In video footage shot in 1968, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears perform excerpts from Winterreise, Schubert’s 1828 song cycle, a piece that has featured frequently at Aldeburgh since the early days of their festival. The pair discuss it as the cycle of an old man, an experienced man. On the face of it, this seems a strange observation, given that Schubert composed it around the age of 30, but he was already gravely ill, dying shortly after its completion, and the piece is often interpreted as a contemplation of death.
At 49, Ian Bostridge is hardly an old man but he brings maturity, intelligence and a deep level of understanding to the work. This performance, alongside accompanist Thomas Adès (former artistic director at Aldeburgh), looked set to be one of the golden tickets at this year’s festival. And so it proved.
Two performers of this calibre might have struggled to find balance but it was an evening enhanced by the generosity of both musicians. In “Der Lindenbaum” (“The Linden Tree”), a song of bleak nostalgia and fleeting sweetness, there were alternating flourishes, Adès barely leaving an impression on the keys during the heartbreaking third verse, then attacking the piano interludes with propulsive focus.
Yet the journey is a solitary one, and it was for Bostridge to voice the anonymous protagonist’s wretched emotions as he staggers through a desolate landscape. There was no holding back: his bright lyric tenor was suitably deployed across a wide spectrum of expression, from the bitter irony of the waltz-like “Täuschung” (“Delusion”), through to the lurching and dejected tone of the final “Der Leiermann” (“The Organ-Grinder”). And throughout, his grasp of the text shone through, with a sense of purchase on each syllable and every word afforded weight and significance.
Some might prefer more introspection from their recitalist but Bostridge’s gestures have an almost perfect efficiency. For much of the performance he simply clasped the piano frame, at times bending his slender frame upwards and on tiptoes, as if poised for a pirouette, and in the sinister “Die Krähe” (“The Crow”) he leaned back against the instrument, with the slightest glance ceiling-wards, as if offering his body as carrion.
Aldeburgh is known for its respectful and attentive audiences but the silence that followed the final note seemed more than a pregnant pause, almost a footnote in the cycle itself.