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Music review, Ian Bostridge at CSO's Britten Festival at Symphony Center

Surely it was no accident that Ian Bostridge wrote his Oxford dissertation on witchcraft. The young English tenor is possessed by song, and so, through his bewitching vocalism, are we. His Symphony Center recital debut Tuesday evening, devoted to song cycles by Schubert and Britten, made a deeply rewarding experience in itself as well as a splendid conclusion to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Britten Festival.

Bostridge has the true lieder singer's gift of disappearing into whatever he is singing. The previous week here, he had given eloquent voice to the bitter battlefield verses of Wilfred Owen as set by Britten in his "War Requiem." On Tuesday, he took the audience on a journey of the soul involving two very different yet complementary sets of songs about winter—Schubert's "Winterreise" and Britten's "Winter Words."

Tall, lanky and gaunt, he looks the part of Schubert's protagonist, a young man who, disillusioned and despairing after being rejected by his lover, wanders through a frozen interior landscape that leads to death.

Bostridge sang the first dozen of the 24 songs that make up Schubert's masterful settings of poems by Wilhelm Mueller. He and Julius Drake, his acute and supportive pianist, found a logical pairing for them in Britten's inspired, if seldom performed song cycle. "Winter Words" represents the British composer's homage to "Winterreise," which was a musical touchstone for Britten and his favored collaborator, tenor Peter Pears.

Bostridge's performances reflected a profound understanding of the music and text and how they combine to create dramatic and emotional truth. His tenor is sweet and smooth-grained, beautifully focused and even in quality throughout its range, with crystalline diction that allowed him to project to the farthest reaches of the hall.

He threw himself into the "Winterreise" songs as if Orchestra Hall were a theater and he an actor reciting vocal rather than spoken lines. Often the singer leaned toward his rapt listeners as if his aching regret, bitter self-reproach, weariness and anger were too much to be borne alone.

Bostridge fortunately is too tasteful and intelligent an artist ever to lapse into self-conscious melodrama.

It will be difficult to forget the tender epiphany the tenor and pianist made of the final, major-key verse of the opening Schubert song, "Gute Nacht." Bostridge emphasized the dark vowel sounds of "Gefrorne Traenen" and phrased the final verse of "Fruehlingstraum" with a fine-drawn legato, as if desperately clinging to the dream of a love now lost forever.

The Britten cycle came across as the final chapter of this melancholy winter's tale. The 1953 cycle of settings of eight Thomas Hardy poems is Britten at his zenith, so its neglect is puzzling.

Bostridge himself is such a skilled painter of words that he made the songs entirely his own, as Pears did for his generation. Drake's shaping of the colorful piano parts could not have been finer.

The artists rewarded the smallish but attentive audience with a generous encore, Britten's Canticle No. 1, a miniature cantata about spiritual love, followed by two more German lieder, including a charming Schubert "Heidenroeslein."

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