Bostridge and friends deliver a memorable evening of Britten’s music
Ian Bostridge grew up singing the choral music of Benjamin Britten from an early age, as did many boy choristers in England of certain generations. That experience clearly had an impact on the English tenor, as he has garnered much respect and success as an interpreter and performer of the composer’s music.
Perhaps the truest testament to that renown is the sheer number of musical appearances he is making around the world this year in celebration of Britten’s centennial. Sunday evening in Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, Bostridge curated an evening centered on Britten’s five canticles, which also paid homage to one of Britten’s greatest sources of inspiration, English baroque composer Henry Purcell.
The first half of the program consisted entirely of Purcell songs, almost all with piano realizations by Britten. Countertenor Iestyn Davies and baritone Joshua Hopkins joined Bostridge, and the three traded places, each taking their turn.
The three men all displayed a strikingly instinctual feeling for the deeply sensuous nature of Purcell’s music. In Sweeter than roses, Davies let the music practically drip and slide with seduction as he deftly moved through the twirling lines. Joshua Hopkins too never let the thickness of his voice overcome the ornamented lines, all the while keeping them melodic and simple. Performing The Queen’s Epicedium, an ornate funeral lament, Bostridge seemed to sing from his gut as he let the sliding melodies move his body in a kind of visceral dance.
The first half ended with Davies singing Music for a while. The flexibility, nuance, and color range of his voice are remarkable, and Davies shone in this, one of Purcell’s most heart-wrenchingly gorgeous songs. His way of starting a note at a whisper and crescendoing to a point of catalyst kept the audience utterly attentive. And the suspensions Purcell intended were only made more gorgeous by Davies leaning into them, and affording them extra tension before the release.
The first of Britten’s Canticles was written in 1947, and the fifth and last in 1974, not long before his death. They employ three different voice types, a french hornist, and harpist, in addition to the pianist. Ranging tremendously in every way, except for a unifying tenor voice in each, they give a neat cross-section of Britten’s compositional history.
A scholar with a doctorate in philosophy, Bostridge’s understanding of these works was immediately made apparent. In the second Canticle, God speaks to Abraham, and Britten sets this to eerily still music sung by the tenor and countertenor in a close duet, often in unison or steps away. The God speaking here is frightening in its declarations, and Britten illustrates this. Bostridge and Davies sang with a simple tone into the piano with their backs to the audience, which of course created a different kind of sound through the resonance of the piano. The effect was otherworldly and hair-raising.
In the fourth canticle, evoking the journey of the three Magi, Britten uses a trio of singers. Bostridge, Davies, and Hopkins blended masterfully, but the real storytelling was in the piano part, played by Julius Drake. Drake not only provided a comfortable blanket for the singers for the duration of the concert, but also spoke up when it was his turn to narrate. Here, the colors in the piano help illustrate the lumbering journey and Drake’s playing was that of a true collaborative artist.
In service to the words and music, Bostridge used his voice skillfully, occasionally going into a deep-seated wail or a growl-like guttural sound. By whatever means necessary, the stories were told. Bostridge clearly holds Britten with the utmost of respect and admiration considering the seriousness with which he performs his music. Barely cracking a smile, even during the bows, Bostridge let the music speak for itself, without pretense or pomp, and the music took flight.