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S & H Recital Review

Brahms: Matthias Goerne, Leif Ove Andsnes, Wigmore Hall, February 13th. (ME)

This one- composer Liederabend, so characteristic of the singer in its seriousness and intensity, attracted a full house not so much for the music as for the artists; even those who expressed the wish that Matthias Goerne had been singing Schubert or Schumann came away full of new admiration for these wonderful songs. It was clearly his intention 'to delight and to instruct,' and in this he was brilliantly successful, to the extent that critics could be heard searching for superlatives - but then, when has that not been the case for those fortunate enough to be amongst the regular audiences for this prodigiously gifted baritone? Each time I hear Goerne, his voice seems to have become not only more beautiful but also richer and deeper, and the same can be said of his interpretative skills.

The programme was constructed with his familiar mastery, grouping songs based on poems of melancholy and obsessive love by various poets, followed by a set of Daumer and von Platen, with the evening's central work being the 'Vier ernste Gesänge' whose intensity was then balanced by a set of exquisite Heine lyrics. It was also an opportunity for the most wonderful vocal display, from sonorous, profound bass lines to the most delicate, shimmering, ecstatic pianissimo. When every second recital promises yet another bright new baritone or tempting just-hatched tenor, this one is the real thing; a young singer so dedicated to his art, so searching in his desire to collaborate with his accompanists, so replete with every manifestation of true greatness, that you cannot but come away feeling altered and enriched.

The very first song gave ample testimony to the view that we were hearing the greatest voice of our time in the full flower of its wondrous beauty. 'Die Mainacht' is not a crowd - pleasing opener for a recital, with its troubled, melancholy language (reminiscent of Heine's 'Was will die einsame Träne?') and its leaps from mellow notes in the middle range of the voice to the most turbulent outbursts; all of this Goerne managed with superb skill, his tone varying from the meltingly lyrical at 'Wandl' ich traurig von Busch zu Busch' to stunning fortes at 'Und die einsame Träne.'

The 'Lieder und Gesänge' Op. 57, a mini - cycle based upon poems by Friedrich Daumer, are perfect vehicles for this singer, with his poetic phrasing and ability to suggest the state of being embroiled in obsessive love within just one line. As always with Goerne, you are instantly there - he becomes the poet, the composer, and you feel each song as though it has just been written. In 'Ach, wende diesen blick' his singing of 'Das schlangengleich mich in das Herze sticht' (that like a serpent eats into my heart) had a biting intensity, and in 'Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen' he encompassed a whole lover's history in one short song, from the listless, forlorn quality of '.jede Kraft und jeden Halt verlor ich' to the achingly touching pleading of 'Nur dein gefühl enthülle mir, dein wahres! (but show your feelings, and truly!) In 'Es traumte mir' we then heard two minutes of the most absolute perfection that can be achieved in the linking of singer and pianist; as the voice shaped the melancholy, yearning words, the piano's falling - and rising melodic figure gave warning of the delusory quality of the dream.

The first half of the recital ended with a series of settings of Daumer and Platen, displaying the qualities of composer, singer and pianist. 'Die Kränze' is one of Daumer's translations from Greek, and its passionate, raw, obsessive nature was given free rein in both singing and playing; 'Am Sonntag Morgen' was equally intense, with such a tremendous display of anguished force at 'Um einsam die Hände wund zu ringen' that not only the audience but also the accompanist seemed startled.

The 'Vier ernste Gesänge' are amongst the greatest works in the whole song repertory, and here they were given a performance which not only confirmed their greatness (which does need confirming, since many renditions serve to convince us only of their potential for tedium) but set Goerne apart from every other singer today. This was not a weary trudge through burdensome Biblical texts, nor was it a piece of showmanship for its own sake; instead, one heard this music as though for the first time, in performances which were simply peerless. No one who was there will forget the drama, the searing intensity, the inwardness of the singing; Goerne sings every line as though it is 'etwas heil'ges' yet in such a way as to include all of us in the message of the music. That the voice, with its bronze sheen and unmistakable poetic legato, is a God-given instrument of unsurpassed beauty, would be enough in itself, but to this he adds the ability to unfold a text with gripping drama. It was abundantly clear that he feels these texts deeply, and because he presents them with the most exalted musical values, you cannot help but do so too. A marvellous performance in which one sensed Andsnes at times having to run to keep up with the singer, but which was also accompanied throughout with stirring virtuosity and passion.

Where could they go from there? Or, as a man behind me said, 'Wow! Follow that!' But he did follow it, and go beyond it, in performances of five Heine settings which are amongst Brahms' greatest works. 'Sommerabend' and 'Mondenschein' make a sublime pair of songs, together evoking the healing powers of night, and they were sung and played with aching tenderness. 'Es schauen die Blumen' is a restless song, redolent of yearning, presenting a challenge to the singer who must evoke such heart-rending passion in so short a space of time; needless to say this was achieved, the final 'wehmütig und trüb' resting on the air long after it had been heard.

The evening's final song (and genuinely so, for there were no encores, although the audience was warmly appreciative) was the exquisite 'Lerchengesang' which ended the programme on a characteristically uncompromising note; instead of a display of rumbustiousness or flirtation á la Terfel or Quasthoff or Graham or indeed virtually any other recitalist, Goerne chose to leave us with an extremely difficult piece where the challenges are quite other than those presented by bravado or coquettishness. This ecstatic song demands the most perfect legato technique, the highest skill in pianissimo singing and the most delicate word pointing, as well as the most virtuosic yet unshowy technique in the accompaniment, especially in the instrument's depiction of the constant song of the lark. Every one of these challenges was more than met, and one just sat open-mouthed in wonder at the long - spun legato lines in which the singer hardly seemed to breathe at all, and the extreme softness and quietness which he was able to achieve without losing audibility.

If it is true that, as Keats wrote, 'The excellence of every art is in its intensity,' then this recital reached the highest levels of art, both in the singing and the playing. Such singing, in which you sense that the words are being sung through the core of the singer's body, makes other performers seem superficial and awakens in the listener a sense of wonder at the artistry of this man, still so young and yet already so complete a musician in every way. A wonderful evening.

Melanie Eskenazi

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