A small but highly appreciative audience attended the Wednesday, October 16 recital by tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist-composer Brad Mehldau at Stanford’s Bing Hall. The program rubric, “The Folly of Desire,” featured music by two composers, Mehldau and Robert Schumann. For the eleven songs by Mehldau, the self-immolating and often debased aspects of desire became subject matter for a series of jazzy treatments, more rhythmic and harmonic than conspicuously melodic. The poems Mehldau selects, from his “post MeToo” sensibility, derive from such diverse talents as Auden, Cummings, Shakespeare, Yeats, Blake, Brecht, and Goethe. Their content affirms, denies, mocks, and even salaciously depicts the more carnal implications of love – or rather, lust – in its attempt to achieve the spiritual resolution it might offer as agape. For Robert Schumann, whose music commanded the second half of the concert, his four independent songs and the 1840 cycle Dichterliebe, Op. 48, seek to reconcile love with Nature’s ineluctable tendency to make ephemeral our most exalted moments.
The concert proper seemed to thrive on a sense of both physical and emotional imbalance, the open piano often overwhelming Bostridge’s enunciation, which itself tended to slur the words, particularly in German. Jazz pianist Mehldau likes to interpose solo riffs as emotional addenda to his songs, if not to serve as epilogues. Schumann likes the piano to comment, having learned from Schubert the art of the keyboard as more than a mere accompaniment, but a psychological dramatist who may affirm or deny the nature of the verbal sentiments; in the case of Dichterliebe, the words of the often satirical or cynical Heinrich Heine. The very first song, for instance, Im wunderschoenen Monat Mai, set in B Minor with gravitas towards F# Minor, ends with a C# minor seventh that deliberately leaves us suspended between nature’s apparent beauty and the disappointments of human relations. So, too, composer Mehldau presents a cycle of poems, many of which become scathing in their sexuality (Cummings, Brecht) or decidedly pessimistic of any hope in love (Shakespeare, Blake, Auden). In Brecht’s case, the very violence of the blatant, homo-erotic encounter invited comparisons with illustrator George Grosz’s 1923 Ecce Homo, a collection of drawings literally wallowing in Weimar Germany’s decadence.
Perhaps more “literary” than musical, the concert proper began to suffer a kind of emotional monotone, despite jazz riffs in part one and Schumann’s innate Romanticism in part two. Schumann imbeds his music –- sixteen songs set as groups of four — with various anagrams, suggestions of both the word “Dichterliebe” and references to his beloved Clara Wieck, with the C-A-A filled in with the notes B and G-sharp. The most famous song, Ich grolle nicht, I harbor no rancor, almost grovels in low C and exploits a series of seventh chords to expose the true disillusionments of love. The harshness of the musical atmosphere captures the various degrees of self-deception the narrator places on his own awareness of how final romantic rejection can be.
Bostridge and Mehldau offered three encores, songs in English, by Cole Porter and Jack Strachey. The Porter songs, “Night and Day,” and “Every Time We say Goodbye,” struck up tender sentiments, as did Strachey’s “These Foolish Things.” Whether we thought of Fred Astaire or Ella Fitzgerald, the mood became affectionate and grateful to Love: for while it may hurt, disappoint, or destroy, it justifies existence, and we can celebrate with the Bard and happily admit, “What fools these mortals be!”