S&H Recital review

Matthias Goerne (Baritone) & Eric Schneider (Piano) Schumann: Liederkreis Op. 39, Kerner Lieder, Op. 35 Wigmore Hall, September 6th 2001. (M.E.)

An eleventh - hour alteration to the programme had substituted Schumann for Schoenberg, but most of the audience had no complaints.

After a long delay, Goerne and Schneider launched straight into "Liederkreis." From the outset, it was apparent that something was affecting Goerne's vocal production; always a breathy singer, here hewas sucking in huge amounts of air and then pushing the sound out with tremendous effort. The first two songs were influenced by this, but by the time he reached "Waldesgespräch" he seemed to have willed himselfinto a better state, and he went on to give sublime performances of some of the staples of the repertoire as well as illuminating versions of less well known songs.

The Eichendorff Liederkreis is full of songs of alienation and mystery, with a few passages of the most intense rapture, and thus especially suited to this singer's style. "Waldesgespräch" was a real tour de force of drama, with the voice at one moment richly seductive, and the next eerily threatening. For the quietly rapt "Mondnacht," in a total contrast of mood and interpretation, Goerne and Schneider adopted such a slow speed that you wondered if they were going to be able to sustain such long - breathed lines , especially at the last verse, but they did - and Goerne's tone here revealed him at his finest, with apparently endless reserves as well as that characteristic mellowness. The more passionate, rhapsodic songs were equally well handled; in "Schöne Fremde," the phrases "..phantastische nacht" and "…künftigen, grossen glück.." were sung with wonderful control as well as a sense of abandoned ecstasy. The closing song, "Frühlingsnacht," was an appropriately high point of the evening; Goerne's eloquent phrasing and warmth of tone were well displayed, especially at the closing lines, and Schneider's playing of the exquisite postlude was a study in romantic piano style.

The second half consisted of twelve songs to poems by Justinus Kerner, and these far less frequently performed pieces gave ample opportunity for singing and playing the standard Wigmore Hall audiences have come to expect from this partnership. The Kerner songs evoke Schumann's melancholy temperament and his changes of mood, and although they do not have a single theme they are united by an underlying sense of sadness, only rarely lifted by moments of joy. "Stirb', Lieb' und Freud"! is an astonishing song, and the performance here matched its demands. Goerne's mastery of the art of unfolding a narrative is unequalled, and here he intoned the gloomy tale with unerring pathos. A young man describes a woman going to kneel by an image of the Virgin Mary in a cathedral town; the girl's own voice, set above the stave, is heard beseeching the Virgin to take her for her own; here, Goerne daringly used falsetto, with an astonishingly easy transition to soft baritone for the man's narrative; the heartbreaking final stanza, in which he reveals that the girl is his "Herzallerliebste" could hardly have been better sung.

Perhaps the finest performances were reserved for "Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenes Freundes" and the final song, "Alte Laute." The former is obviously very dear to Goerne; he sang it at the Wigmore's centenary concert, and it was wonderful to hear it again since it is asong which is unjustifiably neglected. The melody has a canon-like grandeur and its long lines demand exceptional skill in phrasing; it was apparently one of Wolf's favourite Lieder. The piece ponders the mystery of the relationship between the living and the dead, and along the way reflects the composer's love of "Gold der deutschen Reben!" (gold of German vines) - at these lines there is a touching modulation which is sustained through the grandeur of "Auf diesen Glauben, Glas so hold!" and Goerne sang it as though it had been written for him.

The closing song is, to me, one of the finest in the repertoire. It is marked "noch langsamer und leiser" (than the previous song) and Goerne and Schneider followed this scrupulously; Goerne's baritone rarely rose above a mellifluous, perfectly controlled half - voice, and one had to listen attentively to grasp every syllable. The poet rejects the comfort offered by nature, and affirms that only death will release him - "…aus dem Traum, dem bangen, / Weckt mich ein Engel nur." The quiet lines, with the lovely slight pressure on "Engel" were received by a rapt audience who seemed disinclined to applaud at the end, so profound was the spell created by such artistry. If one can measure the success of a recital by how often the entire hall seems to be so engrossed that the silence is almost palpable, then this opening night of the Wigmore's new season was a resounding one, in spite of Goerne's not being at his absolute vocal peak throughout.

Melanie Eskenazi

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