Sunday, October 22, 2023

Ian Bostridge Brings Schubert’s D. 911 to SFP

Pianist Wenwen Du, who deserves the same attention previously given to Ian Bostridge! (photograph by Sophie Zhai, courtesy of SFP)

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the first of the four programs scheduled for its Art of Song series with a recital by tenor Ian Bostridge. He made his SFP debut in October of 2005 and last appeared for SFP in May of 2016. On that occasion he presented a program consisting entirely of the songs of Franz Schubert, accompanied at the piano by Wenwen Du making her SFP debut.

Once again Du returned to accompany Bostridge in another Schubert program. This time, however, the program was devoted entirely to the D. 911 Winterreise (winter’s journey) song cycle. This was a setting of 24 poems by German poet Wilhelm Müller. However, the idea of a “journey” was not Müller’s. Schubert developed the plan through his own selection of the poems. This began with a set of twelve, to which he subsequently added another twelve.

While the resulting cycle is not a narrative, it can be viewed as a study in character development over a series of episodes. The protagonist has been rejected in love and is now in the process of enduing a wide variety of reactions, most of which are emotionally painful. Bostridge brought a sense of dramatization to his interpretation of the songs, which elevated the performance above the basic foundation in which the music endows and/or enhances the semantic infrastructure. I suspect there are some (many?) in last night’s audience that would have accused Bostridge of over-acting; but Schubert’s own rhetorical approaches tend not to be shy about exaggeration.

Most important was that, throughout the entire cycle, both Bostridge and Du were on the same rhetorical page, so to speak. Each of the 24 songs has its own intense infrastructure, and the primary challenge in performance is to endow each intensity with its own unique qualities. It would be fair to say that Bostridge could not be expected to do this on his own and that the relationship between piano and voice is one of symbiosis, rather than accompaniment. Furthermore, because the bond between the two performers is so strong in Schubert’s score, D. 911 is, indeed, a journey unto itself. Having completed the journey, the duo “closed the book” on the listening experience and chose (rightly in my opinion) to forego any encore selections.

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