He does have a pretty face: imagine a young Oberon from A Midsummer’s Night Dream played as an ethereal elf with a boyish glint in his eye. But this elf can sing. Ian Bostridge lacks the sheer power of an operatic tenor, but his voice is light and supple, brightly colored, and well modulated. It’s a great art-song voice. And Bostridge is also a great interpreter. A singer of art songs must be able to project a believable, sympathetic persona in less than three minutes, and Bostridge has the requisite sensitivity, not only to the music and the poetic text but also to the fusion of the two that is the essence of the art song.
I heard Bostridge give an all-Schumann recital that included the composer’s setting of Heinrich Heine’s Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love). The singer was able to communicate the greatness of both Schumann’s music and Heine’s poetry — all the subtleties of emotion, all the nuances of image, all the levels of heartbroken, lovesick irony. It was a brilliant and soulful fusion of music and poetry.
When he appears at Lydia Mendelssohn Theater on Sunday, April 14, Bostridge will be singing the lieder of Schubert, the greatest composer of German-language art songs. Although Schubert did not always set poetry as elevated as Heine’s, his supreme genius at uniting verse and music elevates to greatness nearly everything he touches. Many of the poems on Bostridge’s program are by Schubert’s good friend Johann Mayrhofer; Mayrhofer was, at best, a less able Chatterton, but his poems are transformed by Schubert’s profound humanity. Among other Mayrhofer songs, Bostridge has programmed “Nachtstck (Nocturne),” the last song of a dying bard; “Abendstern (Evening Star),” one of the saddest and loneliest love songs ever written; and the magnificent “Auflsung (Dissolution),” one of the most grandly exhilarating and deeply despairing songs in all of Schubert — the song of a man about to kill himself in order to destroy the world.
Bostridge will also be singing some of Schubert’s settings of the truly great German poets of the period, Schiller and Goethe, and of some of the truly awful poets of the period, Schlechta and Rochlitz. But in all of them he will draw on his light and flexible voice, his passionate intelligence, his emotional insights, and, yes, even his pretty face, to create, with compassion, sympathetic characters in poetry and music.