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S & H Interview

Matthias Goerne in conversation with Melanie Eskenazi


There was standing room only for last week's programme of Brahms at the Wigmore Hall, given by Matthias Goerne and Leif Ove Andsnes, hardly surprising given the reputations of both, but this young baritone never fails to surprise even his most devoted admirers with the originality and thoughtfulness of his programmes and the sheer intensity and musicality with which he performs them.

Invited to interview him over breakfast the next day, and talking with him after the concert, I was naturally prepared for anything; one goes to such interviews ready to deal with a diva (or rather, divo, in my experience far more likely) who will either provide monosyllables or burble egotistically, but this young baritone is not like that; in a musical world crammed with alleged originality and replete with the latest hot singers who seem to grace the Wigmore every third week, he is the genuine article - a musician completely devoid of gimmick, spin or self-promoting persona, who focuses on the composer and not himself, and who aims to create anew the emotions of the poet and composer so that each exists for us, the audience, as though we hear it for the first time. This might lead you to suppose that he would not be a good subject for an interview, but that is far from true, since I found him warm, personable and articulate.

I wanted to focus mostly on his originality and individuality as a Lieder singer, and asked him first about how he programmes his one (or very occasionally two) composer evenings, in contrast to the more usual singers' choice of programme which typically begins with Schubert and then trawls through Schumann, Brahms and sometimes even more, and which, even if confined to one composer, generally sticks to the well trodden paths of 'Heidenröslein' or 'Der Musensohn,' whereas he is always uncompromising in his programming, with each recital making us see familiar works in a new light, or introducing us to neglected masterpieces. 'Each composer has a certain style, even though one might say that their themes are basically the same, and every time I think about this I come to the same conclusion, which is that the audience's understanding is clearer if it is just one composer. The attempt to say something is the same but the way in which it is being said is so different, and it irritates me to have to make such a jump from one style to another.' He is disarmingly honest about his motivation in selecting composers and songs; 'I don't do it for the audience but for myself, you know! If the music touches me, if it moves me, then I can move them, and I am myself most moved by a programme which is concentrated on one or at most two composers. I put my programmes together as I see them, and it's not really my thing to consider too closely the effect on the audience.'

However, it is possible to make some exceptions where two composers can be juxtaposed, as he will demonstrate in May when he is to give two recitals of Schubert and Wolf at the Wigmore Hall (book now, or sell the family silver to obtain a ticket later on) and as he has famously done with Schubert and Eisler - his singing of 'Frühlingsglaube' without a pause after Eisler's 'Kalifornischer Herbst' was a brilliant way of linking the desolation of exile with a young man's hope for the future. I asked him about Eisler, since his championing of this composer's music and indeed of Entartete Musik (music regarded as degenerate and banned under the Nazis) in general (he is a Patron of the Forum for Suppressed Music of the Jewish Music Institute) is a fascinating aspect of his personality and attitude to music. 'For me, this chance discovery of this huge body of work by a real 20th century composer was a revelation, in that here was an artist comparable, in my opinion, to Brahms; the integrity, the consciousness of the times is so very great in Eisler that I was inspired to combine his songs with those of Schubert - the language of both composers, and you might also say the aim, is essentially the same despite superficial differences, and one might say that the 'Hollywood Liederbuch' is the 'Winterreise' of our times.'

It is with the latter cycle that he is, of course, most strongly associated; John Steane describes him as its 'supreme exponent,' and no one who has heard him sing Schubert's great work in recital will forget the combination of searing psychological understanding and tender inwardness which he brings to it. I put it to him that his first recording of the cycle, made when he was only 29, was a much more careful rendition than one might be led to expect from his concert performances, although it might be natural for a 'live' performance to differ from a recorded one. 'No, I don't think so; at whatever time in one's life it may be recorded, there's not much sense in making the recording if it's different from the interpretation which the artist has at that time! My interpretation of it has altered, of course - six years is a long time, but in a piece which is so central to one's whole repertoire, if not the most significant piece of all, you should only come to it when you have understood it completely; I often hear absolutely inappropriate interpretations, and I am not interested in the sort of thing which focuses on the outer form of emotionality - one must respect the work - you used the word 'careful' and in some ways I think that is the right way to be.' We will be able to judge for ourselves this Autumn, when he will make live recordings of both 'Winterreise' and 'Schwanengesang' with Alfred Brendel, both cycles to be performed twice at the Wigmore Hall.

