Music: Ian Bostridge saved me from the Messiah my Christmas

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Messiah'd-out and Ruttered senseless, most musicians lay low after Christmas leaving nothing for an honest critic to get his teeth into except Raymond Gubbay's easy-listening jollies at the Barbican and schmaltzy New Year's Johann Strauss everywhere else. But thinking I'd spare you those seasonal phenomena, I decided to stay home and watch some music on TV - a thing I rarely do because it usually amounts to just that: watching music as opposed to listening, and coping with the desperate measures TV men adopt to make a musical performance visually alive. Unseemly close- ups of the 1st horn's bitten fingernails and interdental probings of the back-row chorus I can live without. And the overlay of extraneous images in the attempt to dramatise the score doesn't do much for me either.

But last Sunday brought an unignorable example of dramatised music from Channel 4, in an 11th-hour celebration of the fact that 1997 was the bicentenary of Schubert. Most arts organisations got Schubert off their chest last January, when the anniversary actually fell. But better late than never, Channel 4 produced a mini-fest of commemorative programmes; and the centrepiece was a staging of that greatest of all song-cycles Winterreise - the Winter Journey - sung by British tenor-of-the-moment Ian Bostridge, accompanied by Julius Drake, and directed by the man we mostly loved to hate (until the dazzling WNO Poppea I reviewed the other week), David Alden.

Does Winterreise need staging? Does the Queen need class? Schubert is manifestly self-sufficient, and anyone who sings him must of course live the life of each song as it stands, without recourse to props or costumes. Television doesn't change that; and if you've seen those famous Sixties TV films of Britten and Pears in recital you'll know how great artists can present themselves to camera in nothing more than buttoned cardigans and flower-print ties and make complete, compelling theatre.

But Alden presumably knows that. And the major virtue of his Winterreise staging was that it made no attempt to burden the score with too much embellishment and turn it into romantic cinema. We were spared tourist- brochure scenes of the young poet (Wilhelm Muller) trudging through wintry landscapes, crossing frozen brooks and staring ruefully at Linden trees. This was a journey of the mind: a psychodrama. And while some of it took place against a pure-white background emblematic of Herr Muller's feeling for snow, it began in a set designed to look like an abandoned mental hospital: the characteristically Aldenesque workspace of an empty room with a suspended, shadeless light-flex, solitary chair, and Ian Bostridge squatting in a corner in a Paul Smith overcoat. The pianist didn't show until some way into the cycle (though naturally you heard him). And in the circumstances there wasn't much for the singer to do except sing to camera with the odd break during which he would clasp the walls, clasp his knees, idle with a knife or (less poetically) kick over the chair.

But if the repertoire of gestures was limited (and predictable), Bostridge at least knew how to make his audience take it seriously. As a lieder- singer of supreme refinement - easily the most accomplished of the younger generation in this country - he bears close-on scrutiny with relish. Every nuance tells. And though I found myself thinking: this man doesn't have to clasp walls and kick chairs to fulfil the potential of these songs, I wasn't worried by the spectacle. It had conviction and, in consequence, a kind of truth.

But I was worried by Alden's refusal to take the narrative of Winterreise for what it clearly is: a journey, A to B, where A is unrequited love and B is ultimate despair. Whether it's a despair that ends in death or something worse - an endless, unredeemed life of self-torture - is debatable. But the sequence of songs certainly carries the singer to a fixed point somewhere other than he started. And the route is a decisive progress into ever-deepening loneliness, with nobody for company until the final song introduces the mysterious (and metaphorical) organ-grinder.

Alden, by contrast, takes a literal view of the songs as a cycle, and has his singer return to the empty room like someone who has passed through mental trials of fire and ice and maybe is the wiser for it - although I'm not sure what wisdom there could be for the poet of Winterreise to collect. He also filters in a cast of other characters: an intermittent audience who make up a sort of spectral Schubertiade, anchoring the songs in their original performing context but not exactly endorsing the idea of einsamkeit that Schubert labours to deliver.

Not only seen on TV, Ian Bostridge was conspicuous in the flesh on London's concert platforms during the choral run-up to Christmas - especially at St John's, Smith Square, where I heard him as an ardent if slightly thin- toned tenor soloist in Britten's St Nicholas. It came in a programme of 20th-century seasonal music - Warlock, Bridge, and the inevitable Rutter - from the supremely well-drilled, semi-pro Holst Singers and their conductor Stephen Layton, who strikes me as one of the most forcefully effective choral directors around. In the week before Christmas he was also one of the most visible, in residence at St John's night after night with a quick turnover of Messiahs and Christmas Oratorios that would have been a musical McDonald's but for the fact Layton uses finer ingredients.

Meanwhile, at Christ Church Spitalfields, another choral festival was running - and to overflowing houses which guarantee the future of this new winter appendage to Spitalfields' established summer programmes. With Judith Weir as its artistic director, the Christ Church Christmas Season favours a different sort of ensemble to those at Smith Square; and this year the roster included two past winners of the Sainsbury's Choir of the Year competition, the London Adventist Chorale and Joyful Company of Singers, plus the outstanding choir of Clare College, Cambridge which has begun to emerge as a serious, mixed-voice contender to the all-male dominance of Kings and Johns in the collegiate singing hierarchy. Directed by Timothy Brown, it offered some of the most perfect plainsong I've heard in ages, sensitively phrased but with immaculate ensemble. And its sequence of carol settings from Maxwell Davies' meditational O Magnum Mysterium was all you could ask: beautifully balanced, tightly disciplined, but alive to the text and fresh to the ear.

I wish I could say the same for the only crumb of opera to be had in London this week: a production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel by the small-scale Palace Opera Company at the QEH. With over-stretched voices and under-nourished orchestral sound (the score filleted to the bone) it wasn't quite the sumptuously upholstered fantasy of one's dreams. The organisers should have allocated more budget to the music and less to the lamentable troupe of dancers who were hardly necessary and (I hope) have day jobs. But the Scandinavian- looking painted flats of Christiane Kubrick's set design were charming. And on balance it was fun: ideal for children, to the extent that you can really call this exquisite love-letter to Wagner a children's piece.

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