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Seen and Heard Recital Review

 

 

Schubert and Eisler: Matthias Goerne, Eric Schneider, Wigmore Hall, 8th November, 2004 (ME)

 

 

‘In a society that understands and loves such a songbook, life will be lived well and without danger. These pieces have been written with such a society in mind’ wrote Hanns Eisler of his ‘Hollywood Songbook,’ and this magisterial performance of a selection of Eisler’s works, juxtaposed with groups of Schubert settings of poems by Schiller, Goethe and other poets, carried with it the great hope that such a society is possible, 42 years after the death of the composer who had never heard a performance of his greatest work. This was an inspiring programme which made demands on the audience and which took as its theme the longing for the Ideal, a longing as relevant to, and ultimately as impossible to achieve, for the Romantics as for the artists of the 20th century.

 

 

‘Der Wanderer’ expresses the seeker’s dilemma in the line ‘Dort, wo du nicht bist, dort is das Glück!’ – eternally searching for happiness, the poet is both rootless and yet fixed within his dream: small wonder that this classic evocation of longing was so popular in Schubert’s time. As always with Goerne and Schneider, we were immediately transported to the world of the song, the piano’s driving force and the elemental quality of the voice forming a partnership quite unlike any other, and this sense of intimacy with the music was even more forceful in ‘Wehmut’ which introduced an aspect of the central theme to be taken up in the evening’s final scheduled song, the sublime ‘Frühlingsglaube’ – the recognition that with each increase in consciousness comes an increase in sorrow, since it is the understanding that Nature is so beautiful which makes its impermanence all the more poignant. Sung without affectation and played without ostentation, this was as near as Lieder performance can be to perfection, the phrase ‘wenn ich die Au / In ihrer Schönheit Fülle schau’ taken in one quiet, expansive arc of sound with no intrusive breath.

 

 

Eisler’s ‘Elegies’ continue the theme of distance and alienation, here as applied to an exile in a land of apparent eternal sunshine yet which, for those who had fled there from Vienna and Berlin, was ultimately a place of darkness. The American Dream shares some features with the Romantic Ideal, and in these songs Eisler’s settings of Brecht sharply juxtapose the superficial gloss of Hollywood with the personal, reflective style of the Lied. Goerne’s singing of this music shows an identification if anything more intense than that which he reveals in Schubert: this very powerful, very rich voice might not seem ideal for this bleak, sometimes mordant music, yet he characterizes it with absolute conviction: in the second of the ‘Five Elegies’ Brecht’s lines about the ‘easy – going morgue’ that was Los Angeles were sung with a perfect blend of tonal beauty, especially at the deeply weighted word ‘Engeln,’ and sardonic edge. The superb fourth Elegy concentrates into just five lines a whole world of bitterness: Hollywood is both Heaven and Hell ‘Für die Mittellosen’ and both voice and piano here evoked the cruelty of this ambivalent place.

 

 

Three of Schubert’s settings of Schiller followed, superbly chosen to echo the sense of alienation in the Eisler songs: Schiller is not for everyone, but these songs are amongst the greatest in the repertoire, and you could not ask for finer performances of them. ‘Der Pilgrim’ parallels ‘Der Wanderer’ in its theme of an endless journey doomed to result in failure despite the poet’s bright hopes: Schneider’s playing of the transcendent vorspiel, so redolent of desire for fulfilment, would be enough to mark him out as of the first rank of accompanists, and Goerne’s singing of the noble yet despairing lines was masterly – ‘Ach, der Himmel über mir/ Will die Erde nicht berühren / Und das Dort ist niemals hier!’  was especially touching. ‘Sehnsucht’ (D636) ended the first part of the recital, in a performance of the most direct and moving sincerity: ‘Harmonien hör ich klingen, Töne süsser Himmelsruh’ could apply as much to the piano as the voice, and the final lines reflecting that only a wonder can lead you to the desired paradise finely encapsulated the evening’s guiding theme, leaving us eager to hear its further exploration.

 

 

We were not disappointed: seven songs from ‘The Hollywood Songbook’ were absolutely superb, and I would imagine a great revelation to anyone unfamiliar with them. ‘An den kleinen Radioapparat’ typifies Brecht’s conciseness of image and suggestion, Eisler’s precise, detailed and atmospheric music and Goerne’s intimate, intense delivery, with lines like ‘Versprich mir, nicht auf einmal stumm zu sein!’ (promise me at least you won’t go dead again!) quietly moving in their subdued pleading. ‘Über den Selbsmord’ is an astonishing piece, astutely chosen to end this group: the lines grimly set out the despair of the suicidal, yet keep their distance in the third person – Goerne’s voice echoed that sense of distance, yet with the final fff his tone positively exploded.

 

 

Goethe’s ‘Gesänge des Harfners’ followed, with their words of loss and longing, and their A minor melodies so redolent of the atmosphere of ‘Winterreise’ – they were sung with definitive mastery, their sadness as absolute as that of the Eisler songs: ‘Wer nie sein brot mit Tränen ass’ was typical of the performance in its hushed yet determined introduction and its extraordinarily resonant singing at ‘Ihr führt ins Leben uns hinein,’ suggesting at once the wretchedness and resentment of the speaker towards the creator who has failed him. Two more Eisler followed, the second, ‘Kalifornischer Herbst’ poignantly suggesting that a world with true seasons – that is, a Northern European world rather than the never-ending sunshine of California – symbolizes the liberated circumstances in which both poet and composer longed to live.

 

 

The final line of this song ‘Und gern im wieder befreiten Winter wohnen’ (happy to live in our liberated Winter) was swiftly followed by a reminder of the ineffable hope provided by Springtime: ‘Frühlingsglaube’ suggests a sense of acceptance which beautifully sharpens these intimately linked themes of homesickness, longing, isolation and the endless quest for that which is pure, precious and eternal: Uhland’s words and Schubert’s music are the archetypical evocation of the Romantic sensibility, of that ‘Sehnsucht’ typified by its bittersweet nature: Spring brings hope, yet also the reminder that ‘April is the cruellest month.’ The quality of the singing and playing was almost beyond praise: nuanced, subtle, heartfelt musicianship, without any undue verbal persuasion yet just enough gentle pressure on such lines as ‘Die Welt wird schöner mit jedem Tag’ to highlight their emotional impact, and ‘Nunn muss sich alles, alles wenden’ (Now all must change) a wondrous final reminder of the joy that can be created by a singer and a pianist who are as one in mind and spirit, particularly when their programme is as moving and as thought-provoking as this one. A sublime evening.

 

 

Melanie Eskenazi

 



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