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Bostridge, Pappano, Barbican review - a tough but thrilling march across the battlefield | reviews, news & interviews

Bostridge, Pappano, Barbican review - a tough but thrilling march across the battlefield

Bostridge, Pappano, Barbican review - a tough but thrilling march across the battlefield

Tenor and pianist make intense drama out of the music of modern war

The sorrow and the pity: Pappano and BostridgeWarner Classics

Seldom has an encore felt so welcome. With Sir Antonio Pappano as his accompanist at the Barbican, Ian Bostridge tugged us through the mill of industrialised slaughter and the psychic devastation it leaves in an ambitious programme of song sequences that evoked “war, and the pity of war”. Requiem – a sort of launch gig for the recording of this programme that the pair have just released – concluded with four songs from Benjamin Britten’s 1969 cycle Who are these children?: settings of poems by William Soutar. The final song, a keening and jagged lament for children bombed in the Spanish Civil War (“Death came out of the sky/ In the bright afternoon”), rounded off a recital that partnered musical finesse and emotional intensity to sometimes harrowing effect. In the wake of overwhelming sorrow, to have the tenor and pianist return and give us Schubert’s “Litanei”, with its blessing of peace on all our suffering souls, felt like a balm, and a kind of liberation.

This was, in some ways, a tough evening, but a stimulating and satisfying one. Rather than revive the more familiar musical testaments from the First World War, Bostridge and Pappano cast their net wider. They selected some works that anticipate the great conflicts of the 20th century, and some that mourn them. These reflections on the waste of war offered precious little in the way of lyrical serenity or elegiac restfulness. Instead, Bostridge prowled around the stage, head often bowed and hands often clenched, bodily enacting the shock and grief in the music with a language of gesture that thickened the grain of his voice.

Bostridge is sometimes accused of stretching Romantic lieder on a rack of neurotic modern feeling that twists their delicate lyric limbs. Here, though, he had a congenial early-Modernist musical palette to mix. It not only licensed but mandated shades of dread and anguish as deep and thick as the mud of the Great War trenches. Supple and alert, occasionally breaking out into darkly scintillating solo passages, Pappano supplied a steadying heartbeat to the works. His playing anchored and shaped performances that allowed Bostridge to explore the darker outer reaches of his vocal range, with a fullness and fervour that might have surprised his critics. 

Bostridge captured the vein of mocking, raucous cynicism that threads through Housman’s vision of ruined youthAn evening of high, and often tragic, drama began with three of the later, more ominous songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn. In “Reveille”, “The Drummer Boy” and “Where the shining trumpets sound”, Bostridge blazed his notes of bitter irony and morbid wit; notes that echoed across the concert. The bloody disillusionment of war – in contrast with the naive fantasies that recruit its victims – ensure that these young soldiers’ hope founder on the rocks of death. With his rasping crescendos, barked climaxes and lines spat out in fizzing disgust, Bostridge never seems afraid of a kind of artful ugliness. But he’s acting these songs – bringing them to life in way that can feel truthful and touching today – not reproducing a historic document. The barbed, abrasive, Weimar cabaret-style delivery that he deploys so well suited this repertoire down to the churned-up, corpse-strewn ground. 

Bostridge and Pappano followed Mahler with song cycles from two young composers – one German, one British – both killed during the First World War. Rudi Stephan, who died aged 28 in 1915, displays in the songs of “Ich will dir singen ein Hohenlied” a talent that straddles the fin-de-siècle luxuriance of Richard Strauss with the leaner and sharper textures of the avant-garde just about to blossom at the time – 1913-14 – of their composition. These are not war songs but love songs crafted with a curdled sensuality that brings some spangled reverie by Klimt to mind. Bostridge relished both their passages of swooning lusciousness, and the jittery, biting stretches of semi-spoken Sprechgesang.

After Stephan’s ultra-modern Expressionist thrills, the bucolic wistfulness of George Butterworth’s songs from A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad might have sounded like an escape-to-the-country retreat. Aside, however, from the sheer poignancy of Butterworth’s story – he died on the Somme in August 1916 – the presence of his songs in this context allowed us to hear the more knotted and conflicted energies at work, both in the poems and the music. Hunched and brooding, seemingly lost on stage in a tormented inner dialogue, Bostridge captured the vein of mocking, raucous cynicism that threads through Housman’s vision of ruined youth. It’s never more than a beat or two away from his melancholy sweetness. As it catches, tears and grates, the voice matches the rough with the smooth, planting a percussive, emphatic anger in lines (“Twenty will not come again”) where a blander reading might have found only endearing resignation.

For me, however, the revelation of the evening came after the interval, in a rare performance of Kurt Weill’s Four Walt Whitman Songs. Exiled from Hitler’s Germany in New York, Weill wrote these settings of Whitman lyrics – which channel the griefs and losses of the American Civil War – only weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack of December 1941. Looking back to the heartbreak and despair of one war, Weill’s music – a beguiling cocktail of his European, avant-garde past and his American, popular present – fashions a richly expressive vocabulary for the imminent agonies of another. He wrote these pieces with Paul Robeson’s velvety bass-baritone in mind, though Robeson never sang them (did I even hear traces of Show Boat-era Jerome Kern?). Now, I doubt if Robeson and Bostridge have ever been paired before, but in the rolling swing and lilt of “Oh Captain! My Captain!” or the “Dirge for Two Veterans”, Bostridge tapped into a grainy, honeyed seam of mourning and regret that loaded these songs with all the sumptuous sorrow that Weill could have desired. 

To finish, in the latest work by date but arguably the most comfortless in mood, Britten’s four Soutar poems took us back to the acidic, sarcastic flavours of Bostridge’s Mahler. Amid the controlled fury and asperity of these songs, the voice slurs, punches and scrapes against the stabbing, skittish agitation of Pappano’s piano. “The blood of children corrupts the hearts of men,” the final lyric spits, a parting shot that left us sorely in need of that last-gasp solace from Schubert. Although sung and played with a crackling zest and commitment, this journey through the pity of war and its secret inner wounds succeeded most as an immersive, theatrical event. The shaping and execution of Bostridge and Pappano’s trip across the battlefields of the mind added an extra dimension to the music. Pure, abstract beauty had little to do with it. Dramatic – and psychological – realism did. But only the most refined skill can make such raw emotion true.

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