La Monnaie ¦ De Munt

interview Ian Bostridge

La Monnaie - interview Ian Bostridge

Each recital by Ian Bostridge is an exceptional occasion full of dramatic intensity. He has been described to prowl the stage, grimacing, lurching towards the audience, as if about to grab its collective lapel. And he has an eye for unusual connections. In this recital he jumps from Purcell and Bach over Haydn to Britten and Weill. Yet despite the promise and the rapt lyricism of the opening song, the evening’s intriguing sequence of songs in the English language seemed, on the contrary, to demonstrate music’s power to dramatize the darkest, despairing aspect of human life.

For the most part, you're proposing a programme with a strong literary connection : from classic John Dryden (Music for a while) and a singular 18th century female poet (Anne Hunter) to the Scottish vernacular of William Soutar (Who are these children) and the quintessential American voice of Walt Whitman. How do you "assemble" a recital. And can we see this particular programme as a declaration of love to the English language in all its variety?

I usually work with one or two composers by recital to show what they can do but also to create a unity. This time it was quite a challenge to put together something that would work, that would be varied as well as linked. There's a lot of Britten, I suppose: there is the cycle Who are these children, of course, but the Bach and Purcell's The Queen's Epicedium are amazingly arranged by Britten and last there is the fact that the Haydn Original Canzonettas were performed by Peter Pears & Benjamin Britten. I knew the Haydn from before although to me they did seem lightweight in a way. But the more I perform the more, the more I become captured - their lightness of touch is very appealing - and they give pretty much the only laugh of the evening in the song about the sailor. But war, more than literature, really is the theme, at least in the second half. But that was something I observed only afterwards. I didn't say to myself on this occasion I want to do a program about war but I knew the four Britten songs from Who are these children, I was intrigued by them before - mostly. It's mostly a cycle of children songs in Scottish dialect, but there are four poems in ordinary English on the effects of war on children. And it's a small step from there to the arrangements Weill wrote on poems Walt Whitman wrote during the American civil war. Years back, in a music shop I found the score of these songs and I was struck by the photograph on the cover. It was a famous photograph from the 1860's of a drummer boy, fighting in that war. And it suddenly got to me that I must perform these songs. It certainly came together all very accidently, I would say. In the end, above all, one finds the songs one really loves.

There are also songs in German and Latin. How do you deal with that, is it possible to one submerge oneself entirely in a non-native language?

Latin is a good example in a way, because it's a sort of magical language - a language learned at school, an ancient and dead language nobody speaks any more - the words are not daily used so they are rather magical. I'm not a good German speaker, but I have submersed myself in German poetry and songs for about thirty-odd years and I feel very comfortable singing in German language. But it helps to listen to someone like Fischer-Diskau, to have a grasp of the language - it's the sort of piracy I'm good at.

The evening's title «Music for a while» invokes a atmosphere of a pleasantly spent evening, yet almost without exception the songs refer to death and human loss and the ways to deal with it from despair and desolation in Britten & Weill to resignation in Bach.

Sometimes people's response is «why are you wallowing», while in fact it isn't gloomy. It's the transformation of a gloomy thing - through the medium of art - into something beautiful. And that beauty gets our hopes up, at least to me. What tends to happen is we open the recital with Music for a while and very often we perform it as the encore, exploring the idea that you can be taken into terrible places and can somehow enjoy it and be served because it's art and not life - and one can come to terms with it.

The Whitman-Weill combination seems to stand out: if not because settings of Whitman's poems are rarely performed than certainly because Kurt Weill's almost breezy musical treatment offers a stark contrast with Whitman's anguished laments.

Whitman is an exceptional figure and his poems are full of musical references. Kurt Weill was setting poems of the 1860's but he was also writing for a contemporary American public coming out of the Second World War and that were the harmonies they listened to. Weill used some of those contemporary harmonies and I find that very effective. The chord sequences are absolutely ravishing and I don't experience them as breezy at all, I experience them as very emotionally charged. Weill was doing the same in the 1920's when he wrote pieces like the Dreigroschenoper using popular rhythms and harmonies in an interesting way.

Recorded by Carl Böting