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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Christoph Eschenbach (piano)
rec. Teldex Studio, Berlin, May 2011
Matthias Goerne Schubert Lieder Edition: Volume 9
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902107 [74:54]

Matthias Goerne’s Harmonia Mundi cycle of Schubert’s songs for baritone reaches its logical — if not chronological — conclusion with Winterreise, the greatest cycle of them all. It has all the virtues of his earlier releases, and I think it the finest baritone version of the cycle I’ve come across in a long time.

There is a weariness to the voice right from the outset, sitting alongside deeply thoughtful beauty. The transition to the major at the end of Gute Nacht, for example, is deeply touching in the way a more profound sense of wistfulness, of regret enters Goerne's voice. This shows us from the outset that this is a singer who is uniquely responsive in his singing. That moment sets us up for a journey into the very soul of this cycle, and there are few in whose company I would rather venture than Goerne's. He uses every part of his range to devastating effect: the upper reaches cry out in the poet's pain, most effectively as he meditates on the frozen brook in Auf dem Flusse; while the bottom sounds both spooky and, at times, devastatingly bleak, as in the address to his tears in Gefrorne Tränen. He is also a brilliant vocal actor: there is desperation in the voice in Erstarrung, for example, and prickly obstinacy in Rückblick that gives the cycle an immediacy that brings its impact even closer to the audience. Goerne is a man at his wits' end during Der Wegweiser, and he seems to have lost it all during Das Wirtshaus. He never loses sight of the character's empathy, however: this is not an academic exercise, but instead Goerne is drawing us ever deeper into the depths of the singer's emotional darkness, and it is a powerful experience to undergo.

Der Lindenbaum is absolutely magical: the piano weaving a delicate web during the introduction, before settling into a hymn-like accompaniment as Goerne simply spells out the tree's significance to him and the poignancy of loss that it now encompasses - the song's conclusion is haunting in its depth. Irrlicht takes its bleakness almost to the level of abstraction, while Die Krähe weaves a delicate web of sound so as to make both melody and accompaniment spellbinding. Much of Frühlingstraum contains all the lightness and innocence of Schubert at his most folksy, but Goerne and Eschenbach then explode into the truth of the second and fifth stanzas with unsettling vigour making this a psychological portrait of forensic depth.

Eschenbach's accompaniment is rather extroverted, but not in an intrusive way. The recorded sound makes singer and pianist very much a union of equals, but that's no bad thing, and there is never any danger of Goerne being drowned out. Repeatedly, in fact, the piano's tread helps to underline the funereal mood of so many of the songs. Sometimes it does this darkly, as in Rast, but in others, as in Im Dorfe or Das Wirtshaus, it does it so poignantly that the empathy with the text is underlined to an extraordinary degree. Together, they take Der Greise Kopf so slowly that it comes close to abstraction, while the spindly expression of Letzte Hoffnung achieves the same effect.

Der Leiermann is an almost unbearably poignant conclusion, pianist and singer leading each other on into what feels like a dark psychological exploration of the poor old man. Eschenbach's accompaniment is at its most delicate here, and Goerne matches him with singing that is as subtle as it is sensitive. It is testimony to this recording's success that the final bars contain no resolution but rather a question mark: does the Hurdy-Gurdy Man signify the poet recapturing human empathy, does he leave him to his loneliness, or is he, in fact, Death, bringing the poet's sufferings to their longed-for conclusion? The half-whispered final phrases of the song and the piano's suspended last chord will give you no answer: instead you have the space to make up your own mind.

The most pertinent comparisons will be with Goerne’s earlier recordings of the cycle. The first, as part of Hyperion’s complete Schubert song series, I haven’t heard. The second, with Alfred Brendel at the Wigmore Hall, perhaps has a little more electricity due to the live-ness of the occasion, but the later Harmonia Mundi version is a little more studied, and the isolation of a studio performance makes it even more introverted, helped by the closer recorded sound. If you’re looking for a baritone version then no-one will want to put away Hans Hotter — go for the 1954 performance on EMI, though the 1942 one has unique historical context — or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau - take your pick from many. If you’re looking for a modern baritone version in digital sound, then you really can’t beat this most recent one. Whatever your view on comparisons, this remains a brilliant disc, and a fitting culmination to Goerne’s HM Schubert cycle.

Simon Thompson