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Ian Bostridge has always been something of an acquired taste. His ‘English’ sound, peculiar platform manner and limited operatic roles have entranced and exasperated in equal measure. Yet his perspicacious delivery of text has always compensated for any vocal caprices. It’s no surprise, then, that he flourishes equally when writing his own words. A Singer’s Notebook is a stimulating compendium of Bostridge’s speeches, columns, reviews and essays, written alongside his dazzling career.

Historical context and social background provide a thematic core to the collection. And having always wanted to write a diary (and regularly failing to do so), the two impulses unite in Bostridge’s column for Standpoint; it’s the best of the volume. His historical skills find voice in opinion pieces and musicological ponderings, rubbing against candid and often self-critical reflections on his profession.

These thoughts occasionally verge into the ‘trendy’ corners of modern performance. Having witnessed Bostridge’s bizarre turn in Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, it is no surprise that his writing about ‘Mack the Knife’ – as well as on Noël Coward, Cole Porter and Bob Dylan – feels oddly queasy.

But when exploring his genuine niches – magic in music and the Austro-Germanic Lieder tradition – Bostridge flies, writing with stylistic felicity and cultural savvy. His Schubert chapters are particularly adept. If he is too critical of others’ approaches to this most subjective of composers, he remains aware of the wider ramifications. Citing Freud, Elfriede Jelinek and the repressive Viennese culture in which Schubert thrived and died, everything in his writing comes back to context. It’s a delight to join the sociological and musicological dots.

Some readers will long for a more satisfying overall structure to the book, while others may wish for greater tranches of self- analysis. But the majority will be hugely satisfied by the writing of one of the most balanced and cerebral artists of our time.

GAVIN PLUMLEY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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