The Wigmore Hall is clearly a very special place for him, and I asked him about its importance in his life. It was William Lyne, the Hall's director, who first brought Matthias to London and persuaded the regular audience to fill the Hall to hear this very young unknown baritone - and the rest, as they say, is history, or, as Lyne himself has described it, worrying, as usual, whether people would like the concert; but then we had his incomparable performance of Schubert's 'Totengräbers Heimweh.' It is small wonder that he sings in London so often, since 'London, and the Wigmore Hall, is of huge importance to any singer, in terms of influence and reputation; if you do well here you are made, and this is known all over Europe and even the U.S. The audience is so special, just those 450 or so people, you look out each time and see the same faces, so it is like a little community, and they are the faces of people who are so specialised - they are familiar with the music, they know the repertoire intimately, so that is comfortable as well as challenging, and they give you such a response - you give me such a response!'

Asked about the perceived problem of the aged nature of the Wigmore's audiences, someone having written that it was composed of 'biddies from the shires and their balding husbands,' Matthias positively snorted with derision - 'Age makes no difference whatsoever; an audience is an audience, and all this stuff about how we must 'try to get young people in' is nonsensical, and has nothing to do with music. Of course, I am delighted if young people are interested in the kind of concerts I do - that's wonderful, but they must decide for themselves what they want to hear, and it's not for us to be concerned with that. Maybe some who are young now will change their tastes later on, but I am not going to stand on my head and wiggle my hips just to pander to one sector of the public.'

It's safe to assume that there will be no 'crossover' from this man, and how wonderful it is to know that when one goes to a Matthias Goerne recital one can rely on programming of such integrity that one need not fear being subjected to cringeworthy encores - or indeed, any encores at all, since he is not in favour of them, on principle; 'I think that a recital is a story which must have a sequence, and the end of the story must be as certain as the beginning. You could say I don't want to destroy the effect of my programming, but it's more than that, it's also an emotional issue for me; it would be inappropriate for me to end a recital with a 'bon - bon,' but also wrong to end the recital proper with too gloomy a song - for example, in the Brahms programme, 'Meerfahrt' is so desolate that it would send the audience home miserable - the same is true of, say, 'Wandrers Nachtlied.' I want to bring the evening into the light, to bring the audience nearer to me, not further away, and that is why last night I ended with 'Lerchengesang' which has such a feeling of hope. For me the most important is that the audience should experience a 'geschlossenes Kunstwerk,' and I don't want to have any sense of manipulation of feelings - it is something that is deeply serious to me, so not giving encores after such a programme doesn't mean that I am unhappy with the response but that I want to respect the music and the audience - I want to end not in something frivolous, and not in deep melancholy either, but in deep seriousness.'

That seriousness is also related to what seems to be a constant desire to match his accompanists to the music he is singing; critics frequently begin reviews of his partnerships with solo pianists by marvelling at how it is that such eminent musicians can relegate themselves to what is perceived to be a lower position, but that is not how he sees it at all, and nor do the pianists, if we remember that it was no less than Alfred Brendel who actually asked if he might play for him. 'I find it stimulating - indeed, essential - to work with accompanists who are completely individual to the extent that they cannot play in any other way, just as I cannot sing in any other way. Of course, the potential for conflict is there, and someone like Brendel will of course have strong opinions, but then, as you can tell, so do I!' His most recent collaborator, Leif Ove Andsnes, is clearly a 'Seelenfreund' in his individuality and freshness of sound, as well as being 'one of the greatest, most significant musicians of today.' He was to have been partnered by Pierre-Laurent Aimard in Schoenberg earlier this year, but illness and lack of time prevented that recital from going ahead, however 'It is an ongoing project' since for this music, 'one must have someone at home in the 20th century.'

It is the twentieth century, and indeed the twenty-first, which holds a special appeal for him in terms of Opera; he is of course well known for being a singer who concentrates on Lieder, Oratorio and concert work, relegating opera to a fairly insignificant part of his professional life, and he is forthright in his justification for this. Opera, he says, is an art which depends upon ensemble, and this does not have great appeal for him - 'There are many Mozart operas I like very much but I don't feel compelled to sing in them!' he says with disarming frankness; 'I like to look to the operas from the 20th century where the most important part is in the main character, and that's partly why Wozzeck interests me; he is so individual, so defined a character.' Opera in general only attracts him when everything is just right; when the composer is one who 'speaks to me' (a phrase he often uses) when the director has an overall concept rather than just 'throwing it all together,' when the conductor and he have similar ideas, and when the part is individually right for him. He prefers, he says, the individuality of the recital or concert. However, he will make his Covent Garden debut as Wozzeck in September; it is of course the role which he is considered to have been 'born to sing,' and he clearly loves that opera with a passion.

