Probably the most difficult thing any singer can do is to perform two hours of German lieder and win over the audience to your viewpoint. You only have your voice and a pianist at your disposal. The poetry you must convey is often of a melancholy nature, and German can sound harsh when it’s done wrongly. But when an artist of the caliber of Ian Bostridge, gets a hold of such songs like he did on Thursday in an evening of Schubert lieder, then the effect goes beyond the beyonds.
Sponsored by the Friends of Chamber Music, this concert took place at Kaul Auditorium and about 500 people (many in the choral and opera community) were present. After the tall and lanky Bostridge took the stage with pianist Julius Drake, they immediately drew us into a pensive world view in which birds, brooks, blossoms, and the air itself has a surface meaning and an underlying meaning. The poetry often told us how wonderful life is and lament that it is far too short.
Bostridge has a terrific array of idiosyncratic postures, which some might find affected or off-putting. He might sing to the piano for a while and then suddenly turn to the audience to finish the phrase. He might strike a debonair pose as if he going to pull out a pack of cigarettes or he might cock his head and sing out the side of his mouth. Well, he could stand on his head and sing that way if he liked, because the beauty of his tone was absolutely perfect for these songs. He could alter the volume at will, change the emotion drastically, change the emphasis of the story, break the pace of the song. It didn’t matter because the tone was always beautiful. Bostridge also avoided over pronouncing the German. The consonants didn't splatter all over the place or sound forced.
I thought that the most stunning performance was “Sei mir gegrüsst” (Schubert’s setting of a poem by Friedrich Rückert). Each stanza has a phrase that repeats at the end, and Bostridge could make it sound like a plaintive echo, fading into the stillness of time. It was unforgettable.
Drake’s playing was equally superb. He added texture to every piece. He never overstated his case or understated it. His playing was perfectly suited to Bostridge’s voice.
At the end of the concert, and a standing ovatio, Bostridge sang two encores. The first was “Röslein auf der Heiden,” and the second was another Schubert lied. Both were done impeccably.
Although the concert was well attended, I think that it would’ve sold out if it had not taken place on a Thursday night. Most church choirs in Portland rehearse on Thursday evening. Of course, there are restrictions with available nights for Bostridge (I understand that he left Portland early on Friday morning), and there are restrictions on the availability of Kaul Auditorium (Chamber Music Northwest has it booked for Friday and Saturday evenings). There’s only so much that the staff at the Friends of Chamber Music can do. Let’s hope that they bring Bostridge back again!