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In the atmospheric setting of an evening performance at St Luke’s Church it is easy to imagine ghosts from the past. There was one in particular whose shadowy face kept seeming to materialise in the gloom outside the lofty east window on Tuesday, though he was doubtless a beneficent spirit.
The event – a recital by tenor Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès – was part of the Traced Overhead series, focusing on Adès’s “musical world”, and through the evening the presence of Benjamin Britten hovered in the background. Like his predecessor, Adès is multi-talented as composer, conductor, pianist and accompanist, and this is what Traced Overhead is setting out conclusively to show.
Much of last week’s recital could have been lifted from one of Britten and Peter Pears’s old programmes. Bostridge and Adès started out with Britten’s own Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, sung here with an ineffable plangency, though Adès took a rougher hand to the piano part than the composer did.
As a solo pianist, he is intent on looking beyond the notes. Three short Kurtág pieces came across full of life and Liszt’s Funérailles can rarely have sounded so modern, the luxurious keyboard control of the typical virtuoso pianist being jettisoned in favour of extremes of sound and colour, with Adès hammering the tolling funeral bells till one’s ears were ready to jangle. In the Liszt arrangement of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde he found a teeming mass of inner voices, though they never quite hung together.
By the second half, the piano was starting to sound seriously out of tune. This only served to unhinge further a performance that already wanted to take Schumann to the edge. Bostridge is always a highly personal singer of German lieder, and he was at his most idiosyncratic here, but the bigger presence was Adès at the piano. Rarely can the opening have sounded more dreamy, the fairly tales so magical, or the grudge of the broken heart as relentlessly jabbing in its pain, but there was a price to be paid: Bostridge was sometimes overpowered and the balance between words and music thrown out of kilter.
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