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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Mathias Goerne (baritone)
Jan Lisiecki (piano)
rec. 2019, Teldex Studio, Berlin
Texts & translations included

There’s a fundamental problem with Beethoven’s songs, and it isn’t just to do with Schubert. The stoutest defenders of Beethoven’s lieder say that they don’t get a fair hearing because Schubert so comprehensively surpassed them, and that’s a fair point. However, it doesn’t alter the fact that, fundamentally, this genre just wasn’t one of Beethoven’s strengths. Generations of singers and pianists have gone about the job of rehabilitation, but they only paper over the cracks in music that is often lightweight and dispensable.

Matthias Goerne and Jan Lisiecki are the latest to go about it and, in fairness to them, they do as good a job as you could expect, in particular with the two undoubted masterpieces on this disc: An die ferne Geliebte, the first proper song cycle, and the set of six Gellert songs opus 48. Goerne argues a particularly convincing case for the Gellert set, calling them “a cycle on a par with An die ferne Geliebte.” Strong words! He backs himself well, though, and bringing inner prayerfulness to the six songs on religious subjects, and Lisiecki shows himself a first rate partner, bringing shuddering darkness to Vom Tode, contrasting the firm assurance of Bitten and Gottes Macht und Vorsehung.

Goerne’s voice isn’t quite what it used to be. He has lost some of the richness and drama that characterised his previous performances, and there’s a touch of dryness in the voice that I don’t remember noticing before. However, he deals with this by giving the words even more expressiveness, and most of his singing on the disc feels inward, even prayerful at times, so that his quiet singing, reduced almost to a whisper in places, is second to none.

The recording helps, giving the music an intimacy and a proximity to the ear that helps Goerne’s vision, and Lisiecki matches him note for note in the expressivity of his playing. It would take a finer pairing than these two to convince me of the merits of some of the weaker numbers, though. I think I could survive the rest of my listening life without again hearing An die Hoffnung (either of them!), Gesang aus der Ferne or Der Liebende, songs that are just too slight and shallow. However, Goerne and Lisiecki do lovely things with songs like Maigesang, full of frolicking joy, or Adelaide, which throbs with unfulfilled longing, and they turn Das Liedchen von der Ruhe into something really lovely.

An die ferne Geliebte demonstrates their partnership at its best, Goerne’s inward-looking, peaceful singing bringing meditative thoughtfulness to the forlorn lover. Lisiecki brings breathless impetuosity to the piano line, especially to Es hehret der Maien, and not everyone will love the rapid upward gallop that concludes the score, but he restrains this for thoughtful peace in the first songs. Nothing has yet lured me away from my allegiance to Christian Gerhaher’s 2012 recording (review), and I can’t currently imagine any singer doing so. His is still the finest recent performance, though his coupling nudges him towards a different market to Goerne and Lisiecki’s disc. one.

If you want an overall survey of Beethoven’s songs then on balance the finest is still Stephan Genz and Roger Vignoles’ disc for Hyperion, but if you’re an admirer of Goerne’s and you’re interested in hearing how his voice has developed, then this disc will do very well.

Simon Thompson

An die ferne Geliebte
An die Geliebte
An die Hoffnung op. 32
An die Hoffnung op. 94
Der Liebende
Lied aus der Ferne
Lieder, Op. 48
Das Liedchen von der Ruhe
Wonne der Wehmut

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