It has long been my opinion that Matthias would be 'der einzige Mandryka,' the intensely romantic, unworldly hero of Richard Strauss' 'Arabella,' - he was quite obviously touched at being thus described, and he acknowledged that perhaps, that role would be the one for him, and he is considering it, although he admitted that Strauss is not really a composer who interests him greatly - I forbore to add, if he can overcome his distaste for a work in which the heroine, and not he, would be centre stage! I could not resist asking him if he might one day sing Monteverdi's Orfeo, since I already knew that he has recently been studying that composer very seriously; 'Yes, Monteverdi does interest me very much indeed, but it is such a different world, musically speaking - who knows?' Certainly, he is a singer whose art could '...trasse al suo cantar le fere, e servo fe'l'inferno a sue preghiere' (bring wild beasts to his feet and make Hell submit to him)

I wanted to discuss with him the question as to why his recordings seem to take so long to appear, but he seemed as vague about this as I am; a 'Schöne Müllerin' with Eric Schneider, recorded at Snape well over a year ago, will not appear until this August, his 'Des Knaben Wunderhorn' was recorded last year but still has no release date, and meanwhile we seem to be snowed under with recordings of Mahler and Brahms by what I would call also-rans; the very day after this interview, another two versions of 'Vier Ernste Gesänge' arrived for me to review, neither of them so far rising above the mediocre, whereas his revelatory version is as yet uncommitted to disc. His singing of Mahler comes as close to the heart's desire as can be imagined, so it was good to hear that he will record 'Kindertotenlieder' and 'Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen' with the Concertgebouw under Chailly 'in the next two years.' I have previously attempted to define what makes him, for me and many other Mahlerians, the supreme singer of this composer's works, and he remarked that his interpretation is based firmly on an exact intimacy with the score, using rubato but not so as to alter tempi - 'I don't put in pauses if they aren't there!' yet that being a given, 'I must sing it the way I feel it, I can only do it as I feel it inside myself..' a sentiment likely to be endorsed by anyone who heard his 'Rückert Lieder' at the RFH or his songs from 'Des Knaben Wünderhorn' during last year's Wigmore festival, in a recital which still lingers in my mind for its poetic mastery.

Last year, Goerne was appointed Professor of Lied-Interpretation at the Robert Schumann - Hochschule in Dusseldorf, a fitting honour for him in a country where the title 'Professor' has such stature; he will be teaching around 80 - 100 hours a half year, and one can only imagine what the competition will be to get into that music course from now on; fortunate students, although I sense that being taught by him would not be an easy ride. He was also recently created Doctor of Music at the Royal College of Music in London, and there might seem to be little left for him to conquer in terms of awards and honours, although he has yet to win a Grammy, despite coming very close with four nominations.

His most recent nomination for that award was the recording of Bach arias, and the fact that this marvellous example of his art did not win last year hardly detracts from its seminal quality. It did not come as a surprise that he names Bach as one of the three composers who speak to him most profoundly; when I asked him how it is that so young a man was able to encompass all the nuances of such music: world-weariness, consoling strength, sublime nobility, reverence, warmth and humanity - he was momentarily nonplussed but came up with the reply that Art is not to do with age but Life experience, since it is possible to have had at 18 what many do not have until much later, and in fact if his age had much bearing on his musicianship, he and Brendel, for example, would not find it so easy to work together.

So, where does he go from here? Apart from the enticing prospect of those live Schubert recordings with Brendel, the eagerly anticipated 'Die Schöne Müllerin' and his Royal Opera House debut as Wozzeck, we can also look forward to a new opera which Hans Werner Henze is writing especially for him; as yet unfinished, the work is to be titled 'L'upupa - and the Triumph of Filial Love' and is intriguingly described as 'a German comedy from the Arabian.' The cast will also include Ian Bostridge, and the premiere is set for August 2003 in Salzburg. There will also be a new 'Zauberflöte' at the Met, many more Mahler recordings, and, as he put it himself, 'Always new concerts, new partners, new programmes.' The word 'new' of course has a special resonance where he is concerned, since he is unique amongst singers in his constant quest for new ways of collaboration with accompanists, and new, special programming which makes audiences feel that accretions of varnish have been removed from loved pieces to reveal the beauty beneath.

As we were chatting about this and that, a copy of the morning's 'Daily Telegraph' was brought to us - their reviewer had got his notice of the Brahms recital in that early, and Matthias seized upon it with touching alacrity and modesty - 'Does it seem good?' To which I replied, 'Of course it does, how could it not be good' - 'Ah, (a rueful grin) it is possible to get a bad review for a good concert!' It was, of course, a glowing review, the word 'gripping' being used - 'Gripping - that's like this, to hold, yes?' (a firm clasp of the hand). It certainly was. There was so much more I wanted to ask him, but it will have to wait until next time, because he had a plane to catch (to Munich, for the next stage of his Brahms tour with Andsnes) and I a review to write - of the previous night's recital, a deeply inspiring and unforgettable demonstration of this great singer's unique art.

© Melanie Eskenazi


The photograph used in this interview is © Marc Eskenazi and is not to be used without the express written permission of the either the author or the photographer.

Melanie Eskenazi’s review of Goerne’s Brahms recital at the Wigmore Hall is here.


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