Henze: Six Songs from the Arabian; Three Auden Songs

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WORKS: Six Songs from the Arabian; Three Auden Songs
PERFORMER: Ian Bostridge (tenor), Julius Drake (piano)
Henze wrote the texts for all bar one of the Songs from the Arabian himself, and he tells us that they’re all to do with a real-life couple named Selìm and Fatuma. But you’ll look in vain for the gritty realities of the Middle East in these songs. The content is straight out of A Thousand and One Nights, all flaming sunsets, erupting volcanoes and storms at sea, expressed in sub-Rimbaud purple. But what the poetry lacks is made up for in Henze’s masterly music. Imagine the savage irony and sudden ecstasies of Hugo Wolf refracted through Schoenberg’s dissonance and you’ll get an idea of their flavour. Bostridge summons up an amazing variety of tone and colour for these songs, from the black humour of ‘Praying Mantis’ (where Bostridge impersonates the female mantis dining on her mate) to the wailing falsetto ululations of ‘Fatuma’s lament’. The vocal part gets no support from the swirlingly dissonant piano, but Bostridge’s line never wavers, and he and Julius Drake are absolutely at one throughout. The Three Auden Songs are not on such a high level musically – which proves the old saw that great songs don’t necessarily spring from great poetry – but the performances are just as beautifully shaped. Ivan Hewett