Pianist Igor Levit, in the third and final day of his Musikverein concert series, joined forces with tenor Simon Bode to sing songs about winter on a sweltering afternoon in May. Pairing Britten’s Winter Words with Schubert’s Winterreise, the pair demonstrated that they are both wonderful talents, though they would have profited from a more judiciously chosen program on the stage of the Großer Saal. 

Simon Bode
© Karsten Schmidt Hern

Levit is an astonishingly beautiful pianist who brought out intense colors throughout. He consistently took wonderful risks dynamically, and has a technical facility that is breathtaking. Bode has a beautiful instrument, resonant and flexible which lifts and navigates effortlessly in his middle and higher registers. He must sound breathtaking singing oratorio, and Winter Words, eight settings of poignant Thomas Hardy texts, suits him quite well. In particular his shaping of meandering lines in The Journeying Boy were excellent, while staying full and richly colored. Bode found some eerie sounds as well — the third verse of Before Life and After was haunting. Levit’s Britten was dynamically sensitive, and his fingers are incredibly nimble, painting gorgeous flourishes in At Day-Close in November, following the fluttering bird in Wagtail and Baby and outlining the wings of seraphim in The Choirmaster’s Burial

Singing Winterreise in Vienna at the Musikverein is, however, a taller order. Schubert’s masterpiece is broadly considered the Everest of song cycles; hardly a year passes without it appearing on the program and singers – and pianists – dedicate years to perfecting their unique interpretations. Anton Dermota, Peter Schreier, Robert Holl, Hans Hotter, Christa Ludwig, Walter Berry and Hermann Prey all made it hallmarks of their repertoire and the ghosts of their interpretations loom large. That is not to say that other singers should not take it on, just that it should not be done lightly. It is chamber music of the highest order, and the trend of solo pianists joining a singer to tackle it with a few rehearsals generally results in interesting interpretations, but not necessarily the most successful ones. Heckling about diction or intonation is cheap, but there were issues periodically which cannot all be attributed to the hall, and also moments where the duo had difficulty aligning on tempo. 

Igor Levit
© Felix Broede

More seriously, Levit plays everything with such incredible ease that it threatens to sound facile, which is unfortunate in Winter Words when the boy with the violin plays too virtuosically, but devastating in Winterreise when the Leiermann seems to have conservatory technique and nicely warmed digits. Bode seemed so concerned with getting through long phrases in a single breath that songs centering the wanderer’s struggle felt either triumphant or just tossed off. I would have preferred more of a struggle and a few more breaths taken along the way. Without knowing that this cycle is a haunting, melancholic, heartbroken trudge finished as the composer was dying of syphilis, one might assume that it was about a shopping trip. 

It is a shame to not be able to unabashedly rave about these two artists, who are both so brilliantly gifted. One can only hope that the agents and organizers who suggested this program think twice next time. There are hundreds and thousands of songs to sing and play which this pair would have done stunningly; but Winterreise is another type of artistic commitment and requires a different standard.