It was just shy of midnight when we slunk out into the rain of Old Street, the second instalment of Homeward Bound, the Barbican festival devised by Ian Bostridge, having come to a delicious conclusion. The festival began grandly before Christmas with a concert performance of Billy Budd, but this two-parter event focused on the voice in more intimate settings – even if the two venues could hardly have been more inappropriate.
However, for the first part, devoted to Schubert lieder, efforts had been made to reduce the enormity of the Barbican's stage by lighting that focused tightly on the concert grand (with the illustrious Julius Drake), and two of Bostridge's celebrated colleagues – the soprano Dorothea Röschmann and baritone Thomas Quasthoff – and Bostridge himself.
It was a dream of a programme, intelligently devoted (almost exclusively) to the texts of Goethe set by Schubert. The miracle of these "salon songs" is their astonishing breadth and beauty. With no warm-up, as it were, Bostridge began with arguably Schubert's most harrowing songs, the three Harper's songs from Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Bostridge lived the anguished, tortured soul, his steely tone, his intensity of sound, his emphasis on the word "Pein" (pain), ratcheting up the misery of these early masterpieces.
The mood of misery prevailed for some time as Röschmann, with miraculous simplicity, bloom and beauty of line, sang Mignon lieder, including "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt" and "Kennst du das Land".
Of Quasthoff's first group, "Grenzen der Menscheit" brought out Quasthoff's deeply resonant bass notes in one of Schubert's strangest settings, while in "Erlkö nig", Quasthoff's sickly sweet entreaties of the Erlking, contrasted with the pleas and reassurances of son and father, brought shivers down the spine.
A deconsecrated church is not a natural choice for a late-night cabaret, but fake smoke, blue and green lighting, a chair or two, and a bottle of champagne in a silver bucket attempted to loosen the mood of St Luke's. With the astonishingly versatile Drake, Bostridge and Sophie Daneman crooned as if to the manner born in Noël Coward and Cole Porter. Bostridge plays the uptight gentleman to perfection. Only the Brecht/Weill selection could have smouldered more.