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Spring days and Arabian nights

Wigmore Hall
11/26/1999 -  
Gustav Mahler Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Hans Werner Henze, Sechs Gesänge aus dem Arabischen (UK premiere)

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano)

This programme of two song cycles matched the familiar, conventionally German  Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen with the new, exoticizing Sechs Gesänge aus dem Arabischen, composed specially for Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake.

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen normally comes over as an adolescent's Winterreise, the despair that of a teenager whose first relationship has just ended and who has a chance of emerging from the whiteout of lime blossom slightly more mature. (It is, after all, spring.) Drake brought out the Schubertian allusions and tone, while Bostridge suggested anomie close to madness from his first bitter "Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht" onwards.

Bostridge pushed the music for colour and expression, especially disturbingly in the last song, for example, when he let the already dislocated line on the words "dunkle Heide" become rough in texture and even more adrift in pitch. This clearly wasn't a mistake -- his intonation was precise everywhere else, including in similarly distorted melodic sections in the Henze -- but a dangerous expressive gesture.

Hans Werner Henze's Sechs Gesänge aus dem Arabischen are from the Arabic in spirit only. The six songs set texts by Henze himself, which he assembled to provide the frame for a musical drama that he had already conceived. The song cycle is similar in shape and themes to the classic Lieder cycles, but the decor is kitsch oriental, with lurid effects in the text and music, and the cruelty is explicit. There is very little in the music that could be called Arabic, perhaps a couple of melismas, but the general effect is exotic and sensual.

"Selim und der Wind" casts Selim adrift on a violent sea, populated by sexually destructive witches from Goethe's Walpurgisnacht. "Die Gottesanbeterin (mantis religiosa)" (dedicated to the sculptor Giacommetti) offers a contrastingly delicate and artificial image, of the brittle insect, but deal with the same theme: she destroys her husband by sex. "Ein Sonnenaufgang" is a surreal, gaudily marine-coloured rework of a romantic nature poem  and "Cäsarion" a Cavafy-like evocation of a doomed youth on the sea-shore. "Fatumas Klage" is the lament of the woman who Selim has abandoned, and caused to be imprisoned in a dark cave, now a bride of "a chalk-white old lecher". The final song, "Das Paradies", sets Rükert's translation of Hafiz, an expression of longing for the moon and for rescue in death.

There was a sense of danger in this performance which might have been to do either with underpreparation or with the genuinely disturbing nature of the words and music. (One member of the audience said the music upset her physically.) Bostridge looked uncomfortable throughout, and at times seemed at risk of coming adrift. But the music itself is about being adrift, and if they were hanging on the the seats of their oriental baggy pants it was entirely appropriate. Similarly, both words and music were on the fine line between extreme emotion and masochism. This song cycle is ingenious and striking, but it is perhaps less a modern Winterreise than a knowing showoff piece for two extremely stylish performers.

H.E. Elsom



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