Ian Bostridge's Sublime Schubert

Ian Bostridge kicked off the Vocal Arts Society's15th anniversary season.
Ian Bostridge kicked off the Vocal Arts Society's15th anniversary season. (By Simon Fowler -- Vocal Arts Society)
By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 24, 2005

Listening to Ian Bostridge sing, you somehow feel closer to that elusive concept of musical perfection. The acclaimed English tenor reveals myriad detail and color in an art song. A slight inflection or quick dynamic shift brings out a rarely heard nuance or feeling, and, at that moment, you might find it hard to imagine hearing the work any other way.

Metropolitan area mavens of German lieder had the chance to experience the core of Bostridge's immaculate artistry Thursday evening at the Terrace Theater, where the singer gave an unforgettable recital of Schubert selections to kick off the Vocal Arts Society's 15th anniversary season.

The tenor has made performing and recording Schubert's enormous output of 600 songs central to his career. Working in tandem with his longtime collaborator, pianist Julian Drake, Bostridge etched each work with a gorgeous tone, crystalline precision and utter concentration.

There were, of course, countless other ways to interpret these masterpieces, and Bostridge did not bring the same visceral force that comes from the more emotional styles of European masters of lieder such as Wolfgang Holzmair, Matthias Goerne or Thomas Quasthoff. Yet because Bostridge seemed to play it cool and stand outside of the works he performed, he shined a laser-like light that illuminated structural beauty.

That refinement and clarity were manifest in the first set of songs based on the texts of poet Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze, which looked at human passions through the lens of nature. Bostridge infused the initial passages of "Im Fruhling" ("In Spring") with a noble simplicity that emphasized the contrast between fleeting love and a teeming pastoral landscape.

Articulate diction, attentive rhythms and a large dynamic range stirred up a darker mood in "Tiefes Leid" ("Deep Sorrow"), while such songs as "Aus Heliopolis" ("From Heliopolis") and "Abendbilder" ("Nocturne") embodied lonely determination and solitude. Here, Bostridge's singing took on a fuller volume and fire, though the songs still emerged carefully colored and phrased.

"Fischerweise" ("Fisherman's Song"), the famous "Die Forelle" ("The Trout)" and other charming works were all light and dance with subtle legato phrasing and verve.

Bostridge used pregnant pauses as much as singing to pace development of message and mood, and his overall characterization skills were superb. Whether portraying a sympathetic storyteller, a solitary wanderer, or a star-crossed lover, his lanky body and prominent facial features seemed to reflect the intensely sung texts.

This all-encompassing and intelligent approach constantly played off Drake's graceful pianism, which propelled and colored each song. In "Totengrabers Heimweh" ("Gravedigger's Homesickness"), Drake brilliantly gave the piano harmonies an ethereal quality that paid homage to the late piano sonatas of Schubert's hero Beethoven. As Drake's phrases moved up the registers, Bostridge took his voice beautifully to the upper ranges, as though striving toward some kind of boundless vista.

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