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S & H Concert Review

Wolf, Lieder to Texts by Mörike and Goethe: Matthias Goerne, Eric Schneider. Hugo Wolf Centenary series, Wigmore Hall, February 24th 2003 (ME)



There could be no better way to bring the Wolf Centenary series to a close than this triumphant recital, a subtly programmed set of songs demonstrating Wolf’s fulfilment of the Wagnerian ultimate of the fusion of poetry and music, and it was inevitable that Goerne and Schneider should have been chosen to give it, since their partnership is so evocative of that ideal union described by Schubert when he wrote of himself and Vogl that ‘we seem to be one’. This was, unquestionably, an evening of great singing – provided one defines that as a beautiful voice allied to an acute intelligence, used in the service of the music and with the power to communicate lovingly detailed insights to the individual listener, as opposed to any kind of wincingly arch or over-stated complicity with an audience. With each recital, Goerne seems to grow in musical stature, and I was not alone in finding this to be one of the very greatest recitals experienced at this hall.

The Mörike lieder began appropriately with ‘Verborgenheit’ since this was the first of Wolf’s songs to achieve popularity in England; as always with Goerne, he was able to become one with the music straightaway, taking us with him into the world of the song with such intimacy – his singing is now so much a unified whole that it almost seems inappropriate to single out particular phrases, but the forte at ‘Wonniglich’ revealed an exceptionally resonant power as well as eloquent expression. ‘Fussreise’ followed this and, for once, you could understand Wolf’s comment that this was a song to make you want to die – Goerne took the phrase ‘Wonnegeister spürt / In der ersten Morgensonne’ in an unbroken arc of sound, and Schneider superbly evoked the walking stride in the piano. This group closed with a performance of ‘An die Geliebte’ which gave ample demonstration of precisely why those who really know about the art of Song consider Goerne to be the greatest lieder singer now active: here was deeply fervent, intensely beautiful singing, employing a seamless stream of sound whilst avoiding mere wallowing in tonal perfection, under total control from ecstatic forte (‘Zum Himmel auf’) to the softest piano in the final line in which the quiet, firmly supported legato was spun out with such heavenly slowness.

‘Der Feurreiter’ was given a performance that I cannot imagine being equalled – I have certainly never before been so aware of the black smoke and satanic presence, or being so gripped by the disturbing narrative. Most singers do not go beyond what might be called ‘wildness’ in performing this song, but Goerne’s penetrating understanding of the sinister events told in such sparse language was completely involving from start to finish: the final part, with ‘Brennts!’ just verging on hysteria, the line ‘Husch! da fällts in Asche ab’ delivered in an urgent semi-whisper and Schneider’s almost manic diminished sevenths, was completely mesmerizing. After this, ‘Auf ein altes Bild’ revealed Goerne’s unique inwardness and his ability to caress words so quietly that you feel that you are their only recipient – has anyone ever sung the phrase ‘der Jungfrau Schoss!’ with such warmth and delicacy?

The all-Goethe second half began with a fascinatingly characterized ‘Der Rattenfänger’ in which Schneider’s consummate playing of the tarantella accompaniment rightly inspired some to applause, and Goerne’s razor-sharp diction allowed us to savour every description of this strange combination of seducer and control-freak.

The central experience of the evening was a ‘Ganymed’ which was almost enough to render me speechless: it certainly made every other performance of this song seem pale by comparison, and was another object lesson as to exactly why there is no one to touch this singer in this repertoire – this was extraordinary singing in every way, employing an astounding dynamic range, an unsurpassed sense of rhythm and a wonderful variety of tone colours as well as a deep understanding of the sensuality and yearning of the poem’s import. The performance gradually grew in fervour from an almost eerily calm beginning, until at ‘In diesen Arm’ both singer and pianist seemed to be as men possessed: in the heat of passion, however, subtlety of expression was never neglected nor words glossed over, ‘schmachte’ being exceptionally resonant, and ‘Hinauf! Hinauf strebt’s’ delivered with such fervid intensity that Goerne looked as if he really might be carried up to the Gods. It is in such performances as this one that he seems to be, for want of a better phrase, in another place – I can’t pretend that I know where it is, but I do know that it is a wonderful place to be and that I’ve never been there with any other singer.

The exquisite ‘Anakreons Grab’ was a perfect envoi – Gerald Moore wrote that he liked ‘…to indulge in the notion that Goethe had this very music in mind when he wrote the little poem. If singer and accompanist will share my credulity it (will give) some indication of the almost miraculous fusion of words and music.’ In this performance, that ‘credulity’ was not difficult for the audience to share – without any exaggeration or overstressing of individual words, without a single aspirate and blessedly free of any archness, the melancholy beauty of the lines was conveyed with nobility and that high seriousness which delineates Goerne’s art: during the phrase ‘Es ist, Anakreons Ruh’ with its heart-rending little pause you could almost hear the audience holding its collective breath, and the final line ‘Vor dem Winter hat ihn endlich der Hügel geschützt’ was simply perfection in its understated, devoted expression. ‘Perfection’, of course, is an overused term considering that it is often applied to the merely competent, but I would venture that there were very few amongst us on this occasion who would dispute that Goerne and Schneider came as close to it as can be expected on this earth.

Melanie Eskenazi


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