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S & H Interview

Matthias Goerne talks to Melanie Eskenazi about ‘Wozzeck,’ his new recording of ‘Die Schöne Müllerin, and his future plans….


photograph © Melanie Eskenazi.

Matthias Goerne is an artist whose profound commitment to the music he sings makes the most seemingly well-known works appear in a totally new light, not only on the concert platform but also on the operatic stage, and the challenges he sets himself and his audiences might tend to delineate him as a somewhat daunting figure. When other singers present virtually the same programme many times over, Goerne embarks upon feats such as his recitals for the week of November 12th-18th: on the 12th he will give a Brahms recital in Madrid; on the 14th, he will sing Beethoven’s ‘An die ferne Geliebte’ and Schubert’s ‘Schwanengesang’ at the Bath Mozartfest; on the 16th he will perform Bach Cantatas at the Wigmore Hall, and finally on the 18th he will present a most unusual programme at the same venue, Beethoven’s ‘Gellert Lieder’ and Schubert’s ‘Leichenfantasie’ followed by Wotan’s Farewell from ‘Die Walküre.’ This kind of individuality is exemplified in a different way in his operatic career, with his intentionally restricted repertoire: here is a man who could have any part he wanted, but he chooses to concentrate on a select few roles which he presents with the most searing intensity. Berg’s Wozzeck is, of course, the part which he is often said to have been ‘born to play,’ and his very recent Covent Garden debut in that role had critics reaching for the superlatives.

I spoke to him about this and other matters during a rare break from his work at the Royal Opera and elsewhere. Why is ‘Wozzeck’ so special a role for him? ‘This is really complicated to answer, but for me, the centre of the piece is the same as the centre of all Arts, whether it be Painting or Theatre or Fine Arts, in that it is bound up with relationships between human beings, and that means we are talking about Love! This is the most honest, central thing we have to talk about, because it is so very strong in this piece and this character: in ‘Wozzeck’ we see everyone lacking love, and the compensation for that is in money, and this reflects a worldwide problem, not just for Berg’s time but our own, eighty years later. The human conflict is really focussed in this production, so much so that it is not really what you might call an intellectual way to project the piece to the audience, but I like that: when I sang the part in Zurich it was a fantastic production but so much more intellectual in style, but this one is so much closer to my own feelings about the work and how it should be staged.’

Matthias Goerne as Wozzeck at Covent Garden - photo copyright Bill Cooper

The character of Wozzeck is, of course one of the most difficult for a singer to project, and Goerne’s feelings for him are not idealized ones; ‘He is often seen as a victim, and yes, I do present him as sympathetic for the most part, but in the end he is not a victim, he is a murderer – he did the worst thing you can do, killed her because he was jealous. There is so much to help us to understand his being, but also so many reasons why one can’t accept it, and that’s what makes this work so phenomenal. After Wozzeck it’s very hard to find another role at the same level of fascination for me.’

This production seemed to be the result of exceptional unanimity between singers, musical direction and production, something which Goerne clearly values; ‘This has so much to do with the relationships not only between those on stage but the house itself, the whole atmosphere is so positive, and Pappano is a true opera conductor – he not only attended every rehearsal but he conducted every day, and that is so unusual. It also helps that the conditions in this house are so fantastic for all of us – I really feel that under Pappano, things are changing here. One should also say that in order to do such a piece as ‘Wozzeck,’ you have to have exceptionally committed singers, and maybe there are not that many who actually want to perform it, because it is not exactly easy – there is a lot to take on. I think the whole cast works so well together, even those small parts like the Fool, where Francis (Egerton) does such amazing things with just a few words. Ensemble opera like this is so rare – it’s much more common to have one singer from Italy, one from Japan, they all come a few days before, get a ‘touch-up’ on stage and then you see this s***, you know.’

