S&H Recital review

Mathias Goerne & Alfred Brendel, London 2001 (ME)

"Sick Man Singing." I seem to recall someone else referring to a Goerne recital by this title, and how right it seems in this case. What does it take for this man to cancel? Alone amongst singers we hear on a regular basis, he has never cancelled on us - but last night at the QEH, we felt that he certainly should have done so. Not that his singing was anything less than sublime, but he was performing at around 50% of his best, to my ears, anyway - and doing it in such pain that I found it distressing to watch him. On Friday at the Wigmore Gala, he was moving around much less than usual, so perhaps whatever ailed him had already begun - but by Sunday, he was limping so much and had such difficulty in putting any weight on his left side, that some audience members who had never seen him before thought he might have had a wooden leg. It seems to me heroic to go on in such a state; I assume that he felt he could not let Brendel down in his birthday celebrations.

I have to say that Brendel's accompaniment was the least collaborative that I have ever heard; he might have been in a different room - he was certainly performing a different "An die ferne Geliebte" and "Schwanengesang" to that of Goerne! This singer still has not found his ideal accompanist, in my view - every time I hear Quasthoff I am reminded of how lucky he is to have Zeyen, and every time I hear Goerne I wish again that there was another Gerald Moore around, with his wonderful empathy with singers as well as his poetic way of touching the piano. But I digress......

In the Beethoven, Goerne's performance was fairly restrained, for him, anyway. Taken very slowly and quietly, the expansive phrasing created that sense of looking fleetingly into a private world, which Goerne has made his own, and he gave such moments as "Innere Pein" their proper weight. Especially lovely was the fluent transition from "meine Tranen ohne Zahl...." to "Diese Wolken in den Hohen...." which was done with lyrical finesse. The final part of the cycle was beautifully sung; without trying to force such phrases as "Was mir aus der vollen Brust" and "Nur der Sehnsucht..." to bear too much weight, he nevertheless conveyed all the longing and melancholy inherent in such language and its musical phrasing. This was the first time I have heard him sing this piece, and I look forward to hearing him do it again when he is able to stand without pain!

The programming of "Schwanengesang" was curious, to say the least. In the first half, we had not only the Beethoven cycle but also the Rellstab settings with the addition of "Herbst," making that part of the evening rather overlong, and then after the interval, just the Heine settings ("Taubenpost" was given as an encore.) I can see why all this was done, but I just wish it could have been more evenly balanced out - impossible, perhaps.

One of the things I love about this singer is the way he illuminates songs by the way he groups them - his Mahler recital at the Wigmore Hall being a prime example of this - rather than just singing bits of this & that, as so many other singers seem to do. "An die Ferne Geliebte" is such a perfect match for "Schwanengesang," not only musically but in terms of the narratives and emotions of the songs; as Graham Johnson remarks in his notes to the Hyperion edition, "Over every song in "Schwanengesang" hovers the presence of a different distant beloved.....if there were a single title which might cover the theme of these songs it might be "An die ferne Geliebte...." the shared experience of unattainable love would have been another link he could claim with his great predecessor via the title of a song-cycle."

Brendel played the introductory bars to "Liebesbotschaft" beautifully - in that rather percussive, fussy way that he has - indeed, in nearly every song he gave fine renditions of the vorspiel and nachspiel, but for the rest he appeared to forget that there was singing going on - or am I just not picking up on the deep, hidden sympathy between the two of them? Judging from the rave reviews in today's "Times," "Financial Times," and "Guardian," I seem to have missed something - perhaps too preoccupied with wondering if Goerne was going to make it to the end?

The Rellstab settings were, characteristically, dark - no tripping phrases here, and no highlighting of loved lines such as "Wiege das Liebchen in Schlummer ein," which Ainsley sings with such melting tenderness on the Hyperion disc. Goerne's finest moments in this part of the programme came in such lines as "Rastloeses Sehnen! Wuenschendes Herz,/Immer nur Traenen,Klage und Schmerz?" which were sung with tremendous, powerful anguish, and in the whole of "In der Ferne," where he built up such a mesmerising sense of unfathomable sadness that you could sense the audience holding their breath, especially during the final lines. The Goerne/Brendel reading of "Abschied," too, is a melancholy one, a far cry from Fischer-Dieskau's bumptiousness (no criticism intended - I grew up with the DFD/Demus version & love it still) - only at "Ade, Ihr freundlichen Maegdlein dort" were we given any hint of the Goerne twinkle in the eye.

One of today's reviews uses the term "peerless" to describe the performance of "Schwanengesang," and, as far as the Heine settings were concerned, I have to agree. "Ihr Bild" certainly lived up to such a fulsome term. For sheer beauty of the sound of the voice alone, this would have been a marvellous performance, and one could sense much of the audience wallowing in just that. But allied to the bronze sheen on the instrument were a wonderful variety of tone colours, matchless attention to words whilst never taking them beyond their context - "Heimlich;" "Ein Laecheln wunderbar," and superb management of the climax of the poem, with all its enraptured anguish - "Das ich dich verloren hab" which tore at the heartstrings.

I have never heard "Der Doppelgaenger" sung as it was here, either on disc or live. It was simply one of the defining recital moments of my life, and, to judge by reactions around us, that of many others. Goerne's word - painting in the first stanza was that of a master, his barely -controlled anxiety at the opening quickening into what Graham Johnson superbly describes as "...creepy melisma, as if the singer were breaking out into a cold sweat;" I can tell you that the audience certainly was. The drama unfolded with tremendous, anguished force - "Und ringt die haende...." had an astringent, bitter edge, and that great "convergence of the twain" at the song's climax "meine eigne Gestalt" was achieved with astounding musicality - the raw high G at the top has surely never sounded so tortured and yet so very beautiful; absolutely perfect in pitch as well as tone, evenly controlled yet seeming to come naturally from the depths of the singer's being, it pierced you to the very soul - "Sie draengt in die Tiefe des Herzens."

Shock, would be the word of choice to describe the audience reaction at the end - neither singer nor pianist invited or encouraged a silence (as some singers do by standing with head bowed etc) but there was one, followed by deafening applause. "Die Taubenpost" was given as an encore, performed with that characteristic Schubertian mixture of eagerness and hesitation which this song must suggest, and closing with the most beautiful singing imaginable of those incomparable last lines. Johnson describes the appoggiatura lean on "die Sehnsucht" as " quite simply the most touching setting of this key word in the entire song repertoire" and Goerne sang it with the most wondrous tenderness and sense of romantic idealism. David Murray ends his FT review of Goerne's performance with the remark "Among Lieder singers today, there is really nobody who can match him." Amen to that.

Melanie Eskenazi




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