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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Alfred Brendel (piano)
8 and 10 October 2003 (Live concerts) Wigmore Hall, London
DECCA CLASSICS 467 092-2 [75.32]

Habe ja doch nichts begangen, dass ich Menschen sollte scheun, Dass ich Menschen sollte scheu’n…

These are the lines which most clearly define this performance, one which I have previously described as ‘The Winterreise of our time’ (see Review of the Wigmore Hall performances from which the recording was made) a phrase which I see no reason to change after repeated hearings. Goerne’s traveller is most overwhelmingly the forlorn, touching figure of an outcast who longs for the simple warmth of love and home, and every so often there breaks from him the cry – why was I of all men marked out for isolation, for loss, for loneliness? Joseph von Spaun described Schubert’s own singing of the first twelve songs of the cycle as being ‘in a voice wrought with emotion’ and this is precisely how Goerne does it, every word, every musical phrase suffused with longing, and Brendel’s more austere, yet still deeply felt playing is the perfect foil.

Recordings of ‘Winterreise’ offer almost every conceivable style of interpretation, from the raw anguish of a Schreier / Schiff or a Fassbaender / Reimann, through the intensity of Fischer-Dieskau / Moore and on to the urbane Hampson / Sawallisch and the semi-detached Henschel / Gage, and of course feelings about them tend to run high. I can only give one reasonably well informed opinion on the ‘competition’ for the present recording, which is that whilst I would not wish to be without Fischer-Dieskau, Pears (but mainly for Britten’s playing) Schreier, Fassbaender, Husch or Hotter, I can take or leave most of the rest of them./ As for Goerne / Brendel it seems to me to offer everything that I want from a performance of the work, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is, on balance, the finest I know.

The overall effect of this interpretation is that of combining faithfulness to musical values – Schubert is said to have expected his songs to be played in strict tempo, with many of them based upon the ‘gehende bewegung’ so essential to their rhythm, and Goerne and Brendel are exemplary in both areas – with what Capell memorably defined as ‘an outcry of scorched sensibility’ pervading the singing. As is frequently the case with Goerne, one is always aware of a sense of a journey, a development from, in this case, despondency to the numb despair of suffering humanity. This is achieved without any striving after effect, with a total absence of artificiality, and perhaps most remarkably without ever highlighting ‘key’ phrases. All is part of the whole, and all is sung with beauty of tone, musicality of phrasing and near-faultless legato.

Brendel’s playing comes across as very much less percussive on this recording than it seemed in the performance, and one is also far more aware of a sense of noble companionship between the two men than heretofore. ‘Ge -fror’ne Tropfen fal -len von mei -nen Wangen ab:’ – the voice unaffectedly traces the rise and fall of the line. With ‘ob es mir denn entgang gen, dass ich ge -weinet hab? dass ich ge -weinet hab’ the tone becomes gently beseeching, and at ‘…Ei Tränen, meine Tränen...’ distress just creeps into the lower notes. All the while the piano partners and collaborates with the voice, neither dominating it nor following in its trail.

‘Frühlingstraum’ is masterly. It is all here, from the sense of evanescent joys so briefly tasted contrasted with the anger of the harsher present, ‘Wonne und Seligkeit’ so meltingly recalled, to the desolation of the final question after the ache of ‘Die Augen schliess ich wieder’ – a desolation made final by the piano’s sombre nachspiel. In ‘Der Wegweiser’ those crucial lines are given with hushed intensity, as though an answer might really be forthcoming. ‘Das Wirtshaus’ recreates the same sense of seeing into the depths of someone’s soul that the live performance possessed. The marking of ‘Sehr langsam’ is of course respected in a way that few, if any, other singers can manage, the noble phrases shaped with impassioned fervour.

Directness, simplicity and tenderness are the most evident nuances of the final two songs, with ‘Die Nebensonnen’ full of melancholy, the singer’s tone swelling into the phrases and the piano echoing its caress: this is not a bleak interpretation of the music, neither is it comfortable. It simply communicates the words and music with such powerful candour and magisterial authority that it seems as if this is the only way to present the work. ‘Der Leiermann’ may not have Fischer-Dieskau’s and Moore’s sense of the subsuming of the wanderer’s soul into the nebulous landscape, with the indefinite phrases echoing the dislocation of the speaker’s mind. It is however weighted with all the sorrow that has gone before: Brendel’s ‘hurdy-gurdy’ is only just this side of rugged, and Goerne’s final question leaves the listener awed by its absolute humility.

The recording quality is spacious and serene. Decca have done both the Wigmore Hall and the artists proud, with very little sense of intrusion from the audience save the welcome one of enthusiastic applause, the closing part of it separated from the music by an appropriate silence.

Eric Schneider once expressed delight at the knowledge of the work which he discerned in my review of his and Goerne’s ‘Schöne Müllerin,’ but also said that it was ‘very very long’ which I took to be his gentlemanly way of saying ‘too long’. Goerne once opined of one of my reviews of a live performance of his, that there was ‘too much Beckmesser’ in it. I hope that the present review pleases them both, in that it is as short as I can reasonably make it, and it contains no Beckmesser at all, for the simple reason that the performance is as close to perfection as any human creation can possibly be.

Melanie Eskenazi

Review of the concert performance

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