RTÉ Concert Orchestra, with Ian Bostridge (tenor), at National Concert Hall, on 26 November 2015

The RTÉ Concert Orchestra’s ‘Signature Series’, featuring the ensemble alongside top international singers, continues tonight with tenor Ian Bostridge. From the start, conductor John Wilson exudes an easy-going presence at the podium, leading the orchestra in a congenial reading of Schubert’s youthful Symphony No. 5 in B-flat. The tone is well-balanced, though the full sound and occasionally sluggish tempi take away from the lightness and clarity that might be expected. The best playing comes in the third movement, with the minuet and trio receiving the dance-like bounce this music needs.

The music of Schubert receives an unusual twist in the two songs that follow, ‘Das Lied im Grünen’ [Song in the countryside] and ‘Viola’ [Violet], two lieder for voice and piano recently orchestrated by Detlev Glanert. Bostridge’s account of these songs is disappointing. Due partly to Glanert’s full, and at times fussy, orchestrations of Schubert’s subtle piano accompaniments, and perhaps partly to the hall’s challenging acoustic, Bostridge’s words are almost entirely inaudible, and his voice is often no match for the ensemble. This problem is further confounded by the absence of texts and translations in the printed programme, and the singer’s mannered approach to stage presentation, which does little to help communicate the content of the songs. The gentle poignancy of the violet’s fate in the lengthy latter song does, at least, receive some attention, and the minor-key section towards the end even emerges with a sudden flash of beauty, but Bostridge fails to make a case for these songs in this form.

After the interval, Bostridge returns with three of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs. Originally set for baritone (or contralto) and orchestra, they seem an odd choice for a tenor. Mahler’s orchestral accompaniment – performed very well by the orchestra – gives more space to the singer than in the previous songs. Bostridge’s voice, however, lacks the necessary weight or colour to communicate the faux-military swagger of ‘Rewelge’ [Reveille] and ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’ [Drummer-boy], and still struggles to be heard. Instead he attempts to characterise them, as if trying to make the pieces sound like cabaret songs, producing some ugly tones in the upper register of his voice along the way. Bostridge moves around and stoops surprisingly for a singer, many times seeming to sing to his feet or off to the side, even turning around to face the orchestra. The final Wunderhorn song, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ [Where the fair trumpets sound], more softly orchestrated, finally allows Bostridge to sing out with the sensitivity he has shown elsewhere.

The orchestra draws the concert to a close with a vivid performance of Brahms’ Variations on a theme by Haydn. The vibrant energy and colour that the ensemble brings to this music, ranging from idyllic softness to brilliant festivity, makes it the strongest work of the evening. This final piece, at last, gives us something to savour.

Programme:

Franz Schubert: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, D.485

Schubert, arr. Detlev Glanert: ‘Das Lied im Grünen’, D.917; ‘Viola’, D.786

Gustav Mahler: ‘Revelge’, ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn)

Johannes Brahms: Variations on a theme by Haydn, Op. 56a

 

Image of Ian Bostridge by © Sim Canetty-Clarke

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