In the bleak mid-winter – Ian Bostridge sings Winterreise at the Barbican

In the bleak mid-winter – Ian Bostridge sings Winterreise at the Barbican

When Schubert first played his new cycle of “spine-chilling” songs to his friends, they hated it. The cycle, Winterreise, shocked them in its unremitting hopelessness, its renunciation of musicality, its state of suspension. Emotional absence, as empty as the frozen tundra, is hard to listen to, and the performance of despair is hard to pull off. As the culmination of their European tour and announcement of a forthcoming collaboration, Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès performed the greatest song cycle in the classical repertoire on a flu-ridden January night.

Two thousand people filled the Barbican’s Hall to hear Bostridge, an acknowledged Schubertian, render the bravado and despair of the eternal wanderer trudging through the icy landscape. The effect was mesmerising.

As he took to the stage, a cross between Samuel Beckett with his swept-back hair and seer’s gaze, and Bill Nighy, with his lanky grace and willowy appeal, Bostridge was alive to every nuance in the lyric and the music. He bowed and strode and performed despair and distraction, spitting rage and sarcasm along the way.

Ian Bostridge In the Bleak Midwinter £

Bostridge’s latest book, Winter’s Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession (Faber) provides the socio-historical context for these 24 songs, completed in 1828. What so shocked Schubert’s friends, and still shocks today, is the deconstructive sparseness of the writing. As Bostridge points out, Schubert’s oeuvre marked the beginning of modernity backed by the market economy. Schubert was in the first wave of composers to be fully self-employed. He was a freelancer, with no wealthy patrons or church sinecures. He was a true Bohemian, dependent on the next commission and not quite part of respectable, bourgeois society. He was an outsider in the Romantic tradition.

As well as this, the relatively obscure poet whose songs he set to music, Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), was influential on the great German poet, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) who influenced the Romantic poets across Europe. The songs are studded with Romantic symbolism: the lyre that becomes a hurdy-gurdy, the will-o’-the-wisp that leads the protagonist to eternal darkness, the post-horn that derides him with memories of the lost beloved. In the bareness of this winter scene, these familiar signposts acquire a chilling significance. Thomas Adès finds each discrete detail. Most of all, the carrion crow that accompanies the protagonist part of the way, signalling his death. But even the crow proves faithless and leaves him. And so Schubert’s narrative bursts into self-lacerating mockery.

These bare, fractured songs that express the dissociation of grief and isolation, are in fact dripping with associations. From the Last of the Mohicans to the Metternich police state, myth and politics are the richly textured backdrop to the scene. As a writer, Bostridge provides a fascinating context to each song. As a singer, he tries to find the shock of each song.

What was clear to the audience was the indivisibility between Bostridge, the music, and the protagonist. The white tie and tails are a front for deep vulnerability. He describes himself as being highly distractable when singing this cycle because he is in a heightened state. These distractions give him renewed impetus because of fresh associations. Each performance renews the cycle.

by Lilian Pizzichini

Photograph of Ian Bostridge: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Ian Bostridge is on twitter @Ianbostridge as is Thomas Adès, @Thomas_ades