Wednesday 8 June 2022

A romantic woodland walk with Igor Levit and Simon Bode at Wigmore Hall

Igor Levit, Simon Bode (Photo Felix Broede)
Igor Levit, Simon Bode (Photo Felix Broede)
Robert Schumann: Waldszenen & song, Bartok: Out of Doors, songs by Eisler, Schumann, Schubert, Wolf; Simon Bode, Igor Levit; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 7 June 2022 (★★★★)

Interleaving short character pieces and songs, Simon Bode and Igor Levit explored Schumann's woodland wanderings, followed by an astonishing sequence which moved between Bartok's rarely performed suite and a series of complementing songs in performances that really fizzed

Pianist Igor Levit and tenor Simon Bode's concert at Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 7 June 2022 took as its premise the interleaving of short piano pieces by Schumann and Bartok with similarly themed song. Both piano suites, Schumann's Waldszenen and Bartok's Out of Doors, are underperformed in the concert hall and here Levit and Bode asked us to look again. In the first half of the concert the movements from Schumann's Waldszenen were interleaved with songs by Schumann echoing the themes of the piano solos. In the second half, Bartok's piano solos were paired with songs by Eisler, Schumann, Schubert and Wolf.

We began with Schumann. The song selection concentrated on songs from 1840, from Opus 51 and Opus 77, and 1850, from Opus 89 and Opus 96, and with Waldszenen, Opus 82 dating from 1848-49 we thus had a recital that veered towards late-Schumann. There was just one early song, Der Weinende (1827).

I have to admit that few of the songs were familiar to me and that I had never heard a complete performance of Waldszenen, In the piano pieces, Schumann seems almost to be reaching back to his earlier piano writing though Gavin Plumley's programme note also suggests that Schumann might have been influenced by Mendelssohn's songs without words as that composer's death was quite recent when Schumann started writing Waldszenen in 1848.

Levit approached the pieces as individual character sketches, each with its own strong character from the delicate controlled intimacy of 'Eintritt' to the dark, vivid drama of 'Jäger auf der Lauer'. In a piece like 'Freundliche Landschaft', though light and characterful there was a sense that every finger-stroke mattered, and throughout there was Levit's familiar intensity of concentration, shaping the music in a particular and expressive way. 'Vogel als Prophet', perhaps one of the work's best known pieces, was suitably mysterious and exotic, whilst the final piece 'Abschied' combined lyricism with poised complexity.

In the songs, Levit's approach continued so that often the accompaniments, which are usually significant in Schumann, approached the level of piano solos and the postludes were always particularly expressive. Tenor Simon Bode seemed to come to the songs from a different direction to Levit. Bode often sang on the edge of the voice, bringing out character and text at the expense of richness of tone and lyricism. The songs were, thus, often an interesting dialogue between piano and voice. This worked best in the more folk-inspired numbers such as Ich wandre nicht, Op.51 No.1. In the more romantic songs, such as Es stürmet am Abendhimmel Op. 89 No. 1 and Ihre Stimme Op. 96 No. 3, Bode's rather intellectual approach though fully convincing and thought through seemed to place us at one remove from the song rather than being carried away by the lyrical passion. The resulting programme, performed without applause, seemed to offer us a series of moments that did not quite coalesce into a whole.

For the second half, the music on offer was more diverse and almost counter-intuitively the whole seemed to indeed be more than the sum of its perhaps. Perhaps because the performers had made no attempt to match the musical styles of Bartok's 1926 piano cycle Out of Doors, and instead paired the movements with songs of a similar theme by other composers. 

Levit's performances of the Bartok pieces were simply astonishing, starting with the violence and drama of 'With Drums and Pipes'. In 'Barcarolla', lyrical Venice was a world away and Levit conjured a dark, complex and unsettling atmosphere, then though 'Musettes' had an underlying dance element there was violence too. 'The Night's Music' was, as we might expect from Bartok, magical, eerie and intense and even when the music became more vivid, Levit kept it eerie and unsettling. The final movement 'The Chase' was again astonishing in its violence and dark drama.

The intensity, strength of character and sheer violence that Levit brought to the Bartok meant that the pieces benefited from being played next to music that did not directly echo it. We began with Eisler's 'An eine Stadt' from his 1943 Hollywood Songbook. A performance that was near ideal, as Bode's on the edge of the voice, text-based approached worked well and fitted Levit's performance too, lyrical but with a distinctive tang. You longed to hear the pair in a complete performance of the Hollywood Songbook.

After the violence of Bartok's pipes and drums we had Schumann's Die beiden Grenadiere where, intriguingly, the two performers seemed to nudge Schumann's ballad in the direction of Eisler with strong story-telling results. Bartok's dark barcarolle was followed by Schubert's Auf dem Wasser zu singen. Levit's piano introduction was magical but quite fast, and Bode's finely controlled performance contributed to what seemed to be a dance-element to the piece, a remarkable reinvention of a song that can too easily be a lazy romantic wash. Wolf's Der Rattenfänger was another vivid narrative, Levit's dynamic piano part complemented by Bode's unsettling and exciting narrative. This was wonderfully engaged story-telling of the highest level.

After Bartok's unsettling night music we had two Schubert pieces. First, Nachtstück, where after a strong introduction the two gave a very interior, controlled performance that combined a sense of character with an element of the mystical Then came Erlkönig. Here, Levit's control of the repeated notes in the piano part was astonishing, I have never heard anything quite like it. The piano was intense, violent yet controlled, every single (very fast) finger-stroke counted yet the whole was superbly responsive to Bode. Levit's performance never pulled focus, there was little sense of 'look at me' to it, instead it complemented and energised Bode's performance. Here the tenor gave us vivid drama, and a sense of character or rather characters, and I was particularly taken with his devastating charming Erl King. This was real edge of the seat stuff. What to follow it? Why the final movement of Bartok's suite, creating dramatic, edge of the seat conclusion to the recital.

We had an encore, Schubert's Musensohn, a song they first performed together over ten years ago.

This second half was in some respects counter intuitive, yet it worked. Whilst the Schumann sequence was interesting and gave us a chance to hear some rarely performed yet fine music, the second sequence seemed to fizz with ideas and vivid drama as the different musics and the two performers bounced ideas off each other.

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