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S&H Recital review

Schubert, Wolf: Matthias Goerne, Andreas Haefliger. Wigmore Hall, Friday 10th May 2002. (M. E.)



This superlative recital once again showed that Goerne is, as so many others have said so often, the supreme Lieder singer of our time; he brought with him yet another accompanist (his third here this season) and yet another subtly designed, uncompromisingly serious programme, performed with even more near - frightening passion and commitment than before. This evening was a repeat of Wednesday's recital, but in personnel and content only, since on that occasion, for whatever reason (preponderance of corporate clientèle in the audience? nerves? indisposition?) Goerne's singing was not consistently at his accustomed level, although this is merely to say that he generally reached the standard of most other recitalists. To hear this unique singer at his best, one had to be amongst those fortunate enough to attend Friday's performance, where it is no exaggeration to say that he sang with stupendous authority and unequalled beauty of tone.

The first half was all Schubert, linked by composer and theme, beginning with two of the finest performances I have ever heard of 'Nacht und Träume' and 'Wehmut,' both sublime settings of poems by Matthäus von Collin. It is typical of Goerne to commence a recital with a song like 'Nacht und Träume;' no sense of warming up here, simply the singer becoming at one with the music straight away. It is part of his special quality that he is able to take us with him into the world of the song with such intimacy, but he could not do this if his technique were not flawless and his understanding profound. Over Haefliger's gently rocking semiquavers (played with so much more sensitivity of touch than on Wednesday) Goerne's matchless legato was simply astonishing - it was Brendel who said that Goerne had the longest breath of any singer he had come across, and this wonderful song gave ample evidence of it, the line always fluid whilst still conveying the import of each word.

'Wehmut' was perfection; without undue histrionics, Goerne conveyed all the song's melancholy and grandeur with unerring skill, and his '….wenn ich die Au / In ihrer Schönheit Fülle schau,'/Und all die Frühlingslust.' was not only accomplished without a breath before the second phrase's arching legato line, but sung with the most aching sense of time passing and the wondrous nature of the paradoxical feelings engendered by Springtime; April is 'the cruellest month' for some because it reminds them of a regeneration in which they do not feel they have a part, and this complex state of mind could hardly have been more evocatively conveyed.

In complete contrast, the final von Collin setting was 'Der Zwerg,' sung with fervid intensity and vivid depiction of its somewhat cruel narrative, and this was followed by a performance of 'Auf dem Wasser zu singen' which turned my preconceptions about this little treasure on their head. Wednesday's performance was not Goerne's happiest moment, but even then it was clear that his concept of the song is the opposite of the way I have always heard it; to me, the silvery rippling of the piano and the tranquil import of much of the language suggest a song of great charm, but this is not how Goerne sees it. In Friday's performance, it was even more obvious that he takes it as deeply melancholy, a reflection not of tranquil acceptance of mutability but of melancholy contemplation of what Hardy called 'existlessness.'

Part of our reason for going to recitals by such singers is to have our own notions of the music questioned, and our own imperfect understanding enlarged, and this was very much what happened for me with 'Viola,' the fifteen - minute mini - saga to a text by Schubert's friend von Schober, which Ian Bostridge also programmed here not very long ago. I wondered then why singers chose it, and hoped that Goerne might be able to convince me of its merits - he did so triumphantly. In place of the more usual archness, we had a performance of vitality, directness and drama which succeeded in making me interested in the fate of the fragile flower; such lines as 'Sitzet sie und schluchzt und weint…' neatly avoided sentimentality, and the repeated 'Läut ' was wondrous in the veiled melancholy of its tone.

The all-Wolf second half was even more uncompromising; no quarter at all given to any longing for mere lyricism, and a selection of the composer's most brooding and tempestuous pieces which demanded the utmost concentration from the audience. Nothing was performed with less than absolute mastery, nothing was sung with less than utter perfection of intonation and phrasing, but the three Michelangelo Lieder and the closing 'Morgenstimmung' provided music - making of the most ardent involvement, with Haefliger matching Goerne's commitment and virtuosity in almost every phrase.

'Wohl denk ich oft' was tremendous; deeply fervent in its affirmation of the meaning of love, but even this did not quite prepare us for 'Alles endet was entstehet,' which was sung with such ferocious, awed power that one was instantly transported to Goerne's Brahms recital and his wholly fresh and new singing of the 'Vier Ernste Gesänge,' which these songs can so strongly evoke. Wolf famously said of this song that it caused him to be apprehensive about his own sanity, and the intensity of this performance made you feel that - it was almost too much, as though white heat were coming from the singer's body and the pianist's fingers. 'Fühlt meine Seele' was given a peerless performance, especially in that heart - rending moment of change from E minor to major, and the final outpouring of passion at 'Daran sind, Herrin, deine Augen schuld' was completely absorbing in its gripping ardour and depth of expression.

'Morgenstimmung' crowned a stunning demonstration of why this baritone has no equals active today in this repertoire; wonderfully eloquent phrasing, mellow, sonorous beauty of tone, unique inwardness, ideal balance between musical and poetic prosody are all present in every line, allied to a blazing intensity that seems to reach almost fever pitch at times. These were magisterial, deeply authoritative performances from a singer who never fails to send me back to the music with renewed love and increased understanding.


Melanie Eskenazi


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