Music Review: Tenor Bostridge over-indulges

Posted: March 08, 2012

The great art song recitalist Elisabeth Schwarzkopf often said that she sang primarily for herself, allowing her to pursue the interpretation of her dreams. British tenor Ian Bostridge seemed to take a similar philosophy to a self-indulgent maximum at his Wednesday Brahms/Schumann program at the Kimmel Center, with an idiosyncratic, private manner that one might normally witness while watching someone through a keyhole in a practice room.

Many in the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society's sophisticated audience called him back for three encores. Others wondered if he was of sound mind and body as he worked his way through a program of lesser-known creations of these well-known composers - including Schumann's Liederkreis Op. 24 and songs the composer dropped from the final version of his great Dichterliebe - bobbing, weaving, and at one point seeming to charge off stage in mid-song, suggesting a restlessly Byronic cabaret singer.

The boyishly thin, tousle-haired 47-year-old Bostridge has always been a physical, emotionally extroverted singer (imagine Edith Piaf singing Handel's Messiah, said one critic), but best encountered in the confines of an operatic character. He is as capable as ever of incredibly beautiful singing with a light English tenor that can blaze with a surprisingly robust tone quality.

Yet, aside from his eccentric physicality, he stuffed each song with vocal colors and nuances that were only intermittently relevant. Often, he seemed to riff on the nature of the musical gesture at hand rather its poetic meaning. His perversity was almost Brando-esque at times, with entire verses that were mumbled at barely audible volume.

Mostly, though, his enunciation was marked by vowels as intensely projected as laser beams and consonants that smacked your ears. Thus, elements that usually frame an interpretive viewpoint took the foreground. No wonder I was so unmoved. Though pianist Julius Drake was full of luminous touches at the beginning, he soon got into the spirit of things with incredibly attenuated piano postludes that were almost predictably followed by a crashing fortissimo at the beginning of the next song.

Exhilarating or embarrassing? During the encores, Bostridge sang a relatively indulgence-free rendition of Schumann's "Mondnacht," with phrases soaring and melting in appropriate ways. Was it was worth all the fussy anti-artistry that came before? My answer: No.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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