Post-performance chat after both the evenings I attended focused very much on the striking image of Wozzeck dying in a small glass water tank, where Goerne had to remain submerged and in full view for ten minutes – most people said ‘How on earth did they persuade him to do that?’ but in fact, it was his own idea: ‘When we discussed the piece at the beginning, I kept asking how I was going to die, and I was told well, we have this fantastic mirror, and a blue curtain, and you can swim, you know…well, the mirror was fantastic, but the moment I saw the tank, I decided immediately that I would die in that! I told Keith (Warner), you have this one line of horrible things, and the last one is the empty tank of pure water, so you must use it! He was shocked when I said that because that had been what he originally wanted when he first approached the opera years ago, but he said he had given up the idea immediately because he didn’t think he would find a singer who was willing to do it! Yes, I have to be underwater for ten minutes, and there are technical challenges to be overcome with that, but it is worth it – it is such a shocking image.’

The huge success of his ROH debut might lead one to expect many future performances, but this is not to be, at least at present, since he turned down their offer of Papageno in the new production of ‘Die Zauberflöte,’ feeling that he has done that role so many times that just one more will be enough, and that will be at the Met, under James Levine. Interestingly, he professes a strong desire to take the part of the Speaker in the same opera, since ‘The whole of the Wagnerian idea is based on this idea of Music Theatre, with its blending of aria and recitative combined with dialogue. I would really love to do it!’ This seems so typical of him; where so many singers are content to churn out their Papageno, he wants to call a halt at only 35, and expresses interest in a role generally regarded as fairly insignificant, although one can imagine that in his hands it would cease to be so.

I have previously said that I consider him perfect for the great Strauss baritone roles, and he is still contemplating taking on Mandryka at Covent Garden, although the face he made when I suggested that Barak would also suit him is not translatable to print. Despite having the ideal voice and certainly the temperament for Mandryka, he is otherwise ‘not really interested in the Strauss repertoire. I have been through all the Songs, and there are really only a few which speak to me, but this repertoire is not to my taste, it is not deep enough – the music is brilliant, but that is not enough; for me, it is not really connected to anything. The same is true of Brahms; I have just about twenty pieces which I like very much, the rest I can take or leave.’ No one who heard his searing account of the ‘Vier Ernste Gesänge’ at the Wigmore Hall last season could doubt that his recorded interpretation of this work would be a landmark, and he is very keen to commit it to disc despite the proliferation of other versions: ‘I very much like Fischer – Dieskau’s account of it, since his balance between the intellectual and the emotional is so exact, but there are not that many singers who present the work in the way I think it should be done; it’s not enough just to be loud and strong in this music, the singer needs to be sensitive, too – I want to be touched when I hear it, and very often I am not really touched.’

Goerne’s most recent recording is of course another work much associated with his former teacher, Schubert’s ‘Die Schöne Müllerin,’ which forms the first part of his odyssey through the great Schubert cycles; he will record both ‘Winterreise’ and ‘Schwanengesang’ with Brendel during live performances at the Wigmore Hall next Autumn. As a student, he says, he did not like the first cycle so much, and felt that Fischer-Dieskau’s way with it was so strongly influential that it was difficult for others to get around such a landmark, but now he has found his own way; ‘For me, this piece is not ‘gemütlich,’ it has nothing to do with that sort of Biedermayer charm which some critics seem to want to hear in it. All this naiveté – the boy walking through the trees, seeing the Mill, finding love and all that, is not what the work is about; it is much, much more involved with what might be called ‘Sturm und Drang,’ and with ‘Pause,’ the central song, you have the moment when he is really reflecting, and from then on it’s a descending spiral for which the only culmination is his death by suicide. People always think of ‘Winterreise’ as being dark, gloomy, but you know, the man does not die at the end of that cycle, he goes on, unlike the youth in the earlier work. ‘Winterreise’ is grey, I think, but ‘Die Schöne Müllerin’ is really much darker than that, it really is ‘leidenschaftlich.’

