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S & H Recital Review

Schubert, ‘Winterreise’ Matthias Goerne, Alfred Brendel. Wigmore Hall, Wednesday October 8th 2003 (ME)


Alfred Brendel
Matthias Goerne


‘Only that is convincing which is truly felt,’ wrote Lotte Lehmann of interpreting Winterreise, and this towering performance convinced not only through its deeply felt emotions but its dramatic variety, complexity, vitality and colour: this was a Winterreise entirely devoid of superfluity of any kind, whether in musical or physical gesture, and came from a wholly different world to that of the majority of performances of these songs. These are men who have lived with and loved this incomparable music for a collective total of some eighty years, yet their reading is as fresh and startling as any offered by yet another voiceless wannabe: Goerne’s interpretation has evolved so far beyond that of his early recording (with Graham Johnson on Hyperion) and even that of his performances of two years ago with Eric Schneider, that one feels that one is hearing the songs anew, not in any way distorted but simply refracted through the love of two great musicians.

I used the word ‘love’ advisedly, since it is more than anything else a deep love for the songs which characterizes this reading, evident not only in the depth of the interpretation but the shaping of the phrases themselves and in the subtlety and complexity of the understanding of the poems. It’s true that Goerne has one of the most purely beautiful voices around, but that beauty is here used in the service of the music rather than being served by it, and Brendel’s equally devoted, yet far more austere sensibility formed the perfect foil. I had not previously seen them as ideal partners: unequalled in their own fields, of course, but it seemed to me that Goerne’s musical spirit is of a different kind to Brendel’s – where the older man is cerebral, cultivated, exact, the younger is emotional, unhewn, fluid: yet here, all of their individual qualities seemed to merge into one balanced whole.

Brendel adopted a surprisingly brisk pace at the start of ‘Gute Nacht,’ and Goerne’s effortless long-spun legato in the opening lines was deceptively equable: was this to be the long-awaited ‘gemütlich’ version of ‘Winterreise?’ Thankfully, no – and the ensuing development of the protagonist’s state of mind through rejection, despondency, forlorn hope, bravado and eventual subsuming of himself into the despair of Everyman, was only one of the fascinating aspects of this performance. The anguish expressed in ‘Was soll ich länger weilen, / Daß man mich trieb hinaus?’ seemed to break forth from the singer as though he already saw the hard road ahead, and after this the tenderness of ‘Fein Liebchen, gute Nacht!’ was all the more moving. Goerne’s singing here was remarkable above all for its use of light and shade, the contrasts so exactly judged yet without appearing calculated, and his hushed mezza-voce in the final stanza was heartbreaking: those of less than stern disposition knew then that this would not be an easy Winterreise.

The immense power of Goerne’s baritone was heard at its most startlingly full at ‘Ihr Kind ist eine reiche Braut’ at the end of ‘Die Wetterfahne’ and almost immediately contrasted with the subdued, hushed anguish of his tone in ‘Gefrorne Tränen.’ Brendel played the staccato chords of the vorspiel with as heavy a hand as was needed to evoke the rejected lover’s weary tread, and every phrase was given new life by Goerne’s singing – ‘Daß ich geweinet hab'?’ seemed to twist the knife even more sharply, ‘kühler Morgentau’ gave a breath of freshness, ‘zerschmelzen’ was searing, and the forte at ‘Eis’ simply shattering – yet it must be said that none of these effects were contrived or overblown, all seeming naturally to arise from the inner force of the music and poetry and the core of the singer’s being.

‘Erstarrung’ seemed to show a more divergent approach, with the piano still sturdily plodding on against the singer’s increasing anguish, but ‘Der Lindenbaum’ was a perfect unity. The first stanza, sung, as Lehmann advised, ‘with the greatest simplicity, with warmth, very legato’ was deeply moving, and made even more so by the darkness of the timbre in ‘Ich mußt' auch heute wandern’ and the grim determination at ‘Ich wendete mich nicht.’ The final stanza was, as it should be, one of the great moments of the recital: seduced by the memories of security and peace, the traveller is tempted by the rustling of the leaves, and the colour of the voice atDu fändest Ruhe dort!’ conveyed both the sweetness of the memory and the bitterness at the reflection of how far he has journeyed.

