Every nighte and alle – Ian Bostridge in Ansbach

ansbach screenshot

Solisten: Ian Bostridge, Tenor; Stefan Dohr, Horn
Johann Sebastian Bach: “Ich habe genug”, Kantate, BWV 82; Johann Sebastian Bach/George Benjamin: “Die Kunst der Fuge”, Kanon; Benjamin Britten: Prelude and Fugue, op. 29; Serenade, op. 31
08 August 2013, St. Johannis, Ansbacher Bachwoche

The programme was something that just couldn’t be missed. Bostridge, Bach, and Britten? I couldn’t withstand this combination which caused me to organize a little trip to Ansbach.  (For most outside Germany, distances here seem ridiculous, but still, even a little trip is quite a fuss at times.)

The Location

St. Johannis is a church right in the center of Ansbach, completed in 1435. It has three aisles, but not cross shaped; the two small aisles frame the centre aisle to both sides, all belonging to the nave. The aisles to the sides are separated from the main aisle by a row of columns each. In perspective, these make an impenetrable forest, depending on where you are sitting. Visitors of the Bachwoche know the place; so the small aisles stayed more or less empty, while the middle aisle was crammed full, even with extra chairs to the sides.

The acoustics are sort of weird in this church. It is good up front, but gets quite bad at the back. Before the encore, the horn player said a few words, and no one could understand a single word, which highlighted once more Bostridge’s clarity of voice, and diction, because even for us da hinten auf den billigen Plätzen — for us in the back, in the reasonably priced segment, he managed to turn the concert into an enjoyable experience.

The programme

The first part started off with a piece of George Benjamin/Johann Sebastian Bach, “Die Kunst der Fuge, Kanon” I didn’t know the piece before; my first impression was that it is quite tongue in cheek. “Kunst der Fuge”? Now that’s aiming high, I thought, and I wasn’t disappointed. I cannot say much about the polyphonic finesses, as I never saw sheet music of the piece and this was my first experience, but the colours and turns George Benjamin lend to the always recognizable main theme of the art of the fugue were surely worth hearing. Some parts sounded like “Wagner meets Bach.” Imagine the downward line right before “Loge, hör! Wabernde Lohe!” mixed with the theme of the Art of the Fugue, and you get an idea.  It made me smile; just in case that the composer was stone-cold serious about it, I apologize.

With the second piece, it got right to the nitty-gritty: Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantata BWV 82, “Ich habe genug.”

What a marvel. It’s among the most famous ones of Bach’s solo cantatas, and justly of course. Especially the “Schlummert ein, Ihr matten Augen” is a benchmark piece for any singer. It takes perfect breath control, a voice that sounds natural at all times, in all registers, and in all dynamics, that carries well, even in the pianissimo parts, and also it takes a lot of brain and skill to bring something new to each “verse” so it doesn’t get repetitive. In short: It takes everything that Bostridge excels in. It was right-out fantastic; I think I forgot to breathe in between.

After the break, the second part started with a piece by  Benjamin Britten: Prelude and Fugue, op. 29, written in 1943, just as the Serenade for Horn and orchestra that was about to follow. It also related to George Benjamin’s Kanon from the beginning of part one, and so contributed to a nicely rounded programme.

While Britten’s Prelude and Fugue are not exactly standard repertoire, the Serenade, op. 31 is quite well-known, but there is more; it is another benchmark, exclusively for tenors, this time, and for horn players alike. The pieces are set to various pieces of poetry — funny, dire, deeply sad, and gripping, the piece spans a whole range of emotions. Britten was very fond of the lyrical tenor voice; he was even more fond of one lyrical tenor in particular, Peter Pears.

People have often complained that Peter Pears’ voice sounded sharp, that some notes just weren’t pretty enough — but what if this was exactly what Britten valued the most? Lyrical tenors are no heroes – this is even more true for Britten’s operas. It is mostly about weaknesses, failures, and hurt there — what correlates with this is the treatment of the horn in the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; most striking, this becomes in the Prologue and Epilogue, both played by the horn, solo.  I am not a specialist on horns, but in my humble estimate, Stefan Dohr did an outstanding job throughout that night.

Edit 27. June 2015: Stefan Dohr is in fact the principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. My apologies for failing to make the connection or even bothering to google. You can follow the adventures of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Horns on their facebook page: [Hornisten der Berliner Philharmoniker]

Britten (whom I refer to as the God of orchestration in my own universe) knew the instrument very well. In the solo pieces specifically, he exposes its character — and this includes its weaknesses. He specifically calls for some natural tones in the partitura, which in turn almost enforces some impure intonation, or rather, an intonation not aligning with the tempered scale we are used to. I find this deeply philosophical. Britten could have chosen to bend the instrument, to make it pure and shiny, and perfectly in tune, but in contrast, he exposes it; solo, nude and bare, beautiful in its own right, even if this doesn’t happen to align with anyone else’s standards. I guess that’s not only how he felt about horns, but also about people. How I love Britten.

