Top flight international soloists frequently come to town to appear with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, yet their visits often contain little more than a set of concerto appearances and perhaps a masterclass. This weekend marked a welcome departure from routine. The German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff will be singing orchestrated Schubert songs with the BSO later this week, but yesterday afternoon, listeners were treated to another facet of his extraordinary artistry, as the orchestra presented him in a lieder recital at Symphony Hall. The program was given over to "Winterreise," Schubert's timeless portrait of an itinerant soul in mourning. The pianist was in fact James Levine.
Levine has of course spent much of his career partnering singers at the Met, and he not infrequently trades his orchestra for a piano to support vocalists in recital at Carnegie Hall. Yesterday's program however was one of the few opportunities that Boston audiences have had to hear him at the keyboard since he took over as music director in 2004. He remains a far better pianist than one would have any right to expect given the demands of his conducting schedule. His playing yesterday was clear, supple and keenly attuned to Quasthoff's every gesture.
On balance this was a calmly eloquent "Winterreise," notable less for its anguished portrayal of grief than for its mastery of nuance. Quasthoff has a remarkable ability to shade his voice in minute degrees, and to fuse the poetic meaning of a text with its musical expression. He put these skills to masterful use in this harrowing song cycle, one that enacts the outer and inner wanderings of a man lost to the world and yearning for the peace of the grave.
What made this performance rich was its attention to the work's deeper countercurrents, the profound ambivalence which accompanies its fixation on death. The walker may have lost his will to live, but his heart still leaps at the sound of a posthorn, and his slumbering mind still dreams of spring. One thinks of Freud's assertion that "in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality."
These tensions found deeply moving expression in "Frühlingstraum," a song in which the wanderer thrashes fitfully between blissful sleep and cruel wakefulness. Quasthoff toggled with seeming effortlessness between two extremes of emotion, floating one stanza with a beautiful hymnic tone, and the next with a searing urgency. Levine's expansive playing matched him at every turn. There were many such moments during which the two performers were seemingly of a single mind. The ethereal final bars of "Die Nebensonnen" were perhaps the most memorable of the afternoon, as Schubert's wanderer pleads for the comfort of darkness, in this case, through music that glowed sublimely with light.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.