Schubert’s “Winterreise” vocal cycle performed by Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès won the ICMA award in the category “Vocal music” in 2010. We are publishing the conversation with Ian Bostridge during his tour to Russia.
He is known both in Moscow due to “December evenings” series, Bolshoi hall and Moscow Music House performances, and in Saint Petersburg where he gives a solo concert for the second time in his favorite Bolshoi Hall of the Philharmonia. His choice stopped at two vocal cycles, “An die ferne Geliebte” by Beethoven and “Der Schwanengesang” by Schubert, accompanied by a pianist Saskia Giorgini. Ian Bostridge (IB) spoke special to “Musical Life” to Vladimir Dudin (VD) about searching for vocal timbres, his relationship with opera and a definitive magic of music.
VD Are you satisfied with you singing career?
IB My career was frankly a blessing in disguise for me, because I have never planned to be a singer and have never dreamt about it in my youth. I liked singing and was fond of the Lied genre, but I wasn’t going to dedicate my life to it, if only because I wasn’t German. But this twist of fate was sweet since it sort of occurred by itself rather than because of psychological effort. And today I would, of course, consider myself quite happy and satisfied. Another important aspect of my career is preserving my voice, taking care of it. Looking back at these twenty-three years passed in an instant I understand that I was constantly thinking about it and keep thinking to this day. Imagine the surprise when I was once sorting my papers and found out the list of pros and contras on whether to stay a teacher at the university or to become a singer.
VD Do you recall the moment when your voice “awakened” and tried to break free?
IB I had a fine voice, but nothing too special. I sing a diverse repertoire, but don’t pretend to be a “voice of the century” like, for example, Bryn Terfel or Anna Netrebko: now those are exceptional singers. But I’m proud of my light, bright timbre which allows me to perform a wide array of songs as well as particular opera parts. I had good teachers who arranged the right repertoire for me, but they weren’t too meticulous about working the technical side of singing with me. I was trying to sing more naturally, so a lot of technical aspects were unavailable to me. During my career I sought after teachers that would solve my technical issues. For the last two or three years I’ve consulted Margreet Honig, an Amsterdam professor. Her lessons were very helpful to me, so much that I’m still able to sing coloratura. However, the upper register is still not easy for me, thus I’ve never stopped improving it during my whole career.
VD Who were your early teachers?
IB In the high school it was a famous English counter tenor Charles Brett. I’ve conceived a ton of music with him, including Wolf’s songs and Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” which I first performed at the age of 17. His downside was that he rarely spoke to me about technique. Funny enough, at the old school report from the times I was a soprano in the boy choir I found a teacher’s note that said: “Bostridge should work on his upper register”. As you can see, the same problems already existed. My other teacher in Cambridge excelled in French repertoire. I had a good time talking to him, but again – nothing about the technique.
VD Does this mean you’ve built your voice by yourself?
IB Yes, it was made possible due to the fact I was lucky to perform what I liked. I’ve learned a lot during the preparations. The main concern was finding the right timbre, because a Lied singer has a different timbre than an opera singer. In everyday life a human voice can produce a variety of sounds, from a shriek to a deep sound, from a whisper to an exaltation. Lied is very different from opera singing which requires a large sound on a strong foundation and kind of monotone. Lied is like an old 19th century piano which had different registers. Fast forward to the 21st century, I have to admit that when I was rehearsing with Saskia in Saint Petersburg Philharmonia on an old, bad conditioned, out of tune Bösendorfer, I still enjoyed the contrast of registers. It’s something modern instruments lack.
Just like in vocal, we are seeking different timbres. Sometimes I sing in the lower register even though it’s unnatural to me. It would be very hard on the opera stage, but manageable for Lied. When evaluating timbres, I’ve relied and still do on my pitch and the experience of my pianist, because everything comes from the right intonation. Strange sounds may come as a result of searching for the right timbre in Lied. Singing “out of tune” may be appropriate when the artistic expression of emotions, feelings and values calls for it. The recording, by the way, is also very helpful in finding timbres.
VD What’s your favourite pianist?
IB Right now it’s Saskia Giorgini who I recently started working with. In our latest program she found a spot for solo compositions as if it was a 19th century salon. Not everyone welcomes this, but I find it very important, because on the chamber vocal evening the public must “refocus” on a piano “voice” to understand how significant it is in conjunction with the singer. For twenty-five years I’ve been with the amazing Julius Drake. Soon I’ll sing with Igor Levit who will be the first Russian pianist to have a partnership with me (even though he’s been living in Germany for a long time). I like meeting new musicians. I’ve had many rewarding performances with Leif Owe Andsnes who I will meet again this summer on an Italian festival. Antonio Pappano is just wonderful. I’m always inspired and astounded by his endless creative talent. In November a Mahler songs CD will be released with Antonio Pappano on the piano. We recorded this CD in February while Antonio was busy with concerts in different halls and theatres. He was half thinking of Bernstein’s symphony and Verdi’s “Macbeth” with Netrebko, half thinking of Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”. In the morning he was rehearsing Shostakovich, in the evening he was playing Verdi. He also managed to play in Venice with a cellist at the same time. Antonio is full of fantastic energy, he is a phenomenal “animal” living and breathing with music and stage. It’s a huge privilege to work with his, not to mention having him as a friend is an enormous pleasure.
VD How did your relationship with the opera stage pan out?
IB I’ve rarely performed at the opera stage as a lead singer, but it’s still an important step in a career. All paths of realising your vocal talent are important; of course, there are many of them, but opera singing helps a singer to develop artistically, dramatically. I’ve participated in twenty-three opera projects, starting with the marvelous Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea” directed by David Alden in Munich where I played as Nerone. Being a crazy teenager who didn’t give two cents about self reflecting and just wanted to create, I was very interested in entering this incredible world. As a result I’ve received extra perks such as working with Deborah Warner, the director who we made four or five theatre productions with. This made an impact on my dramatic skills. I made “The Turn of the Screw” and “Death in Venice” by Britten with her relatively recently. Oh, by the way, I took a part in the concert performance of this opera in Bolshoi Hall in Moscow in the 100th anniversary of Britten. The director Netia Jones has produced Britten’s “Curlew River” with me; there is a video of this production. I consider all of those phases very important for my development as a dramatic singer; after all, when I’m singing at a concert, I’m also acting in some way.
I don’t consider myself especially spiritual or religious person, but I do believe there something deep inside us that leaves no doubts: music brings us to life
VD Continuing our discussion about Benjamin Britten, I have to say: in my opinion you are born to sing his music, it’s your destiny!
IB I’ve become acquainted with Britten a long time ago, already performed a lot of his composition in the choir, since he wrote so much for children. As for the setting, Britten had an excellent taste for poetry. I think the Lied composers – Schubert, Schumann, Wolf – had greatly influenced him. It’s interesting that when I’m singing Britten in Russian, I acutely feel the connection between his songs and Russian mentality, just like the composer himself was fascinated with Russian musicians with Shostakovich, Vishnevskaya and Rostropovich at the front. Britten loved Russian music. I recall Tchaikovsky in “Death in Venice” sometimes.
VD Among your studies is “Witchcraft and Magic in Europe”. Is music magical?
IB I don’t consider myself especially spiritual or religious person, but I do believe there something deep inside us that leaves no doubts: music brings us to life. Scientists struggle to understand it. The poetry is the same deal. It’s probably better for it to remain a mystery.
English translation by Mikhail Krivitsky