Ahead of his concert with the LSO and Sir Colin Davis on Thursday 4 October, we spoke to Ian Bostridge about Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, his memories of performing with the LSO and his career, which has taken him from academic to celebrated tenor.
Can you remember the first time you sang in front of an audience?
I remember singing the solo part in Vaughan Williams’ O Taste and See at my church in Streatham, St Leonard’s, in about 1970, aged seven or so, going wrong and bursting into tears.
What was it that prompted you to take up singing professionally, after working in television and as an academic?
Realising – after an exciting summer performing Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with Baz Luhrmann and the Australian Opera – that I could manage opera.
You’ll be performing Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs with Dorothea Röschmann and the LSO in October. Do you have a favourite of the cycle?
I find it difficult to choose, but I perform Revelge and Wo die schönen Trompeten the most (often in the piano version) and find them an utterly compelling pair about the hell of war.
Why do you think Mahler found the folk poems that the songs are based on so inspiring?
I think the answer is a complicated one, something to do with the nature of late Romanticism. The great composers of the earlier period didn’t set folk song, though, they set folk-like poems by poets like Goethe in a folkish vein – Schubert’s Heidenröslein is probably the best example. By setting actual folk poems, Mahler wanted to recapture a sort of innocence, I suppose, which is in extreme counterpoint with the sophistication and, sometimes, excess of the musical means he brings to bear.
Mahler originally scored the songs for a solo singer and piano accompaniment. What difference does it make to sing them with an orchestra and as duets?
Singing the songs in duet is one of those performing traditions that is, strictly speaking, inauthentic, but has been going so long as a tradition that it licenses itself (like performing Mozart’s version of Handel’s Messiah, or Schubert Lieder on a modern piano). What’s more, I think it works! With the orchestra as opposed to the piano I think you have to work harder together with the conductor and the orchestra to achieve an intimacy of expression and to escape the wonder we all feel at the inventiveness and brilliance of Mahler’s orchestration. With great musicians like Sir Colin and the LSO that’s not so hard.
Do you have a favourite memory of the times you’ve worked with Sir Colin Davis before?
I remember, of course, the first time, singing Hylas in an amazing concert of Berlioz’s Les Troyens; The Turn of the Screw at the Barbican for the Royal Opera, and the sheer easy virtuosity with which he led us into the garden scene; and the Les Nuits d’eté with the New York Philharmonic, the sheer excitement of doing that piece with such a master of Berlioz’s musical language.
What did you enjoy the most about your last concert with the LSO, Britten’s War Requiem?
The energy and urgency which conductor Gianandrea Noseda transmitted to us all.
You’re giving a masterclass with some students from the Guildhall School. What has been the most important lesson you’ve learnt during your career, and what would you like to pass on to students today?
To find your own sound and your own way of performing and stick to it. In the end, you don’t need to be like anyone else if you do what you do with conviction.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not performing?
Being with my family and old friends.
Ian Bostridge will be performing Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs with the LSO and Sir Colin Davis on Thursday 4 October and leading a Centre for Orchestra Masterclass for musicians from the Guildhall School on Monday 8 October.