Every now and then a performer comes along whose talent and material are in such superb alignment that you know you'll remember him or her forever. Such was the case with Ian Bostridge (left), the British tenor who visited Jordan Hall last weekend with Celebrity Series. Mr. Bostridge offered a program entirely of Schubert art-song, or lieder, which is his specialty. And it was immediately apparent why.
For Bostridge has a voice perhaps as distinctive in its way as Pavarotti's - although it couldn't be more opposed to the profile of that sunny, lusty tenor. Bostridge instead produces a sound that's haunting in its pureness, yet arresting in its handsome timbre. And it's almost all "head" voice - he seems to have little or no break (or at least negotiates that break superbly) - so his sound seems to emanate from the very air around him. This effect combined with his stage presence - a willowy frame, a restless mood, and pale good looks with a romantic droop - makes him all but ideal for the soul-in-torment aspect of Schubert's lieder.
Of course that's not all there is to Schubert; he's not merely some musical Kierkegaard. And Bostridge stumbled slightly whenever the lieder turned hearty, or even happy: the ironic cheer of The Trout fell flat, while the ribaldry of Fisherman's Song rated only a wan smile. But the eerie fire of Atys flickered beautifully, and the mournfulness of lost love that suffuses Deep sorrow and The lovely star fell on the ear with an aching beauty; Bostridge also proved capable of a transporting tenderness in such rapturous turns as I greet you and Dame's violets. What makes him unique, however, is the intellectual power he brings to the existential questions at the heart of such songs as In spring and In the forest; conveying this essence is not so much a question of phrasing as simple understanding. Needless to say, Bostridge, who was once a post-doctoral fellow in history at Oxford, beautifully evoked the doomed romance of this restless philosophical search. Perhaps his talents were at their most devastating, however, when he touched on that famous sickness unto death directly, as in the despairing Gravedigger's homesickness.
Throughout, he was subtly supported by pianist Julius Drake - although despite some twenty years of playing together, they never seemed to actually mesh as a team, as some duos do. Instead they felt like two lonely, orbiting binary stars, perhaps because Bostridge's physical affect seems so disengaged (or perhaps merely internally focused). This distance led to some suspense over the encores, which Bostridge seemed to decide on at the very last moment, through some secret communication with Drake. Nevertheless, he graced us with four.