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Older Music Refracted Through a Modernist Prism

11.29.11
Ian Bostridge
The New York Times

By Anthony Tommasini

There were only two relatively short contemporary works in the remarkable recital performed by the tenor Ian Bostridge and the composer and pianist Thomas Adès on Monday night at Carnegie Hall. Yet this was inspired programming: strategic choices, in the context they set up, teased out the modernist resonances in older music, even a cycle as familiar as Schumann’s “Dichterliebe.” 

The works were structured around themes of “depression, loss of love and the artist’s alienation from society,” as the program notes put it. They began with Dowland’s “In Darkness Let Me Dwell,” an Elizabethan lute song. As sung with spectral sound by Mr. Bostridge and played by Mr. Adès with attentiveness to wayward harmonies and flecks of dissonance, the music seemed at once old and new.

Then, without break, Mr. Adès played his 1992 piano piece “Darknesse Visible,” a homage to the Dowland song that refracts the music through a contemporary prism. The piano writing is alive with eerie repeated notes and startling pitches, high and low, that pierce the milky textures. This led without pause into Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Hölderlin: An ...,” a fragment of a Hölderlin poem set to mystical, modern music that keeps shifting from angelic vocal lines to ominous, half-spoken intonations.

As the elusive final piano chords of the Kurtag dissipated, Mr. Adès played a sustained C sharp, which turned out to be the first lingering note of the slowly rippling, bittersweet accompaniment of the first song from Schumann’s “Dichterliebe.” This short song pushes chromatic harmony into fleeting moments of ambiguity. And this performance, especially Mr. Adès’s playing, brought out the music’s path-breaking elements, an approach continued through the entire cycle. The point was not to contort the songs to make them seem contemporary but to emphasize what makes them music of the present, or beyond any historic era.

Mr. Bostridge’s unconventional singing has never been to all tastes. The bel canto value of evenness throughout the range of the voice means nothing to him. In high phrases he can sing with choirboy purity; in his weaker low range he sometimes barks and delivers words with grainy emphasis.

Yet this was a “Dichterliebe” in which an insightful vocal artist had a compelling idea about the words and music of every phrase. Animated and involved, almost overcome at times, Mr. Bostridge could hardly stand still.

Some pianists may find it almost unfair that Mr. Adès, who is first and foremost a composer, plays the piano so beautifully, something he demonstrated in a lilting account of Liszt’s “Petrarch Sonnet No. 123” from “Années de Pèlerinage.” This led into a group of three Liszt songs, which Mr. Bostridge performed with a beguiling mix of simplicity and flair. The program ended with six songs from Schubert’s “Schwanengesang,” including a chilling account of “Der Doppelgänger” to complete the group.

Even the encores were ideally chosen. There was Caliban’s aria from Mr. Adès’s opera “The Tempest.” Mr. Bostridge created the role of Caliban in the 2004 London premiere of “The Tempest” and recorded it for EMI. And coming at the end of this exploration of the dark side, Schubert’s “Serenade,” the final encore, sounded newly stark, though lovely still.