BRITTEN 7 Sonnets of Michelangelo. 6 Hölderlin Fragments. Winter Words
Ian Bostridge singing Benjamin Britten is an event. Besides his innate ability to fill the vocal and interpretative shoes of Peter Pears (for whom the music was written), this quintessential English tenor navigates Britten’s difficult, personal, extremely compact music with great clarity. Unlike the more public manner of his operas, Britten matched the mercurial needs of the verses he chose with whatever far-flung harmonic and melodic techniques would deliver maximum expression, often eschewing any typical musical symmetry or narrative techniques.
Bostridge doesn’t eclipse singers such as Pears and Philip Langridge (on whose shoulders he no doubt stands) and is a tad chilly next to the American newcomer Nicholas Phan (whose live performances go well beyond his fine recorded ones). But besides his usual intelligence and personality, Bostridge has acquired a richness of timbre that, combined with his control of vibrato, is invaluable in the Six Hölderlin Fragments, whose splintered vocal line and impulsive piano-writing barely seem to belong in the same composition. Potentially quirky moments in ‘At the Railway Station, Upway’ from the Thomas Hardy cycle Winter Words become conversational story-telling. Even though Bostridge now has more voice to work with, he still pushes himself to his limits, thrillingly, to convey the desperate passion of the Michelangelo Sonnets.
Bostridge is even better in the least-travelled repertoire, mainly Britten’s late-ish period cycle Who are these Children?, represented by four of the collection’s 12 songs based on pacifist poems by William Soutar, in which Antonio Pappano handles the spare piano-writing with a masterly sense of implication. Bostridge seems more relaxed and spontaneous with the guitarist Xuefei Yang in Songs from the Chinese, which becomes an unexpected highlight, followed by two bonus cuts that adapt Britten’s folksong arrangements for guitar.