In ‘Rückblick’ Brendel scrupulously obeyed Schubert’s instruction ‘nicht zu geschwind’ whilst still suggesting the ground blazing beneath the singer’s feet, and Goerne’s recollection of how things once had been was not only achingly beautiful at ‘Die runden Lindenbäume blühten’ but also lightly humorous at ‘Da war's gescheh'n um dich, Gesell!’ At the end of this song, Goerne achieved something I have never heard before: the lover says he would like to stumble back once more and stand before her house – in the line ‘Vor ihrem Hause stille steh'n’ Goerne conveyed a kind of disbelief that such a thing might be possible, and that he could countenance such an event – extraordinary singing, which left me awed.

‘Irrlicht’ was a masterly exercise in light and shade – ‘Liegt nicht schwer mir in dem Sinn’ was insouciant in its tone, whereas the last two lines were not only subtle in the use of contrast in the repetition (the first confident to the point of triumph, the second allowing vulnerable doubt to creep in) but also tremendous in their power. This is not monochrome singing, nor does it merely display its loveliness: the words ‘mean’ something to the singer, and because they are presented with the highest musical values they have equal validity for us. In the same way the final stanza of ‘Rast’ unleashes the huge power of the voice at ‘Mit heißem Stich sich regen!’ in such a way that the singer seems like a man possessed.

‘Frühlingstraum’ began rather choppily in the piano but developed into the finest performance I have heard of this song. Without any undue exaggeration singer and pianist conveyed the true Schubertian contrast between present misery bitterly tasted and exquisite joy fleetingly recalled: as the piano traced the leaves on the window the voice indulged for a moment in ‘Wonne und Seligkeit’ lulling us to such an extent that the subsequent awakening was a moment of the highest drama: the anguish of ‘alleine’ and the bitterness of ‘und denke dem Traume nach’ were both absolutely searing, and the subsequent lines heartbreaking in their desolation, made all the more so by the honeyed warmth of ‘Die Augen schliess ich wieder’ with its aching pressure on that final word. Stunning – very nearly in a literal sense.

‘Der greise Kopf’ was given an extremely moving performance – the joy in ‘Und hab' mich sehr gefreuet’ utterly poignant, and the agony at ‘Auf dieser ganzen Reise!’ painfully bleak. ‘Das Wirtshaus’ eloquently described by Graham Johnson as ‘the grandest vocal hymn that Schubert ever wrote’ has a slowest marking of any song in the cycle, and gave ample evidence of Brendel’s remark that Goerne has the ‘longest breath’ of any singer he accompanied. Technical difficulties were made light of with singing of nobility, power and heart rending directness: the sentiments expressed at the end of the poem may suggest a determination to carry on, but singing such as this is also able to convey the utter desperation at the thought that even a graveyard will not welcome him – Goerne looked near to collapse at the end of this song, and the audience certainly felt by this time that they had embarked upon a most physically draining journey.

‘Die Nebensonnen’ found Brendel preserving the lilt in the music which Schubert desired (‘Nicht zu langsam’) and Goerne conveying the obsessive nature of the poem with the most melancholy grandeur. The huge range of dynamics in this song was achieved without exaggeration and words such as ‘auch’ on that exposed F natural were given their true significance. The final two lines were given with the kind of rapt, mesmerizing grace which is so much Goerne’s hallmark, and they set the scene for a ‘Leiermann’ of the most blazing intensity. Brendel’s evocation of the hurdy-gurdy was masterly in its direct, almost rough sensibility, and his final notes reverberated with the unanswered questions of the music – this is the modern world, Schubert seems to say; there is no picturesque floating death, no grandiose conclusion involving blazes of glory, just that question, put with such utterly captivating humility – ‘Wunderlicher Alter, Soll ich mit dir geh’n?’

Keats, at the end of his life, wrote to a friend ‘I have coals of fire in my breast. It surprises me that the human heart is capable of containing and bearing so much misery’ - and it is precisely that sense of ‘having coals of fire in the breast’ and containing a whole world of sorrow, that this Winterreise most vividly conveys. If I have a complaint it is that Brendel brought the ensuing silence to an end a little too soon: no matter, the performance will be repeated on Friday and recorded on ‘SACD’, thereby not only preserving one of the great musical partnerships, and one which it is reasonable to assume will not be thus preserved too many times in the future, but allowing us to experience again what can only be called the Winterreise of our time.


Melanie Eskenazi


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