The fragility of happiness, either in love or nature, was the main theme of this all-Schubert recital, focusing on songs set to poems by Goethe and by two of Schubert’s friends, Matthäus von Collin and Franz von Bruchmann, linked not only by their subject matter but by their intrinsic quality. Finely framed by the bittersweet Wehmut and the enigmatic An den Mond, the recital provided some of the finest singing I’ve heard from Ian Bostridge and playing of wondrous intimacy and fervour from Julius Drake.
The Collin group which began the evening set the tone of what Keats called “wakeful anguish” in both singing and playing, with Wehmut revealing Bostridge’s characteristic declamatory style but tempered now with a much more developed sense of intimacy, ‘Schönheit’ with its heartbreaking modulation not singled out but seeming a part of the whole. Drake’s playing of the prayerful vorspiel to Nacht und Träume introduced singing of hushed reverence, the finely spun legato line mesmerizing in its solemnity.
Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s An die Entfernte is one of those masterpieces which it’s easy to over-sing, with too much hand-wringing when what we want is to have our hearts wrung: there was a time when Bostridge might have succumbed to that, but here the focus was on the poet’s longing as imagined by the composer, the voice’s lilting rise at ‘die Lerche singt’ and the drama of ‘Dich rufen alle meine Lieder’ all the more moving for their understated fervour. Bostridge took a more theatrical tone with An die Leier, appropriate given its subject of the poet’s lyre preferring songs of love to those of heroism, and the recital’s first half was brought to a stirring close with a searing Erlkönig, the voices of the child, the father and the Erlking all sharply characterized, and the playing tremendous.
The first of the two settings of An den Mond was taken very slowly, with less of a sense of gehende bewegung than is usual, but this enabled a more powerful emphasis on ‘Und die Treue so.’ The sense of unity achieved between singer and pianist in Meeres Stille was some of the most intense I have ever heard, Schubert’s instruction ängstlich (anxiously) heard not only in the voice but the piano’s slowly spread chords. A similar unity was evident in the wonderful Erster Verlust where the poem brings together the sentiments of the Countess’ two arias from Le nozze di Figaro: Bostridge gave the phrase ‘Wer jene holde Zeit zurück’ (Who will bring back that radiant time?) just the right sense of longing and regret.
A brilliantly daring performance of Ganymed, with Drake seeming almost to take flight himself in the faster passages, and a deeply touching An den Mond brought the recital proper to a close, but there were still three encores to provide further demonstration of the fact that these are two artists at their peak. Both Heidenröslein and Abschied (Mayrhofer) were finely done, but it was another song to the moon, this time the sublime setting of Hölty’s Geuss, lieber Mond which proved most memorable. Gerald Moore called this wonderful example of Schubert’s art “an exalted song,” and it was just that quality which we heard in this performance.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.