Requiem: The Pity of War
‘How’, Ian Bostridge asks in a booklet note for ‘Requiem: The Pity of War’, ‘might one reflect the experience and significance of the conflict of 1914 to 1918 in a song recital?’ The idea of programming a recital to mark the centenary of the Armistice evolved, he tells us, from his experience of singing Britten’s War Requiem, though the task he set himself, he soon realised, would be difficult. The immediate artistic response to the First World War was primarily literary, and few song composers tackled the conflict head-on. His eventual solution was to approach the subject to some extent obliquely, partly through works of prophecy and retrospection that relate the First World War to conflicts before and since, and partly through the inclusion of composers whose lives and careers were cut short in the trenches.
His starting point – and the recital’s eventual end point – was the military songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, with their nightmarish intimations of fatality and trauma. A Shropshire Lad is haunted by memories of British losses in the Boer War, which in turn poignantly anticipate Butterworth’s own death on the Somme in 1916. Turning aside from conflict to contemplate a world of mystico-erotic transcendence, Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied, beautiful yet sad, was one of the last works Rudi Stephan completed before he was shot on the Russian front in 1915. Weill’s Four Walt Whitman Songs, meanwhile, were composed shortly after the US’s entry into the Second World War and survey the tragedies and victories of the American Civil War in sometimes brutal music that gazes back over Weill’s newly found Broadway lyricism towards the inflammatory style of his Berlin years.
Bostridge and Antonio Pappano are on superb form here, carefully responsive to style and mood, yet striving throughout for unsparing immediacy of expression. Stephan’s taxing vocal lines push Bostridge to his limits in places, though the atmosphere of sensual introversion is finely sustained. A Shropshire Lad is all half-tones and hushed retrospection as the shadows gradually darken towards the finality of the closing song. Weill’s Whitman cycle opens in a mood of implacable anger, though the emotional climax – depicting a family’s numbed grief on receiving terrible news from the front – is both quiet and shockingly intense. The Wunderhorn songs, meanwhile, find Bostridge at his most expressionist, deploying unearthly pianissimos in ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ as the distant fanfares seem to echo round him into eternity (Pappano’s playing is exceptional here), and letting his voice rise to a terrified, self-lacerating shriek at the climax of ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’. A disc of great power and intelligence, it’s both haunting and undeniably strong.