Rhine River. Mehldau’s agile keyboard playing and Bostridge’s articulation of the words in a light-hearted poem “If the Little Flowers Knew” were also aided by Bostridge’s ability to communicate with the audience. As with Mehldau’s own song cycle, the architecture of the work over multiple short pieces was clear. Bostridge sang the final song of Dichterliebe almost inaudibly, often turning away from the audience, expressing the intense pain of the narrator.

Princeton University Concerts will present its next Concert Classics Series performance on Thursday, November 7, featuring violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Jeremy Denk; and its next “Icons of Song” performance on Wednesday, December 11, featuring mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin.  Both of these concerts will be held at 8 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. Ticket information can be obtained by calling (609) 258-2800 or by visiting www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org.