S&H Recital review

Schubert, "Winterreise," Matthias Goerne, Eric Schneider, Glyndebourne, Sunday October 7th. (M.E.)

A sizeable audience braved ".dem regen, dem Wind entgegen .." on a stormy night at Glyndebourne to experience this "Winterreise," and what a journey it was, in every sense. This was a completely original concept of the work, as different to his Hyperion recording as could be imagined, yet very close in emotional impact to that of Quasthoff. Goerne and Schneider present an introspective, intensely elegiac, lyrical view of the work, still recognisably that of young men, whereas Quasthoff's is beginning to move towards some kind of accommodation with the protagonist's anger. As to which was the greater of the two versions (I heard Quasthoff at Schwarzenberg a month ago - see the report under Festivals) it would be impossible to say: I feel privileged to have heard them both so close together, and they both have something individual to say about this endlessly moving work.

One remark I would make, is that Quasthoff had an inestimable advantage in his audience; of course, they were nearly all native German speakers, so there were no heads buried in books for his recital; all eyes were fixed upon the singer. Furthermore, from the moment singer and pianist settled themselves on the platform at the Anjelika Kaufmann-Saal, the audience was utterly still and silent, and remained so throughout save for a few muffled sobs and hankied sniffs. After the last notes had died away, there was a long, emotional silence which was only reluctantly broken. Goerne was not so favoured; not only did he, and the rest of us, have to wait and wait whilst dawdling latecomers sauntered in, but, disgracefully, he and Schneider also had to wait after having composed themselves on the platform, whilst one party went back and forth until they had finally seated themselves.

During the recital, Goerne could look out at the stalls and witness a sea of bowed heads as they all read their programmes or translations. Nor were the audience as quiet as such performers merited; there was much moist, unguarded coughing, of the kind which is done regardless of where the music is, and as though the cougher were in his or her own home. At the end, there was no silence at all, just - admittedly enthusiastic - applause, for this inspired, and inspiring performance.

"Gute Nacht" showed surprising equanimity, at least in the light of what followed it. Taken very slowly, like almost every other song, the overwhelming mood here was one of wistfulness rather than bitterness, the latter only welling up with "Die Wetterfahne." "Gefrorne Tränen" was the perfect example of Goerne's art; he is unique in his range of vocal tone colours, and this was amply shown here, from the numb whiteness of the first line through the sweet freshness of "kühler Morgentau" to the fierce warmth of "glühend heiss" and the desolation of "Winters Eis!" Here, and in "Erstarrung," we are in the realm of anger rather than acceptance, of despair rather than equanimity, but Goerne still manages to evoke these feelings without undue vocal histrionics. Schneider's accompaniment here was the equal of the singer's art; intense and hovering on the edges of drama during most of the song, yet delicately poignant at "Wo find' ich eine Blüte."

Perhaps "Frühlingstraum" might be said to epitomise their style of interpretation. Taken at such a slow pace that you wondered if they'd both make it - if any singer and pianist could - this was an introspective, forlorn reading which showed with poetic grace that true Schubertian sense of joy recalled contrasted with present misery bitterly tasted. If there are any lines in any song to make me shed tears, then "Doch an den Fensterscheiben / Wer malte die Blätter da?" and " Die Augen schliess' ich wieder, / Noch schlägt das Herz so warm." are the most likely, and both singer and pianist here seemed to be going for those tear ducts; Schneider's playing of the quiet passages was so delicate that you almost sensed rather than heard it, and Goerne's tone and phrasing, especially at "das Herz so warm" were so direct and intimate that you felt as though you were the only recipient of these confidences.

If one has to find a weakness, then it would be at "Die Post," where Goerne's ambitious approach to the high E in the second stanza (at "Mein Herz?) left him a little rawly exposed; this then seemed to throw Schneider who fluffed a couple of notes in the next part. However, both recovered for a searing account of "Der greise Kopf."

Graham Johnson describes "Das Wirtshaus" as "the grandest vocal hymn that Schubert ever wrote," and Goerne's singing of it matched its nobility, dignity and heartrending simplicity. It is marked "Sehr Langsam," the slowest marking of any in the cycle, and, as Johnson remarks, it is only breath control and ability to sustain a long legato line which limits the breadth of tempo at which the song is performed. Brendel once remarked that Goerne has "the longest breath" of any singer he had accompanied, and ample evidence of this was provided here; we hung on each phrase, and no one familiar with "Winterreise" could fail to notice with admiration the singing of that crucially taxing word "matt" with its exposed leap into the passagio.

"Die Nebensonnen," with its trance - like atmosphere, was unforgettably performed, once again respecting the composer's instructions as few others are able to do. The melody is one familiarly based upon a dance tune, and Schubert's direction of "Nicht zu langsam" suggests the wish to preserve a lilt in the music, albeit in slow motion. Schneider's playing of the dark, obsessive piano part was inspired, and as for Goerne's singing, it would be impossible to imagine anything more moving than his ascending line at "Ja, neulich hatt' ich auch wohl drei" in contrast to the unutterable sadness of "Nun sind hinab die besten zwei.." or any finer phrasing or expressiveness than he gave to the final line.

This was my first experience of Goerne's "Winterreise" in a recital; I have now heard him in all three Schubert "cycles," and I have not changed my view that he is the greatest active Lieder singer of our time. The voice itself, that natural miracle, its most individual characteristic being the magical mezza-voce, sweet yet with that sense of latent power behind it, remains unequalled. With each recital he seems to grow in interpretative stature, and each time I hear him I am awakened to new wonders, new subtleties of interpretation, and perhaps most of all, to new realisations not only of the potential of the human voice but the power of a great singer to move us. That this marvellous artist is still only in his early thirties, and that he has chosen to devote most of his musical life to Lieder, are reasons to be very grateful indeed.

Melanie Eskenazi

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