After Billy Budd in December, Ian Bostridge's 'Homeward Bound' series did indeed take us into more homely surroundings for an evening of Lieder and vocal ensembles by Franz Schubert. In what was something of a stellar line-up, he was joined by Dorothea Röschmann and Thomas Quasthoff. Consistently fine accompaniment at the piano was provided by Julius Drake. It was a fascinating concert for which no-one could accuse the programme of being predictable, providing as it did a sometimes almost jarring shift between settings of Goethe and of other, less inspired contemporaries of the composer.
The predominantly serious tone of the first half was set by Bostridge in intense performances of the three Gesänge des Harfners D.478 with texts from Goethe's novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. These songs form rather a bleak trio and although it would be impossible to fault Bostridge's commitment in his performance, the sometimes overwrought presentation had a tendency to become excessive. He sought to heighten the emotions with various expressionistic devices which he employed rather too often: he would start a little under the note before pushing it up with an injection of warming vibrato; he emphasised words like 'Pein' with a snarl and a wring of the hands; he lingered, as if with constricted breath, on 'm' and 'n' sounds; in his fourth song, 'An Mignon', he emitted a small sob at 'Still im Herzen'. It was an impressive display of emotional intensity but, for me at least, was exaggerated and occasionally un-Schubertian.
The soprano Dorothea Röschmann joined him for the pretty but slightly uninspired duet setting of 'Mignon und der Harfner' before the soprano performed her own set of four Mignon Songs, again settings of texts from Goethe's novel. Although these are sometimes every bit as emotional as the Harper Songs, Röschmann delivered them with a welcome naturalness of expression. The simple beauty of her interpretations of 'Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt' and 'Kennst du das Land' was touching and the sense of aspiration and longing at Mignon's 'Dahin! Dahin!' in the latter was captured with wide-eyed delight against Drake's expert accompaniment.
If confirmation was needed of Thomas Quasthoff's exceptional skills as an interpreter of Lieder, it came in the next four songs. Starting with a rollocking 'Normans Gesang' – based on Walter Scott – he moved onto 'Ganymed'. Although this song sounded very different transposed down to suite Quasthoff's range – it lost a fair amount of its characteristic lustre, the Morgenglanze described in the first line – the baritone pointed the text exceptionally well in this mellow reading. The rich, intensely human lower range of his voice was exploited in 'Grenzen der Menscheit', even if higher up an occasional lack of support undermined his intonation. The true master-class, however, came in a simply stunning performance of 'Erlkönig' where Quasthoff acted and sang magnificently against Drake's thunderous hoof-beats. All three singers threw themselves gamely into the occasional 'Cantate zum Geburtstag des Sängers Michael Vogl'. Full of in-jokes and cleverly turned musical pastiche, this brought a long but rewarding first half to a close.
After the interval came the high-point of the concert. We returned to Goethe and Dorothea Röschmann with three settings of Gretchen's words from Faust. She started with an arresting 'Der König in Thule', followed by a truly dramatic reading of 'Gretchen am Spinnrade' and a heartbreaking rendition of 'Gretchen's Bitte'. Throughout her powerful, shimmering voice was complemented by her straightforwardly affecting stage manner. These three songs ran straight into Schubert's ambitious Szene aus Faust. Roughly contemporaneous with 'Gretchen am Spinnrade', this fragment shows only glimpses of that song's astonishing mastery but, following on from the three songs without break as here, it proved itself to be highly effective. Much of the credit had to go to Quasthoff for bringing such menace to the evil spirit's unusually bleak melodic lines.
As in the first half, the genius of Goethe was then contrasted with some more earthly verse. This time that of two of Schubert's close friends, Matthäus von Collin and Franz von Schober. The former provided the text for a touching if rather sentimental duet, 'Licht und Liebe'. In this I was a little worried by the contrast between Röschmann's simple style and Bostridge's reluctance to produce a straightforward, unaffected melodic line; at times the tenor's expressive games with intonation undermined the harmonic writing. I have to say that this also slightly marred my enjoyment of the final piece, the mad-cap trio 'der Hochzeitsbraten'. While Quasthoff and Röschmann sang with easy joie de vivre – Röschmann in particular relishing her Rossinian sound-effects - Bostridge seemed ever so slightly uneasy in these boisterous, comic surroundings.
By Hugo Shirley
To read our interview with Ian Bostridge on performing Captain Vere in Billy Budd and his Homeward Bound series, click here.