The critical reception given to his recording was extremely polarized; some, such as the present writer and the critic of the ‘International Record Review’ were galvanized not only by his incredibly beautiful singing but also by the highly individual interpretation, but others found it wanting in the charm which they sought, in his view, mistakenly: ‘I cannot understand this sort of thing! A critic should be open to different interpretations, not simply expecting each recording to confirm what every other one has done! One should be free and open enough to receive interpretations which do not follow the tradition, so I was very glad that some writers did hear and understand what we were doing.’

He confidently expects at least a couple of ‘terrible’ reviews for one of his forthcoming Wigmore Hall recitals, when he will sing Schubert’s very early ‘Leichenfantasie’ with Beethoven’s Gellert settings and the farewell scene of Wotan from the close of Wagner’s ‘Walkure.’ His other recital there, of Bach Cantatas, is also a very unusual choice for that venue, but it was quite deliberate; ‘It is a kind of chamber music, really, and the problem is that one usually has to sing it in church, and no matter how many rehearsals one has, the sound is still not ideal – similarly, a ‘normal’ concert hall is not quite right, but the Wigmore is perfect. Doing this programme also gives me the chance to introduce Ofelia Sala, a marvellous soprano, and of course the audience will also be able to hear Albrecht Mayer, who I think is simply the best oboist in the world. I know people will really like this programme, since the music is so rich; I am not a religious man but I do have beliefs, and this music is so much a part of me that I have to sing it, and in this hall.

With the other programme, I know some people will find it too sombre, but I think they go well together; as far as I know, the ‘Leichenfantasie’ has never been performed at the Wigmore, and it’s not hard to understand why! When he wrote it, Schubert’s understanding of singing was not yet mature, and the work does not always lie gracefully for anyone’s voice, but there is some fantastic music in it, and I like the idea of combining it with the Gellert songs, which are so strong, so powerful and concentrated. As for ‘Wotan’s Abschied,’ I will never sing it on stage but I still want to perform it, and I think it works well with the Schubert since they are very similar in atmosphere.’

One Wagnerian role which he does intend to sing is that of Wolfram in ‘Tannhäuser,’ which he will perform in Dresden, but not, surprisingly, at Covent Garden – ‘I would love to do it here, but they haven’t asked me!’ His other opera plans include a new work by Hans Werner Henze, written especially for him: ‘I am very excited about this; ‘L’Upupa’ is based on a tale from the 1,001 nights, and is a kind of philosophical love story, very, very poetic, mainly concerned with the relationship between a son and his father.’ The work will have its premiere on August 12th 2003 in Salzburg, and the cast also includes Ian Bostridge singing a role which Goerne intriguingly called ‘The Daemon,’ as well as Juliane Banse in the soprano part: it is to be conducted by Christian Thielemann with the Vienna Philharmonic.

His other plans include a new ‘Wozzeck’ in Japan, recitals all over the world including the Schubertiade both in 2003 and 2004, as well as many recordings, and of course his continuing commitment to the Robert-Schumann Hochschule, where he holds a Professorship, and has assumed responsibility for the tuition of a group of students whom he describes as ‘very talented;’ he clearly loves teaching - ‘I find it quite easy, I have good feelings about it since I have a good ear for understanding what might be needed to help a particular voice to get a better result.’

Mahlerians will be glad to hear that he is soon to record the three shorter Mahler vocal pieces (‘Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen,’ ‘Kindertotenlieder’ and the ‘Rückert’ Lieder) all on one CD, with the Concertgebouw under Riccardo Chailly. At some point in the future they will also record ‘Das Lied von der Erde,’ an inviting prospect for those of us who love this music; Chailly recently said in an interview that in general he preferred a Mezzo – soprano for this work, but that just for Goerne, he was willing to set his usual preference aside in order to record it with him, a statement which obviously delighted the singer but which is by no means unusual, since it seems to be the wish of so many eminent musicians to work with this unique man, so young and yet already so full of what can only be called true greatness.

Melanie Eskenazi




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