Die schöne Müllerin, D795
Simon Bode (tenor) & Igor Levit (piano)
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 13 January, 2023
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
If, in some sense, Schubert’s three song-cycles can be taken as a trilogy (even if not intended as such when composed) then the first, Die schöne Müllerin (1823) represents youthful ardour and naivete receiving its first lessons in the emotional complexities of real life. That was realised adroitly by Simon Bode’s generally direct and well-projected performance, singing with clarity and clean tone, particularly in the higher register where other tenors strain. Intonation was sometimes not absolutely exact, and an occasional reediness crept in although the latter, at least, seemed to be a conscious colouring of the vocal line. But in essence he captured the disposition of a young man’s fragile optimism.
Having established a secure register, Bode kept within a moderate expressive range on the whole, both in voice and demeanour (singing without a score) conveying mood largely through smiling and facial gestures. There was even a sense of humour on the last word that ends each verse of the opening song ‘Das Wandern’, the first and last of which is that same all-important concept of its title (curiously rendered as ‘journeying’ instead of ‘wandering’ in the programme’s English translation by Richard Stokes, which suggests a definite end point of travel that ‘wandering’ precisely does not mean to express). In the frenetically syllabic settings ‘Der Jäger’ and ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’ his tumbling cascade of words hinted at the mischief of such comically conspiring characters of German singspiel as Mozart’s Osmin and Monostatos.
But there was also enough rhetorical nuance to point up the narrative trajectory of the cycle, such as the emotionally choked delivery of the final words “Vollauf genug!” (“more than enough”) of the fourth song ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ after its seamlessly radiant rendition; an assertive way with the happily frustrated observations of the next song ‘Am Feierabend’ that he can do no more physical work to prove outwardly his inner devotion to his beloved; or the clarion projections of the vital word “mein” and the words which rhyme with it in the moto perpetuo of the eponymous song, which here hardly stopped for breath or thought otherwise.
It was ‘Mit dem grünen Lautenbande’ which dramatically marked a turning point in this interpretation, as Bode expressed a bold confidence for more-or-less the first time – seemingly more a defensive protest than a sincere feeling. An almost shouted urgency entered at its end as the miller hangs up his lute (in apparent satisfaction) with the ribbon coloured in ill-fated green that portends so much, as jealousy soon comes to his mind. Thereafter, the tone of anger and desperation that Bode developed was all-the-more telling for the comparative caution and timidity he had exuded before. But a tender, lyrical elegy characterised the last three songs, rather than a sustained dirge of tragic depth, restoring more a sense of composure and lucidity so much as creating any catharsis.
Igor Levit gave a calmly objective account of the piano part, which one might have thought demonstrated indifference on the performer’s part to the work itself, had one not known what an accomplished artist Levit is, revealed here by his deliberate strategy in convincingly drawing together the sequence of songs as an integrated whole, rather than a series of individual items. Especially in such pictorial moments as the deathly tolling of a bell in ‘Die liebe Farbe’, Levit’s accompaniment was pitched at a consistently neutral, even ironic distance from what the singer went through mentally and emotionally, as though representing the hard facts of nature that the miller is confronting subjectively.
This was a likable, personable performance overall, particularly from Bode; if it lacked the classically richer seam of rawer emotion in other famous recordings and renditions, that perhaps only served to underline effectively the tragedy of youth buckling under life’s harshness.