The life-changing impact of Schubert's songs

Tenor Ian Bostridge takes us on his personal journey with Schubert's Liede

The life-changing impact of Schubert's songs

Schubert song changed my life. If I hadn’t heard a recording of Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore performing his Erlkönig in about 1979, I would never have become a singer. Schubert kept me interested in singing; he turned a shy academic child into a teenager and then an adult who wanted to perform on stage and ended up working in the theatre.

There’s something that might seem a little paradoxical about this. None of the greatest of the great Lieder composers (Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf) were successful opera composers. Schubert’s efforts were thwarted by Viennese cultural politics, which denied him the practical opportunities operatic composers need in order to develop. Alfonso und Estrella and Fierrabras are revived from time to time, but they have never been enthusiastically received into the repertoire, despite being full of wonderful tunes.



Schubert is a song composer of undoubted dramatic power. The form of the Lied can be deeply interior, which may be what draws shy teenagers towards it. However, once hooked, there is plenty of grand gesture to be found. My experience of singing Schubert has been a process of discovering the imaginative theatre which lies at the core of his song-world. Growing up as a singer is partly a process of realising that drama and theatricality do not necessarily pull in a different direction from the authenticity of expression which the Lied demands.

I’ve made more solo recordings of Schubert than anything else since Die schöne Müllerin with Graham Johnson in 1996, as part of his mammoth Schubert Lied edition for Hyperion. Two albums of songs with Julius Drake; a double album with Leif Ove Andsnes; and the three cycles with Mitsuko Uchida, Lief Ove Andsnes and Antonio Pappano. I’m now releasing the fourth of a series of four Schubert CDs for Wigmore Live, all of them with Julius Drake. It’s an ending in all sorts of ways.



These four concerts at the Wigmore were repeats of programmes I had compiled over the past twenty years, and performed all over the place with Julius. They were part of a process of learning how to build a programme; and one reason for re-recording new versions of songs was to show the songs in the setting of a programme. For me, a programme is a dramatic and emotional arc, mediated by words and music. Never a literal narrative, and with connections between the songs that are metaphorical and poetic on the one hand, and yet equally musico-dramatic. Not a matter of tight thematic connections or harmonic structures, but of juxtaposition, of alternations of melting transition and rude shock. The model, inevitably, is Schubert’s own Winterreise.

And so, in these four discs you have a record of a twenty-year journey with Schubert. As live recordings they have a certain rawness, very different from the perfectionism which one tries to realise in the studio. My producer for EMI, John Fraser, always talked about stringing pearls together in the studio. These recordings are more like audio snapshots of how it felt on one night, with one particular audience and with all the business of the drama of the Lied present (through the sound) but at the same time absent (these are only sound recordings). I remain convinced that it’s a worthwhile exercise. You might think that a film would be a better record of an acted performance; but strangely, for me at least, the filmed Lieder recital loses an atmosphere which a recording can, mysteriously retain.

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake’s final instalment of ‘Songs of Schubert’ is now available on Wigmore Hall Live. 

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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