A Fine Lieder Recital from Simon Bode and Igor Levit

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Beethoven, and Rihm: Simon Bode (tenor), Igor Levit (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 8.2.2015 (MB)

SchubertAbendlied für die Entfernte, D 856
BeethovenAn die ferne Geliebte, op.98
RihmDas Rot: Sechs Gedichte der Karoline von Günderrode
Schubert – Daß sie hier gewesen, D 775
BeethovenAdelaide, op.46
Wonne der Wehmut, op.83 no.1
Neue Liebe, neues Leben, op.75 no.2


This was an impressive recital from Simon Bode and Igor Levit. Levit’s participation had initially promoted my attendance, but I left equally pleased to have made the acquaintance of this fine German tenor. I cannot say that I find Schubert’s Abendlied für die Entfernte an example of the composer at his most compelling, but it made for a pleasant enough curtain-raiser, its progress nicely undulating – if, that is, hills or other things that undulate can raise curtains. Bode’s head-voice was put to good use in the hopes for blessed peace (sel’ge Ruh) at the end of the second stanza, and Levit made the most of the turn to the minor mode in the third.

Beethoven’s Lieder remain strangely neglected: more, I suspect, a matter of outdated, tedious preconceptions about him supposedly not being a ‘vocal composer’ than anything else. (The amount of nonsense one still hears concerning even Fidelio never ceases to surprise.) An die ferne Geliebte is of course celebrated as ‘the first major song cycle’, but we tend to hear it spoken of more than performed. Bode seemed really to speak to us, his diction beyond reproach. Levit’s voicing showed what a difference it makes to have a first-class pianist in this music. Both musicians offered different ‘voices’, as it were, for different stanzas in the opening song, ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz ich’. Bode’s brief withdrawal of vibrato in its successor, ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ offered a vision of a very different world, motivated by the text and vindicated in performance. Birds sang under Levit’s fingers in ‘Diese Wolken in den Höhen’, but, echoing the Pastoral Symphony and other Beethovenian evocations of Nature, this was not a vision confined to the merely pictorial. Levit’s transition to the fifth song proved a thing of musical wonder in itself, testament to the command of form one would expect from his solo Beethoven performances. My sole reservation concerned whether Bode shouted a little at the close of the cycle, but at any rate, there was very much a sense of cyclic completion. (Beethoven, of course, helps in that respect!) Later we heard an immediately recognisable ‘earlier Beethoven’ in a performance of Adelaide: echoes of Mozart and Haydn, yet unmistakeably his own man, indeed even with presentiments towards the close of Fidelio. The performance of Neue Liebe, neues Leben proved an object lesson for a fast tempo that was yet flexible and in which the words were never garbled.

 Rihm’s cycle, Das Rot: Sechs Gedichte der Karoline von Günderrode was quite a revelation, offering an unanswerable refutation of those silly claims one sometimes hears that Strauss (or X) was the last composer of Lieder. The music sounds both of a tradition and yet new: Hans Sachs would surely have nodded approval. For, if the language is in general post-Schoenbergian – it could hardly be pre-! – then there are undoubtedly pullings, sometimes even tonal pullings, towards what came before. The musicians, perhaps Levit especially, made sense of Rihm’s clearly musical forms. His melodic inspiration also came clearly to the fore, Bode seeming equally at home with Rihm’s style. The opening ‘Hochrot’ offers a lengthy, somewhat Henze-like introduction. Nothing prepared us for the shock of a violent piano chord just before the word ‘Tod’, yet it did not seem arbitrary, making ultimate sense in verbal and musical context. ‘Des Knaben Abendgruß’ was just as dramatic, perhaps still more so, Levit’s piano part – and his despatch of it – virtuosic yet highly variegated. The pinpoint precision and sheer physical impact of the piano part in the closing ‘Liebst du das Dunkel’ left one in no doubt as to the calibre of Levit’s technique and musicianship. One really experienced, through the contributions of both musicians, the blood-rush and the pounding of the heart spoken of in the final two lines to the cycle. An inspired decision to pause, holding off applause, and yet to pursue the programme’s course into Schubert’s Daß sie hier gewesen led us initially in a strange yet welcoming no-man’s-land between Rihm and Schubert. Wagner seemed to intervene, not least through the extraordinary Tristan-esque harmonies with which Schubert tantalises in that song.

Mark Berry

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