On November 28, Ian Bostridge and pianist-composer Thomas Adès reinvent the familiar, dazzling us with the new in a program that includes Schumann's Dichterliebe.
The Dichterliebe cycle incorporates 16 poems drawn from Heinrich Heine's collection Lyrisches Intermezzo. Schumann arranged them into a narrative drama of love briefly enjoyed, then irrevocably lost.
Simplicity and brevity characterize the first five songs in which the poet moves from the bliss of love to the first intimations that his feelings may not be returned. The majestic sixth song, "Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome," is the first unambiguous expression of lost love. The image here is the magnificent cathedral at Cologne on the banks of the Rhine. Inspired by Bach's chorale preludes, the piano dominates with a powerful descending motive. The singer's lines follow the simple but expressive shape of a Baroque chorale.
In "Ich grolle nicht," the high drama, wide range, and heroic weight are drawn from grand opera style. Yet Heine's irony is captured by this exaggerated musical rhetoric: the vehement pounding of the piano's chords, the massive octaves in the left hand, and the singer's angry repetitions of the phrase "Ich grolle nicht" ("I bear no grudge").
"Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen" features another brilliantly dominant piano part in a whirlwind, nightmarish waltz during which the poet imagines himself at his former lover's wedding feast. In the exquisitely poignant 10th song, "Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen," the piano subtly takes the lead with an illustration of weeping that grows stronger and more painful in the postlude. Contrasting with this sincerity, "Ein Jüngling liebt einMädchen" is a bitterly ironic recital of the classic story of unrequited love. It masquerades as a bluff folk song with a pedestrian three-chord cadence.
The most beautiful of the songs, "Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen" is graced by a ravishing piano part whose eloquent postlude appears again later at the end of the cycle. The unexpected harmonic progressions in the vocal line are wonderfully expressive of sorrow and regret.
The next three songs explore the world of dreams. In "Ich hab' im Traum geweinet," the singer carries the song's miserable burden in a stark, unaccompanied recitative, while the piano is reduced to muttered interjections. In "Aus alten Märchen," the piano's heraldic theme crafts a fairytale dream world where the poet tries in vain to escape his real-life sorrows. Schumann delights in the verse's colorful, sensual imagery. But the song later becomes more realistic; in music marked "with inmost feeling," the singer expresses his desire to escape from the world but also his understanding that there is none.
Fischer-Dieskau calls "Die alten, bösen Lieder"—the cycle's final song—"a grotesque and extravagant showpiece." The piano sets the mock-heroic tone with brawny octaves, then underlines the humor by exaggerating the first beat of each measure. The singer's phrases, too, are grandiosely dramatic. At the close, Schumann adds a touch of genuine feeling to Heine's punch line that the ironic poet probably never intended. He closes with a beautiful postlude of consolation expanded from the 12th song, which serves as a sublime summation for the entire cycle.
Related: November 28, Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès