Bostridge’s artistry haunts the memory in songs of war

Sat Apr 18, 2015 at 12:04 pm
Ian Bostridge performed a program of war songs Friday night at the Park Avenue Armory.

Ian Bostridge performed a program of war songs Friday night at the Park Avenue Armory.

There are three large portraits hanging on the wall in the elegantly sumptuous Board of Officers Room at the Park Avenue Armory: Colonel Emmons Clark in his Civil War uniform is flanked by pictures of two other officers, posing in dress uniforms.

The Armory was home to the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, but it is also an American castle, built during the Gilded Age to serve as the regimental home, as well as a social club for families with names like Vanderbilt, Roosevelt, and Harriman. Friday evening, the great English tenor Ian Bostridge, partnered brilliantly by pianist Wenwen Du, bore witness in front of those portraits to the unfathomable, insane murder and destruction of war, in a program he titled “Songs of World War I.”

Strictly speaking, only the first half of the program had songs of World War I, but the war’s effect on Western culture—explored in astonishing, mind-opening books like The Great War and Modern Memory, by Paul Fussell, and Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age—was immense and enduring, far greater and more revolutionary than that of World War II. But America is for Americans, and so last year’s centennial of the start of the war produced less than a murmur, something quieter than a whisper. America’s entry into the war will likely provoke attention in 2017, and the American dead will be honored.

Two of the composers represented on the program were killed in the war—the German Rudi Stephan, lost in the East in 1915, and the Englishman George Butterworth, who died in 1916 during the Somme. Later composers like Kurt Weill and Benjamin Britten were embedded in the long cultural, social and aesthetic legacy of the war. But the first composer heard was dead years before the first shots rang out: Gustav Mahler.

Bostridge sang three songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the martial subjects of “Revelge,” “Der Tambourg’sell,” and “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen.” As pure music making, these are wonderful songs, thematically expressive and packed with Mahler’s incredible fecundity.

These settings are almost always heard as songs playing at war, but Bostridge sang with a heightened feeling of bitterness along with characteristic intensity. He shouted out the word “Leibkompanie” in “Der Tamnourg’sell,” and cut off syllables as if his voice was an axe, felling a tree. He sang with the advantage of history, the knowledge that 19th-century ideas about class relations, spirit, and physical courage were shredded by machine guns, aware of how senior officers raised on old concepts were unable to imagine anything new. The shredding continued for almost four murderous years.

Bostridge has a dramatic manner that is driven by his deep intelligence and learning. He sings with such clarity and assurance about the subject that one need not know the language nor refer to the text to understand his meaning. His voice was superb—the warm penumbra he had when younger is gone, but that is a gain, as out of it has come polished steel.

Accompanists are expected to be sensitive and secondary to singers, Du was indeed sensitive but also forceful—her playing was more duet than recital, equal to Bostridge in intensity, suave one moment, crashing the next.

Stephan, killed at 28 by a bullet to the brain from a sniper, is known for his orchestral music and an opera, Die Ersten Menschen. The songs Bostridge sang, a set titled Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied, are marvelous—they sound both of the late romantic era and apart from it.

Stephan set poems by Gerda von Robertus that are erotic, inward-turning, mysterious, and, of course, touched by death. The music is full of breathtakingly imaginative harmonic motion, like Bruckner, but has a transparency, sensuousness and succinctness that sounds like Ravel. Bostridge and Du caressed the melodies and harmonies.

Butterworth’s music was A Shropshire Lad, settings of six of A.E. Housman’s poems of the same title. The composer volunteered as a private when the war began and was 31 when he was also shot in the head by a sniper. These graceful songs were completed in 1912, and offered a nostalgic window into the pastoral literary and musical world of prewar England. They touched on death, but the language was still to be transformed into things like Wilfred Owens’ “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

In America when this country joined WWII, Kurt Weill wrote three songs to Whitman poems, adding a fourth—“Dirge for Two Veterans”— in 1947. It was uncanny to consider how, in 1942, the subjects were already so mournful, not only “O Captain! My Captain!” but “Come up from the Fields, Father,” a poem about parents learning of the death of their son. The beauty of Bostridge’s voice and the transparency of his expression were ideal for Weill’s plainspoken eloquence and sophistication.

Finally, there was four English songs from Britten, Who Are These Children?, on texts from poet William Soutar. Both men were pacifists, and Britten’s stark, understated settings of lines like “Upon the street they lie/Beside the broken stone:/The blood of children stares from the broken stone” subtly insinuates the unimaginable into one’s consciousness. Bostridge’s voice seethed with a barely controlled madness.

After the last, heartrending lines, Bostridge looked into and through the audience with a thousand-yard stare. The passionate applause came too quickly, and the musicians had to turn to each other for a moment to visibly let go of the intensity of the music and the performance.

The two encores they played not only gave the audience more of what they wanted—which was more—but seemed to allow Bostridge and Du the chance to shift their feelings and perspectives away from the maddening themes they explored. In Haydn’s “Sailor’s Song” they indulged in the clichés for the sheer pleasure of them, while “Sleep,” from Ivor Gurney’s Five Elizabethan Songs, was ravishingly poignant, and left the audience in stunned silence.

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