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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Schubert: Lieder, Matthias Goerne, Eric Schneider, Wigmore Hall, November 10th 2004 (ME)

This all-Schubert programme, chosen by William Lyne, was planned as part of last year’s ‘Director’s Festival’ but the singer was indisposed at the time, thus allowing us to hear it now in the context of Monday night’s very different, no less remarkable recital. Unlike the more rarefied repertoire of that occasion, all but a tiny handful of this evening’s songs were ‘favourites’ – nevertheless we heard each song as if it were being sung for the first time, reminding cynics amongst us that it is sometimes a wonderful thing to hear what may be over-familiar material when it is given in such a way by two absolute masters of the genre.

Few Schubert songs are as well-known as ‘Wandrers Nachtlied II’ and this rapt, hushed performance of it set the tone for the evening: despite the occasional levity of a song like ‘Fischerweise,’ the overall feeling was sombre, valedictory and poignant. ‘Der Musensohn’ was the most vivid exception to this, in a positively virtuosic performance where Schneider’s hands seemed almost to be racing with Goerne’s voice, the headlong pace still not preventing the singer from giving point to such lines as ‘Das steife Mädchen dreht sich’ and characterizing with great skill the final stanza with its change of mood from exuberant to wistful.

Lyne’s selections included two of my favourites amongst the entire repertoire, ‘Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren’ and ‘Abschied’ (Mayrhofer) and I can say without a shadow of doubt that the singing and playing of these marvellous pieces represented the finest Lieder performance I have heard. ‘Lied eines Schiffers’ was taken so slowly, with such quiet fervour and intensity, that you found yourself hanging on each phrase, uttered in Goerne’s seemingly effortless, firmly supported legato which at one and the same time is capable of appearing intimately colloquial and yet full of grandeur: Schneider’s playing was as intense, with the most exact depiction of the oar plying the waves in the final stanza.

Magical – but even this paled by comparison with the evening’s final song, ‘Abschied’ (D. 475). This solemn, elevated work is a farewell like no other: the vorspiel vividly echoes the reluctant steps of the departing traveller, and with each phrase the poet’s sorrow seems to grow deeper, his descriptions of the beauties he leaves behind intoned against piano chords that touchingly evoke his unwilling passage – nothing could be finer than the tender, aching sound of Goerne’s voice here, the long phrases taken so expansively as though each word has to be treasured, each loved loss savoured, and yet all was done without a hint of sentimentality, even ‘Ach wie wird das Herz betrübt’ (ah, how it grieves the heart!) graceful rather than cloying. Schneider’s playing of the wondrous nachspiel, so redolent of bitter sorrow, was equal to the singing. No higher praise could be given, except perhaps the words of a splendid military-looking chap standing in the cloakroom queue as I squeezed past him: ‘Do you know, I kept breaking out into a sweat during that last song?’ Since the advent of the hall’s new air conditioning, we know that it couldn’t have been the heat…

‘Wandrers Nachtlied I’ and ‘Totengräbers Heimweh’ offered almost equally remarkable interpretations: Goethe’s impassioned lines drew from Goerne some deeply moving singing, the final invocation ‘Süsser Friede /Komm, ach komm in meine Brust!’ delivered with real fervour, and the evening’s penultimate performance was a study in how to convey a sense of a spiritual journey within the compass of one song via dramatic delivery, impassioned phrasing – ‘Im Leben, da ist’s auch so schwer, ach! so schwer’ (Life is ah, so hard! so hard) can seldom have been more intensely expressed - and sheer beauty of sound, especially at the closing lines where the singer is drawn to the grave and yet his spirit is impelled ever upwards: the silence in the hall as Goerne sang ‘An dich knüpft die Seele ein magisches Band’ (to you the soul is bound by a magic bond) in a spellbinding mezza-voce, was almost tangible. William Lyne once remarked that Goerne’s interpretation of this song was ‘incomparable’ adding ‘No one sings ‘Totengräbers Heimweh’ like Matthias. His singing comes from inside.’ Lyne must have loved every phrase of this profound example of the Lieder singer’s art.

Melanie Eskenazi

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