Classical Album of the Week: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano in Songs of Whitman and War

Jun 3, 2019

June 3, 2019. To commemmorate the 75th anniversary of the Allied Invasion of Normandy, known as D-day, which takes place on June 6th, WRTI presents our Classical Album of the Week, "Requiem: The Pity of War," the latest recording by English tenor Ian Bostridge, with Antonio Pappano at the piano.

Bostridge's experience of singing many performances of Benjamin Britten's great War Requiem compelled him to put together this compilation of songs by George Butterworth, Rudi Stephan, Gustav Mahler, and Kurt Weill (on poems of Walt Whitman.) These nineteen songs reflects the many  aspects of human lives incited to, and torn apart by war.  

It's fitting that an English tenor would open his album with music of George Butterworth, "one of the great hopes of English music," whose life was cut short at 31, when a sniper killed him at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Butterworth's settings of A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad display a pastoral yet subtly sophisticated modernist underpinning to lyrical melodies. Hearing these songs is a bitter reminder that the loss of a talent like Butterworth's is one of the great tragedies of war. The same can be said of the short, harmonically lush songs by Rudi Stephan, a German composer who was killed at age 28 by a Russian sharpshooter on the Galician front, also during World War I.

Bostridge anchors the album with the oldest of the compositions, three songs from Gustav Mahler's  Des Knaben Wunderhorn. As Bostridge writes, "The military sounds and rhythms which suffuse Mahler's symphonic work...are made explicit in these songs which tell of the nightmare horror as well as the poignancy and the pity of war."

For American listeners, perhaps the most striking of the songs are Kurt Weill's compelling, sometimes-jazz-infused settings of four magnificent poems by Walt Whitman. Whitman was writing about the American Civil War in his poems, "Beat! Beat! Drums!" "Oh Captain! My Captain!" "Come up from the Fields," and "A Dirge for Two Veterans."

Weill's treatment of Whitman's poems is by turns militaristic, lyrical, Romantic,  and theatrical. The piano helps to tell the story in "Come up from the Fields" -- in feathery, almost impressionistic accompaniment that changes from hopeful to somber, when a letter from a beloved son comes just before the news of his death.

Throughout, Ian Bostridge, who possesses one of the most beautiful lieder voices in the world today, is in complete command of the emotional and musical content of each song, with shading, phrasing, color, and tonal beauty that compels the ear from start to finish. Antonio Pappano, at the piano, provides masterful accompaniment.