S&H Recital review

Finzi Series, Wigmore Hall: Finzi, Fauré, Poulenc - Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake, Monday October 1st. (M.E.)

Two tenors, two concerts of twentieth century English music, the second with some French song - yet how different the singing, and, one suspects, how different the general critical response. On Saturday, we heard John Mark Ainsley give performances of "On Wenlock Edge" and "Ludlow and Teme" which were models of style, where we heard a voice in the full flower of its beauty and interpretative skill. On Monday, we heard Ian Bostridge in performances where the voice was clearly not in good shape, and the interpretation only remarkable for the accompaniment. Yet, so far, only "Seen & Heard" has noticed Ainsley's all - English concert, but I am sure that virtually every newspaper will give a barely qualified rave to the Bostridge. As to the reasons why, one can speculate that all-English programmes are not sufficiently exotic, or perhaps that Ainsley is not quite glamorous enough; certainly, Bostridge's much-hyped person might be regarded as more likely to inspire knicker-throwing, but in the case of these two concerts, it falls to the more dispassionate critic to say that the singing of the (slightly) older tenor was that of true greatness, whereas the younger man really ought to have stayed at home.

Bostridge apparently had a throat infection on Saturday, and this was surely the main reason for his less than ideal singing; one has to accept that singers are human and they cannot always be at their peak, but if they offer themselves to the public, then one has the right to judge them. I have to say that I have never really cared for his singing of Mélodie; it's such a specialised art, demanding a perfect balance between languour and astringency , and it's an art which is by no means beyond English singers, as Felicity Lott as well as the aforementioned Ainsley have exquisitely demonstrated - both those singers have perfect French diction , too, whereas Bostridge takes so many liberties that on this occasion I found myself glancing at the translation quite often, something I hardly ever do, since I am a native French speaker. There were some lovely moments during "La bonne chanson," most notably the delicate phrasing of "O bien - aimée" in "La lune blanche," but in general his singing of this cycle was detached in manner and strained in execution. I found myself concentrating on the piano; every time I hear Drake, I am delighted anew with his supportive, empathetic and completely idiomatic playing, and his limpid rendition of such passages as the introduction to "L'hiver a cessé" gave constant pleasure.

It was a similar story in Poulenc's "Tel jour telle nuit." The piano parts were executed with real style, poise and grace, but the vocal line was less than ideally served. Granted, this is difficult music, with its extreme contrasts in dynamics and the challenge it gives to the singer to paint a mood in what is sometimes seconds rather than minutes, but here the whole seemed to merge into one, and the febrile atmosphere of Eluard's poems was barely suggested.

Bostridge was more at home in the central work, "A Young Man's Exhortation," and quite apart from anything else, it was such a delight to hear this music at all. These settings of poems by Thomas Hardy are not the stuff of dreams for those who consider that English music is "drippy," and Bostridge must be praised for the way in which he eschewed a too-dreamy approach. Finzi's love for Hardy was an enduring one; I have always been touched by the story of how he attended the sale of Hardy's library in 1938, but was unable to afford to buy any of the poet's books, instead coming away with his walking stick. Hardy's poems are unquestionably greater than, say, those of Housman, or indeed of Seidl or Schulze, but they do not automatically appear to lend themselves gracefully to musical setting, owing to that ceaseless inventiveness in syntax and metrics which is so characteristic of his style yet often leads to awkwardness. Finzi's settings do not attempt to compensate for this; instead, they are loving evocations of the atmosphere which the poet so beautifully evokes.

Bostridge performed the cycle with commitment, but also varying degrees of success; he sounded most like himself in the lovely "Shortening days" with its almost Keatsian evocation of autumnal richness; here, his uniquely sweet tone emerged briefly, wonderfully supported by Drake's playing. For the rest, there was much to enjoy, but also many moments to regret, such as the very strained endings to each stanza in "Ditty" and the sometimes over-dramatised half - lines in "The dance continued." Throughout, Drake played with absolute mastery of the music as well as sympathetic partnership of the singer, and he made this concert an evening to savour, despite the tenor's less than definitive singing.

Melanie Eskenazi

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