A Damaged, Moving Winterreise From Simon Keenlyside

Vienna, November 19, 2019; State Opera—It seems not so long ago that Simon Keenlyside was a young, virile singer, boldly physical, and for all his energy perhaps a touch anodyne. His Britten performances and releases like “Tales of Opera” or his 2009 Dichterliebe tell some of that tale at both ends of the spectrum. The old man who took the stage of the Vienna State Opera on Tuesday evening was almost the inverse of the above: Oddly frail, shlumpy, a body language more timid than confident, or doubting, testing, at any rate. He doesn’t look his 60 years; he looks as though he is a 50-year-old who looks 20 years older. And then that voice, as if marked with scars from his past vocal crisis.

There was no vocal flaw that wasn’t on display at some point or another, during this recital of Die Winterreise. From the voice splitting, to rumbling low notes, cracked high ones, slackening lines briefly in search of pitch, and regularly veering outside his comfort zone near either end of his range, there was something for everyone, really. It’s not entirely new either; already last year, writing about a Washington, DC recital, Charles Downey observed “some raspiness and occasional weakness at the top…[and a] distracting array of gestures—checking his jacket button or waving his arms, almost like tics”. All that, and then some!

And yet, there was something greatly touching, moving in his performance. The struggle – both real and interpretive – was fascinating. The color in his voice was like soot in the back of his throat. The phrasing morose, the German absolutely perfect. Honesty and vulnerability in close proximity made for a superb “Frühlingstraum”. Interpretively everything sounded as though inhabiting the soft, nonchalant air of a performance of “Der Leiermann”. The copious blemishes – although not every listener will agree – never distracted much from an underlying, gripping quality.

And then there was the pianism of Thomas Adès that emerged, song by song, as the music equivalent of a caressing hug for Keenlyside. With the Bösendorfer’s lid wide open like the mouth of a hungry shark, the composer/pianist caressed a sensitive, selfless, round, subtly dramatic tone from the instrument that served as the flexible bedding on which Keenlyside could perform. A whole different ballgame than the notes-by-numbers key-pushing you get from your Helmut Deutsches and his likes, but also not as wedded, interpretively, to his singer as Gerold Huber when in tandem with Christian Gerhaher. (But then, no one is.) Astounding in its own, unique way, it was impossible not to marvel at the sensationally-pedaled, bell-like accents in “Die Krähe” or the pointillist accompaniment in “Letzte Hoffnung”.

The Viennese, perhaps remembering the dramatic breakdown on their stage during a Rigoletto that started Keenlyside’s slump and long recovery, surprised me by responding with the utmost warmth to this Winterreise. No one seemed to take the superficial, easily picked-out and picked-upon flaws as the defining characteristics of the performance. Rightly so.