On my journey to Jordan Hall to attend Friday’s Celebrity Series of Boston- and the Boston Symphony Orchestra-sponsored recital by the inimitable duo of world-renowned tenor Ian Bostridge and notable conductor/pianist/composer Thomas Adès, I found myself bothered not one bit by the rain and wind. I was lost in a reverie imagining the life-changing music I was about to hear, thinking about my beautiful family, and how happy I was with the state of things in my life.
In the middle of my sigh of contentment, I happened to lock eyes with an elderly gentleman whose face, so fiercely weathered from life’s difficulties, made it such that I hardly recognized his humanity. His eyes were sunken and seemed to be on the verge of a century of tears. His lifeless gait telegraphed that if any joy ever existed in his heart, or if he ever had anything worth living for, that it had flown away into the wind that was berating what was left of his cold shell on this bustling street in Boston. We passed each other and I gave as empathetic a nod as possible, but the man just walked past me as if there were no other person or being left in his universe.
I viscerally imagined in that wanderer the story that I was about to watch performed, in a living, breathing human being, standing immediately before me.
In Winterreise (“Winter Journey), Schubert set 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller (of Die schone Müllerin fame). The tragic journey depicts a man who has experienced a profound and all-encompassing love, happiness—all the contentment life can offer. But as the seasons progress from the new life of spring to the last leaf falling in autumn, so also does his relationship. At the opening of the cycle, the wanderer is leaving the life that he knew, his first words being “Fremd bin ich eingezogen, fremd zieh ich wieder aus.” (I arrived as a stranger, and as stranger I leave.) This sets the stage for the utter desolation and desperation that is to come.
Bostridge and Thomas Adès entered to uproarious applause—much of which was not acknowledged by Bostridge, who seemed to be already in character for the journey. As Ades began, Bostridge’s tall and striking figure leaned against the piano as if it were an informal rehearsal, very intentionally neglecting to acknowledge anyone else in the auditorium. The wanderer (NB: I considered using the plural because the piano plays an equal role in the storytelling) leaves through the snowy road leading away from his lover’s house making note of various elements of the situation. He comments on the weathervane that sits atop the house with wind changing directions, like women’s hearts, and the linden tree that is just before the edge of the property that was the site of many of summer daydream.
He sings of his warm tears which could thaw the snow and ice and to bring back the green grass and flowers to the estate, and of his heart, which had since grown numb. He continues his journey remarking on the river that he knew so well, now covered with ice, and relates the feelings of his heart as the under-ice current of the river. He closes his eyes and dreams of spring while he rests from his travel, and imagines a love requited and that overwhelming feeling of being loved. When the morning comes, he opens his eyes to remind him of the bleakness and loneliness that hovers over him like a dark cloud.
The snow falls on his head, making the appearance of him as an old man, but as the snow melts, it reveals his black hair again, reminding him how far he has until the comfort of the grave. He is visited by a crow that seems to circle him as a vulture waiting to make a meal of him. The wanderer assures him that it will not be long. He arrives to the town the evening before a tremendously stormy morning with dogs constantly barking keeping him from sleeping, He has foregone sleeping entirely, to keep himself from dreaming of his lost love. His mental facilities are dramatically reduced, and with every passing moment he slips further into despair and mental instability. He arrives to a graveyard, that he calls an “inn,” with the funeral wreaths as the welcome signs. He leaves, dejected, realizing that all the rooms are taken, and he progresses further into the snow and wind. Lastly in his total psychological breakdown, the wanderer finds a hurdy-gurdy player at the edge of the village. He recognizes himself in the loneliness of the old man’s songs, and becomes one with “Der Leiermann.”
The musical settings of these poems tend to be, as one could imagine, predominantly in the minor mode, but very specifically and intentionally, Schubert uses unexpected major tonality in the abyss of sorrow to further break the listener’s heart. Schubert’s text painting evokes operatic storms that could be found in Donizetti’s Lucia or Rossini’s Barber of Seville (Einsamkeit), a demented music box, oppressively circling the voice (Die Krahe), dogs growling in the piano (Im Dorfe), and a warm fire glowing in the fireplace, with hymn-like chords (Wirtshaus).
Adès mastered this “opera” with many moments of delicate sensitivity and an ethereal quality, and others throbbing with hot-blooded passion, yet his partner Bostridge, who has made quite a name for himself for the interpretation of this work, seemed unable to embody the same range of color and power. In certain moments, Bostridge attempted to take advantage of the acoustics of the room, yet from where I was sitting, no matter how delicately Adès played, Bostridge was virtually inaudible. His vocalism ranged through the night from musically tonal Sprechstimme, complete with barked high passages, to a straight tone without the amplitude to carry alongside against the sensitive artistry of Adès.
Many moments suited this wispy vocal color, yet to make a full artistic impression, the singer must contrast his sotto voce with fully sung vocal abandon. Admittedly, my aesthetic is one of a more romantic sound, but it is abundantly evident that Bostridge’s precision and silvery English boy-choir-esque production has endeared him to the world—in this repertoire especially.
What Bostridge lacked in vocal color and warmth, he delivered in theatrical commitment. He contorted in wringing pain, and toward the end of the cycle he gazed at a point in the back of the hall, never blinking, but fully embracing the insanity of the wanderer.
At the close of the concluding song, Bostridge and Adès held us in great suspense, allowing the final utterances, both vocal and pianistic, to evaporate into the room. They held the mood as long as they were able, before the atmosphere was shattered by an overly exuberant clap from the rafters. They were then met with an immediate standing ovation, from a very packed Jordan Hall, and came out to bow on four separate occasions, for we had witnessed two artists in their artistic primes hold nothing back emotionally in one of the most powerfully affecting works of western music.