Die schöne Müllerin, D 785
Simon Bode (tenor)
Igor Levit (piano)
Die schöne Müllerin, Schubert’s first song-cycle, is two centuries old this year. As Frankie Perry points out in her illuminating programme note to this Wigmore Hall recital, it has ‘inevitably been heard and understood differently’ over that period; it was first performed in public in its entirety as late as 1856. Now, of course, it stands as a pillar of the song repertoire, if sometimes suffering a little by comparison with the later Winterreise. It need not, should not; it is a different work with different challenges and rewards. One might expect Igor Levit, whose re-examinations of, say, Beethoven piano sonatas, always founded in the text yet always offering something fresh, to have something interesting, powerful, and in some sense new to say about these songs. That he did, in just that vein. Likewise his established Lied-partner, tenor Simon Bode. Again, there was no sign of novelty for its own sake, but of considered, intelligent, highly dramatic performances that took wing in the heat and light of the moment.
Youthful impetuosity marked the piano introduction to the opening ‘Das Wandern’, a call to journey, Levit’s articulation startling whilst sounding right. Bode followed suit, likewise startling with such vivid communication of the words, a hallmark of his performance throughout. A surprising hush to the final stanza’s beginning, broadening to climax, was but one instance of illuminating detail that helped unlock the puzzle of what is perhaps the cycle’s principal challenge: how does one honour the strophic nature of its songs, as opposed either to attempted concealment or, perish the thought, veering into monotony? ‘Wohin?’ naturally went deeper, more obviously metaphysical in conception; yet, as with the rest of the cycle, nothing was laboured. This was not straining (and failing) to be Winterreise. Here, again, repetitions were never mere repetitions; the nixies beneath the brook’s surface will never quite sing the same way twice.
Levit’s piano-playing, in its way as developmental as if this were a sonata, yet certainly not ‘abstract’, propelled music, verse, and yes, drama. Music seemed to give rise to words, as much as vice versa. In ‘Am Feierabend’, for instance, this might almost have been Schubert transcribed by Liszt: not that it did not sound like Schubert, nor that it was unduly romanticised; but rather, the introduction was so communicative that one felt little need for the voice. Until, that is, it entered, and one felt every need for it. In that song’s second stanza, Bode varied his tone with such quicksilver intelligence—colour, vibrato, and much else—that song and story sounded as if invented before our ears.
There were certainly character and line to the whole. When we reached the central (so it seemed) ‘Pause’, brought to our consciousness with a deep sadness that again was never laboured, lightened by keen chiaroscuro in piano and voice, one felt all had led here—and it had. By the same token, all that had led there could never be determined in advance; there was no one size to fit all, just as every imploring ‘Dein its mein Herz’ in the butterflies of ‘Ungeduld’, whilst ever familiar, was never identical. That said, the closing line of the following ‘Morgengruss’, putting into words the care and sorrow that already are love’s hallmark, made its point: all had changed.
For the sublimated, post-Mozartian pain one felt in the lines, vocal and instrumental, and harmonic progressions of ‘Tränenregen’ became very much our world: our journey, not simply a journey observed. When it went further, toward expressionist effect, if not expressionist means, in ‘Der Jäger’ and ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’, this had been prepared, fatally, though without stepping onto an inappropriate, proto-Winterreise stage. Was that, in the latter song, perhaps a hint of Sprechgesang? Perhaps, yet if so, just a hint; Schubert’s lyricism remained its guiding force. Anger spent, the desolation of ‘Die liebe Farbe’ was similarly consequent, the frightening eloquence of the piano’s left hand a dramatic masterclass in itself, only for fury to return at the close of the cleverly responding song in (metaphorical) mirror image, ‘Die böse Farbe’, green’s colour and all it signified transformed from love into hate.
No wonder Bode’s wan tone and ultimately triumphant yet embittered irony in ‘Trockne Blumen’ so shocked; no wonder the final two songs so haunted, the resolution or completion of the brook’s lullaby hypnotically horrifying simply, or so it seemed, by being itself. Levit seemed already to be in the world of the late piano music, yet continued to play with all the delicacy of Mozart. Bode continued to resist any temptation to drag us into a world beyond Schubert, the lyricism of ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’ all the more haunting for it. Both musicians proved outstanding guides not only to the journey, but to its landscape, physical and metaphysical. Heartbreaking.