Ian Bostridge’s art of the song is a full-body experience capable of a remarkable range of dynamics and tonal colours that most singers can barely even dream of.
The 47-year old English tenor gave a memorable recital at Koerner Hall on Sunday afternoon that was pretty much the epitome of the Very Serious Artist presenting a Very Serious Programme to a small but very appreciative and attentive audience.
What made the afternoon all the finer was Bostridge’s seamless partnership with piano accompanist, fellow Brit Julius Drake. The two artists worked as one to wring every increment of expression and meaning out of a substantial programme of Lieder by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and his protégé, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).
Yesterday, in an intermission discussion during the broadcast of Aida from the Metropolitan Opera, American soprano Patricia Racette spoke about how music and text are inseparable in opera — about how a singer has to work both sides of the equation to do full justice to a work and a character. The story is no different in art song, except that the singer has to also conjure a setting and character without the help of a set or costume. The pianist, meanwhile, has to capture the colours and textures of an orchestra with only two hands on a single instrument.
It was mission accomplished for both Bostridge and Drake at Koerner Hall.
The 17 Lieder by Brahms and 13 from Schumann’s “song year” of 1840 — drawn from his Liederkreis cycle and four Lieder that didn’t make it into his Dichterliebe cycle — became miniature evocations of the many states of love as well as nature, both favourite subjects of the Romantic poets.
Bostridge used his whole body to help convey mood and meaning, even in moments where the piano alone was making music. It reinforced the deep, inseparable partnership of accompaniment and melody in these Lieder. Drake’s playing was just as subtly nuanced.
In all, this was a textbook recital, a study in how even a two-minute song can convey a full world of emotion or narrative.
The programme was intense. Pairing two composers who were not only rough contemporaries but close friends helped highlight the differences in their composition styles.
I’ve often heard people who know something about visual art say that some painters work with light, while others work with shadow. The Brahms-Schumann pairing revealed how Brahms was a master of shadow, while Schumann’s choice of harmonies and tonal range was the work of someone painting music with light.
The experience of fine art does not get finer than this.