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S & H Recital Review

Beethoven, ‘An die ferne Geliebte:’ Schubert, ‘Schwanengesang.’ Matthias Goerne, Alfred Brendel, Wigmore Hall November 5th and 7th 2003 (ME)


After their peerless ‘Winterreise’ last month, Goerne and Brendel here gave us sublime interpretations of the first ever true ‘song cycle’ and Schubert’s swansong to the genre: sublime, that is, mainly on the Friday, since although Wednesday’s performance offered some of the finest Schubert singing I have ever heard, especially in the Heine songs, it was marred by some wayward playing by Brendel in the Beethoven and by some pesky fireworks which kept going off at the quietest moments. A severe throat infection and a cold have meant that my review is late, but did not keep me from attending both performances, although I experienced Friday’s mainly from the back of the hall where I stood ‘just in case.’ Granted, I would crawl on my hands and knees to hear Goerne in this music, but I was surprised by the dearth of other critics present: given the historic nature of the occasion I would have expected at least one night to have been graced with ranks of experts, but it was not to be. No matter: a packed house of Lieder lovers enjoyed what one of them later described as a ‘completely shattering’ musical experience.

As always with this singer, the programme gives us plenty to think about rather than simply wallow in: these two ‘cycles’ are perfectly matched in terms of their parallel experiences of longing, unattainable love and distance, but it takes someone like Goerne to remove from both the superficial varnish of Biedermayer charm which often deludes listeners into imagining that both works are ‘cosy’ when in fact they are anything but, being as dark and weighted with sorrow as much of ‘Winterreise.’ Goerne and Brendel present Beethoven’s cycle as an anguished plea rather than a lovelorn appeal, and it is the special feature of Goerne’s singing that his interpretation is radiantly poetic whilst never taking individual words out of context. This was especially true of ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz ich spähend’ where the rhythmic pulse of the music was exactly echoed in the words, ‘Unserm Glück und unsrer Qual’ needing no undue emphasis to make their points.

These musicians are now so steeped in these songs that their singing and playing somehow seem to take the bar lines away: this is not to suggest excess freedom, since they are scrupulously attentive to the composer’s markings, but an expansiveness of phrasing which sounds entirely natural. Goerne made the intensity of the poet’s longing in ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ almost painfully vivid, with ‘Möchte ich sein!’ troubled rather than wistful, and Brendel’s sharply etched, almost stabbing accompaniment was entirely in accord with this. It’s possible to regard Goerne as somewhat ‘breathy’ at times, but one can hardly complain when that same breath is used with such awesome control as it was in the transition from the final line of the third song to the first of the fourth – I wonder how many other singers can actually do this and still deliver the lines with the requisite lyrical finesse?

The final song provided some of the most wondrous singing I’ve heard in a long time: this quasi-recitative, almost canon-like music was delivered with the most profound devotion, the lines ‘Und du singst, was ich gesungen, Was mir aus der vollen Brust’ phrased with warm expansiveness, and the poignant echo of the music’s opening lines in the piano played with haunting delicacy. It’s very difficult to imagine a finer performance of this piece: one doesn’t often feel that anyone has said it all with a masterwork, but it seems to me that they have.

The Rellstab settings which form the first part of ‘Schwanengesang’ followed (with the addition of ‘Herbst’) leaving the very different Heine ones for after the interval: an entirely appropriate grouping since the Rellstab are so close to the Jeitteles, and it was gratifying to hear that Goerne has taken absolutely no notice whatsoever of those critics who have complained about his perceived lack of ‘charm’ and ‘lightness’ and his alleged tendency to the ‘lugubrious,’ since he still presents these songs as dark rather than light, as melancholy rather than pretty – this is Lieder, for goodness’ sake – ‘just one letter away from Leider’ (!) it’s meant to be sad, not to encourage toe-tapping. This ‘Liebesbotschaft’ is not Johnson and Ainsley’s delicately rippling brook and highlighting of phrases such as ‘Wiege das Liebchen in Schlummer ein’ to be sung with especial tenderness: rather, it is a powerful statement of suppressed passion, delivered in an urgent mezza-voce and played with understated fervour.

Goerne’s voice is ideal for songs such as ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ and ‘In der Ferne’ where he uses all his formidable strength as well as unequalled tenderness, but his is a tenderness underpinned by the poignancy of memory and thus bittersweet in tone: I have seldom heard ‘Herzliebste – gute Nacht’ delivered with such anguish. ‘In der Ferne’ entirely avoided self-pity whilst still building up a profound sense of unutterable sorrow and isolation, with singing and playing of stunning force in the final lines.

The Heine songs were unforgettable: I have no hesitation in saying that this will be the recording of them for our time, and especially so given that the Hyperion edition is not suitably ‘cast’ in terms of their singer even though the playing is often at an equal level. ‘Ihr Bild’ and ‘Am Meer’ were absolute marvels of sustained legato singing, even emission of meltingly beautiful tone and playing which paralleled the drive and passion of the singing. The way in which Goerne’s voice opened out during ‘Und das geliebte Antlitz / Heimlich zu leben begann’ was quite magical, the tone filling the words without over-stressing any of them, and in ‘Am Meer’ the opening phrases were given with a solemn grandeur which was later superbly contrasted with the gripping final lines, ‘Vergiftet’ conveying a world of bitterness and anguish.

‘Der Doppelgänger’ was tremendous: never before have I heard it sung with such elemental force, such magisterial authority. In the first stanza, Goerne and Brendel united to evoke a feeling of barely suppressed disquiet, the piano’s tremulous, hesitant footfalls and the mesmerizing tone of the voice blending to create a sinister atmosphere around the protagonist, ‘as if the singer were breaking out into a cold sweat’ as Graham Johnson puts it – the audience certainly was. ‘Mir graust es’ was wonderfully onomatopoeic – I swear I actually saw people shuddering – and the crucial ‘meine eigne Gestalt’ was utterly spine-chilling, the exposed high G wonderfully controlled, the massively commanding voice rising to a perfectly pitched howl of despair, the ensuing ‘Du Doppelgänger’ uttered with ringing authority. In almost twenty five years of recital-going I have never seen an audience so stunned.

‘Die Taubenpost’ was, appropriately, given as an encore. This was the time for charm, if it has to be there, and we got it aplenty, but not overstated: singer and pianist gave it the perfect combination of hesitation and fervour, the incomparable final lines not singled out but sung with the same heartfelt tenderness, natural grace, unforced candour and sense of romantic idealism that had characterized the rest of the song, and indeed the rest of the performance. Goerne towers above every other Lieder singer around today, and this partnership with Brendel should result in recordings which will form the standard by which all others may be judged.


Melanie Eskenazi


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