And this is only the solo pieces! It’s actually weird how the perception of time varies dependent on what we experience; the Serenade op. 31 was clearly over too quickly in my perception. Actually, the perspective to listen to the “Dirge” in a church, plus, sung by Bostridge, was my main motivation for even attending to the concert in the first place.

Just a few words to this “Dirge”: The words are from a traditional called the Lyke-Wake Dirge. This is one clip where the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch sings part of it; the excerpt is taken from the audiobook of “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman. Personally, I wonder how many people got it that there was a ‘never’ missing in the line “the fires shall make thee shrink,” compared to the original. I’m sure that Cumberbatch knew, however.

I was a little underwhelmed by the ensemble, I have to say, or rather by their collaboration with Bostridge. In the solo pieces, they were fantastic, but a few times in the Serenade Op. 31, I had the impression it was mostly held together by good will and Bostridge’s ability to adapt very quickly. Anyhow, it was daring to even do this piece with ensemble and singer “only,” without a “proper” conductor.

Bostridge gave one encore, #6, “Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,” if I don’t recall it wrongly by now.

Personal and uncalled-for anecdotal remarks

I looked forward to once go to a concert where I knew no one, and no one knew me; it turned out it took exactly two minutes in Ansbach before I met some friends of our family. The world is small. It was a pleasant surprise though 😉

Murphy’s law of concerts: If a cellphone has to ring, it is bound to do so at a pianissimo part; in this case, “Süßer Friede, stille Ruh.”

Some of the audience seemed to have ants in their pants, especially towards the end, what I found quite annoying. Back in row 31 where I was sitting, even a little noise is very distracting. Fortunately, the latest wave of summer flu seemed to have worn off, so in total it was not too bad.

The visitors of the Bachwoche are open-minded traditionalist, and a lot of them are Baroque nerds. I had enjoyable discussions beforehand about different tunings, musical instruments and lots of other things with the two guys that happened to sit next to me, or rather whose chairs were propped up against the sandstone pillar.

It had been a while since I was at the Bachwoche last, and what shocked me nevertheless is that I was the second youngest person at this concert, at my rough estimate — and I’m almost 40! Don’t get me wrong, I completely approve of older people going to concerts, they are not worse fans to have than young people, by no means. Still, the total absence this time of young fans I found striking. It also made me sad a little — the idea that very few of those people apparently were able to pass on their love for Classical music to the next generation. I think it’s a shame.

After the concert, I hurried to get to the adjacent building where the artists were having their wardrobe. It turned out that Bostridge was gone already in superhuman speed — personally, I suspect he might just have spread his wings and flew away.

In retrospect, I have to say I don’t grudge it; I would have only told him too many things, as how I adored his Three Baroque Tenors album, and that his rendition of the Erlkönig manages to seriously creep me out — I would have meant this as a compliment, but am unsure if he would have picked it up that way.

My mum and I walked back to our car, and managed to catch the radio transmission, broadcast with time delay, so we were able to listen again to the last one and a half-pieces — a lovely end for the evening.

For those who don’t know the piece, and all the others, in fact, here’s Bostridge singing #5, “Dirge”, from the Serenade op. 31, the horn player is Timothy Brown.

For reference, this is Peter Pears singing the same piece; the horn player is Barry Tuckwell. Benjamin Britten is conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

Benjamin Britten, Serenade for horn, tenor and strings Op. 31
#5 Dirge

1. This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire, and sleet, and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thye saule.

2. When thou from hence away art paste,
Every nighte and alle,
To Whinny-muir thou comest at laste;
And Christe receive thye saule.

3. If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,
Every nighte and alle,
Sit thee down and put them on;
And Christe receive thye saule.

4. If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gavest nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The whinnes sall pricke thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thye saule.

5. From Whinny-muir when thou mayst passe,
Every nighte and alle,
To Brigg o’ Dread thou comest at laste,
And Christe receive thye saule.

6. From Brigg o’ Dread when thou mayst passe,
Every nighte and alle,
To Purgatory fire thou comest at last,
And Christe receive thye saule.

7. If ever thou gavest meat or drink,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire sall never make thee shrinke;
And Christe receive thye saule.

8. If meate or drinke thou never gavest nane,
Every nighte and alle,
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thye saule.

9. This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle,
Fire, and sleet, and candle-lighte,
And Christe receive thye saule.

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