I bought my first Schumann CD as a mistake. I got him mixed up with Schubert.
When I realised how good it was I went deliberately to buy some more and mistakenly bought the fourth and ninth symphonies of the American composer William Schuman. This was pretty good too – I do really like American music – but of the two, the first was the more fortuitous error.
But even when I'd got all the names sorted out and knew exactly who I was getting, I still wasn't quite expecting this.
A 1998 recording of Schumann lieder by the tenor Ian Bostridge, it is as complete a descent into sustained mood as anything I have heard. It's like a meal of black forest gateau and dark red wine; it is sticky and rich and the attraction, at least in part, is that it doesn’t feel altogether healthy.
It sounds amazing. The songs are like beautiful howls in the darkness, with Julius Drake’s piano accompaniment providing the candlelight. It's all love lost and love unattained, and contemplations of mortality, in stifling, insanely self-absorbed Romantic fashion; thank God they’re all in German.
Some of the imagery is incredibly weird and evocative, as in Mein Wagen rollet langsam:
My carriage lumbers slowly
Through cheerful green woods,
Through flowery valleys that bloom
Magically in the sunshine.
I sit and ponder and dream
And think of my true love:
Three shadowy figures greet me,
Nodding their heads at the carriage.
They caper and grimace,
So mocking yet so timid,
Whirl together like mist
And whisk by, gibbering.
By the time the album itself has whisked by gibbering you’ll have only empathy for the composer, who signs off requesting a huge and heavy coffin big enough to sink his love and sorrow in, but the bleak Romanticism of the lyrics is to some degree offset by the delicacy of the settings and the precision of Bostridge’s performance.
Bostridge has an incredible, crystal-pure voice and such an air of wounded aestheticism that you wonder if he can even stand unaided. (He recorded an album of Noël Coward songs which, according to one reviewer, brought “affectation to unlistenably bizarre levels”.) The cover of this CD shows him sepia-toned and anguished; he looks something like the young Peter O’Toole, intense and pretty; it is the face of a young man who has already seen too much. But like O’Toole's you suspect that when it does age it will do so dramatically, and you can already see the contours of that older version encoded within the young, latent and biding its time. The sleeve notes tell us that he studied history and philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge but gave it up to sing, and the implication is that he had no choice in the matter. Listening to this album, you can readily believe it.
According to the Los Angeles Times he “sings as if from inside the music”. And sometimes he sings as if from inside the Bastille. But I've been scouting around for a new voice, ever since I realised that Morrissey basically does pop music like everyone else. Bostridge could be my man.