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S & H Concert Review

Schubert, ‘Leichenfantasie;’ Beethoven, Gellert Lieder; Liszt, ‘Walhall; from ‘Das Rheingold;’ Wagner, ‘Wotan’s Abschied’ from ‘Die Walküre.’ Matthias Goerne, Eric Schneider. Wigmore Hall, November 18th 2002. (ME)


Matthias Goerne seems to have taken it upon himself to alter the concept of what a ‘Song Recital’ should be, developing and heightening the one – composer evening beloved of Fischer – Dieskau, in itself a style unusual at a time when Lieder recitals were often pick ‘n mix affairs. Indeed, there are still a few people around who can’t quite cope with the notion of a recital which is relentlessly serious from beginning to end, which includes no sigh-inducing favourites and which always concludes with the scheduled piece rather than a fistful of lollipops. There are plenty of singers who can provide us with a bit of this and a bit of that, but Goerne clearly wishes to lead us in a new direction, one which was discerned on this occasion by four works which were linked not only in their intensity but their themes.

Schubert’s ‘Leichenfantasie’ was written when the composer was fourteen, so it is hardly surprising that the vocal part is not as eloquently shaped as those of his later works; it is rarely performed, and one can see why, since not only is it very demanding in technical terms but it also has a text which is, to say the least, gloomy. Goerne and Schneider’s performance was a small miracle of extracting great art from seemingly unpromising material, and the singing made you believe that this work is fascinating all the way through as opposed to having mere occasional patches of beauty, which is how I had previously heard it.

Unsurprisingly, Goerne used a score for this and the other pieces, but he seemed hardly to glance at it, and its presence did not in any way detract from his vivid, arresting powers of communication. It’s one thing for a singer to have his head buried in, say, ‘Heidenröslein,’ and quite another to have the music of such a piece as this one, which he may well sing again only once or twice in his life, in front of him. Both he and Schneider performed it with tremendous commitment, the singer raking the auditorium with his blazing eyes during the more tempestuous lines, and giving real point to such moments as ‘Nein doch, Vater – Horch!’ as well as the most poignant tenderness to the evocations of the youth’s earthly and heavenly life: Goerne sang such lines as ‘Deine Wonne und dein Paradies’ and ‘Wiedersehen – himmlischer Gedanke!’ with that sense of transfigured rapture at visionary moments which is so much a hallmark of his art.

Beethoven’s settings of six poems by Gellert followed, daringly without any break; one felt that a direct link was being made, and it was an apposite one, since these intensely powerful songs are meditations upon the lot of suffering Man and his relationship with his God, especially in ‘Vom Tode,’ which considers mutability and warns of what may be to come. Goerne sang this with directness and real fervour, and the ensuing ‘Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur’ showed his voice at its most powerful and heroic. The final song in the group, ‘Busslied,’ is a kind of muted scream for help, and is exactly the sort of piece which calls forth from Goerne his most individual singing; he seems to have a special feeling for such phrases as ‘meinen Sunden’ and ‘meinen Jammer,’ and the closing ‘Und nimmt meiner Seelen an’ brought the first half of the recital to a most involving conclusion.

After the interval we heard Liszt’s adaptation of parts of ‘Das Rheingold,’ played by Eric Schneider with eloquent grandeur, and providing an appropriate introduction to the final piece, what might be called Goerne’s London debut in a Wagner role, albeit on this occasion ‘just’ Wotan’s Farewell from ‘Die Walküre.’ Goerne has said that he will never sing the role in a full staging, and it’s true that his voice would be a little on the slender side for the part, but he lacked nothing in terms of that ideal combination of rueful tenderness, nobility, paternal and ‘godly’ authority and sheer mastery of the music which all Wotans must possess. His singing of such lines as the searing ‘Der freier als ich, der Gott!’ and the heartbreaking ‘Mit des Lebewohles letztem Kuss!’ reminded some listeners of that of the Wotan who is, to me, the finest of all singers recorded in this role, the great Ferdinand Frantz.

It is well known that Goerne has unusual breath control, but here he excelled even himself, sustaining phrases like ‘So küsst er die Gottheit von dir!’ with room to spare, and giving majestic emphasis to his commands that the fire be summoned. It’s possible to say that this Wotan is loving, tender and paternally regretful as opposed to the more hectoring characters one so often hears onstage, but that is perhaps more appropriate to this intimate setting. The central section beginning with ‘Der Augen leuchtendes Paar’ was some of the most beautiful singing I have ever heard on any stage, and the whole was redolent of the most profound commitment to this glorious music. It was accompanied by Schneider with some of the most empathetic playing I’ve experienced from him, particularly towards the end where Wotan bids his child a final farewell.

Yet another wonderfully revelatory evening from this unique singer, making us hear familiar works in a new light and introducing us to lesser pieces which are greatly illuminated by being set in such judicious contexts. Goerne will next sing here in February, when he will take part in the Wolf Centenary Festival with Schneider and Christine Schäfer, and then again in May when he will give a recital in honour of William Lyne and also take part in the final gala concert of the ‘Director’s Festival’. No doubt, whatever the chosen repertoire, it will send lovers of Song home in as happy a state as they seemed to be in on this evening.


Melanie Eskenazi

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