Bostridge gives insightful Vocal Arts Society performance


Critic's Corner//Theater


How's this for a resume?

Studied history and philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford and earned a doctorate at the latter.

Wrote a book about the effects of witchcraft on English life 1650-1750.

Became one of the world's leading classical singers.

That's Ian Bostridge, the extraordinary English tenor who moved from academic pursuits to music about 15 years ago and quickly earned admiration for the distinctive timbre of his light, reedy voice and the unusual interpretive depth of his singing, especially in the German song repertoire called lieder.

He was joined by another unusually refined singer, German soprano Dorothea Roschmann, in an all-Schumann program for the Vocal Arts Society Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. Bostridge sang with such insight and exquisite nuance that it was easy to forget he was suffering from a cold. Maybe a note or two was clouded by the indisposition, but this was unusually classy vocalism just the same.

Next season, Bostridge will make his Baltimore debut in a recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series. Consider this friendly advice: If you value the art of song and singing, and if you want to be taken into the innermost realms of poetry and music, then get your Shriver Hall tickets now.

Given his particular combination of tone and style, Bostridge doesn't sound like anyone else today (or yesterday). To be sure, he does not suit all tastes. I know highly respected musicians who just can't warm up to his voice or the way he uses it.

Some folks can't take his stage manner, either. He is apt to move all over the place while singing. Even when he's more stationery, he's a little different. He might put his hands in his pockets (a casualness that would drive many a purist to distraction) or hold onto the edge of the piano and lean, Tower of Pisa-like, at an odd angle (quite a sight, given that Bostridge is a very tall, very thin fellow).

For most of us, though, the tenor's physical approach to making music is just another engaging aspect of his art.

Nothing seems to inspire that art more than the lieder of Schubert or Schumann. The latter composer's Myrthen, Op. 25, was the main item on Tuesday. It's a collection of 26 songs more or less related by subject matter (love and marriage, mostly), drawing on poets from Goethe to Byron and Robert Burns. Bostridge and Roschmann divided up the songs.

For his part, the tenor conveyed the subtlest images of a text, sometimes by the inflection he gave a single syllable. He shaped melodic phrases so naturally and conversationally that they could seem almost improvised. He knew when to bend a tempo just enough, as he did in the middle portion of the glowing Widmung, to bring out an extra layer of beauty.

The way Bostridge made the simple word "Amen" register deeply in Talismane was as memorable as the drama he produced in Aus den hebraischen Gesangen, which included vivid expressiveness at the lowest and highest edges of his range. And the delicate thread of a tone that he used to color the sadness of Was will die einsame Trane proved remarkably affecting.

Roschmann was no less incisive. Her vibrant sound and supple technique yielded consistent pleasure, from the droll Ratsel to the sweeping emotion of Die Hochlander Witwe. The soprano also proved an equal partner, vocally and interpretively, in the Schumann duets (Op. 34 and 78) that framed the program.

Through it all, pianist Julius Drake offered superbly crafted accompaniment that brought out the wealth of imagination in the composer's keyboard writing.

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