Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake At Koerner Hall in Toronto on Sunday
Robert Schumann was hardly the only composer drawn to the poems of Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) – 19th-century composers cranked out about 8,000 songs to the German poet's verses. But as musicologist Richard Taruskin has written, Heine's mastery of emotional ambivalence made him "the perfect partner" for Schumann, a composer who knew from poetry and who became "the first composer to set Heine's verse in quantity."
On Sunday, that ideal partnership expanded to embrace tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake, who were thrillingly attuned to emotional nuance in an on-the-edge performance of Schumann's Liederkreis, Op. 24 and other Heine settings by the composer.
Liederkreis, Op. 24, is a monument of the repertoire, but Bostridge yanked it off the pedestal: The songs sprang to life as if created in the moment – the moment where emotion becomes too great for words, and speech must make the leap into music.
Bostridge quickly created a sympathetic protagonist in the nine-song cycle: a slightly neurotic but goodhearted young man who is probably experiencing his first misfortune in love. In the second song, " Es treibt mich hin," for instance, the protagonist is beside himself with anticipation of seeing his beloved, and tells the lazy hours to get a move on. In Bostridge's delightful, slightly scary rendition, this was no quaint literary conceit – you wouldn't want to be blocking an escalator in front of this guy on your way to the subway platform.
When Schumann departs from strophic repetition, Bostridge made you feel that it was he, the protagonist, who was making the swerve, in response to a sudden, urgent realization or emotion. The performers likewise made you hear the fascinating interplay between folk-like simplicity and the utmost musical sophistication that Schumann sought in his Lieder. In " Ich wandelte unter den Baumen," for instance, the childlike innocence of the birds' comforting message gives way to harmonic instability when the narrator declares that he trusts no one.
As the cycle unfolded, the emotional complexities became ever richer and more poignant. In Berg' und Burgen, Bostridge let his character be cradled by the gently rocking waves of the piano, even as he sang of his lover's (real or imagined) betrayal – a breathtaking moment of equilibrium between innocence and knowing before the singer crossed the line with his bitter, twisted delivery of the next song.
The cycle ends with a piano postlude that eventually supplies a long-delayed D major chord. On Sunday, it was the saddest major chord in the world, and you realized retroactively that every note of the cycle had been heading straight for it.
Throughout, Bostridge and Drake were musical soulmates. I can't resist singling out the piano's fleeting, ghostly horn call that slipped into the last song of Liederkreis, and Drake's moving solos in the Brahms song " Es traumete mir," which opened the concert by piling musical question upon question (in a very Schumann-esque way).
The first half of the concert consisted of 13 Brahms songs, to texts by a variety of poets. The beautiful sequence of tonalities made one song flow into the next as if part of a song cycle; the performances, of course, were masterful. Yet the romantic misery became a bit relentless: the final song before intermission, Botschaft, attempted to inject some optimism, but it was too little too late.
I've heard Bostridge in several Canadian halls now – two of them excellent – but the Koerner takes the cake. You felt that singer and hall were part of the same instrument – the hall a huge, wooden resonating chamber that allowed the singer to dare anything, even the softest pianissimos.
The concert will be broadcast on CBC Radio Two's In Concert on May 6.
Special to The Globe and Mail