Review: Ian Bostridge & Brad Mehldau

Oct. 20, Camp Concert Hall, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

Ian Bostridge, the British tenor who ranks among the premier exponents of art-song at work today, is introducing “The Folly of Desire,” a song cycle by Brad Mehldau, best-known as a jazz pianist, in tour performances this season, including this one at the University of Richmond.

Melhdau’s settings of poems by Shakespeare, Goethe, William Blake, W.H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, e e cummings and Bertolt Brecht, exploring gradations of desire and fulfillment – love to lust, comfortable to risky, consensual to transgressive – was written for Bostridge, and exploits the singer’s singular span of register (near-countertenor to near-baritone) and extraordinary range of vocal colors and expressive characters.

The styles of these songs are comparably broad, and often unexpected – Goethe’s “Ganymed” as a torch song, Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” as a verismo outburst, cumming’s “the boys i mean are not refined” as quasi-boogie-woogie, Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” as a prayer. Bostridge showed clear affection for and immersion in them all.

Commanding as his voice was, especially in the intimate space of Camp Concert Hall, and clear as his diction was, Bostridge could not always be heard clearly. Mehldau is an accomplished and expressive pianist, but the accompanist’s role – or, perhaps more accurately, the role of partner to an unamplified voice – did not sound to come naturally to him.

Balances were better, gratifyingly, in “Dichterliebe” (“The Poet’s Love”), Robert Schumann’s song cycle on verses by Heinrich Heine. This set is one of Bostridge’s longtime specialties, and his fluency in both the melodies and the German texts was evident throughout the 20 songs. Mehldau showed a fine sense of Schumann’s romantic piano style, and rarely overbalanced the tenor.

In both cycles, Bostridge looked and sounded intent on vocally acting the texts as well as singing the tunes, an untypical but not unwelcome approach to art-song. His acting occasionally veered into over-acting, and his restless stage presence – rarely still except when leaning into the piano – was a curious visual counterpoint to love songs.

Following the two song cycles, Bostridge and Mehldau offered an encore of “These Foolish Things,” the Jack Strachey-Eric Maschwitz song made famous by Billie Holliday.

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