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S & H Recital Review

Beethoven, Richard Strauss, Mahler: Matthias Goerne, Alexander Schmalcz, Wigmore Hall, 8th May 2004 (ME)

Und Morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen…. in mitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde….. the opening words of the perfectly chosen encore to this stunning performance not only encapsulated what it had all been about in terms of technical prowess – those seemingly endless, long- breathed lines, that faultless control – but also of emotional completeness: after the sorrow of Kindertotenlieder, dominated as it is by storm and suffering, the sun will indeed shine over the earth and the quiet silence of happiness will descend. This kind of ‘joined- up thinking’ is of course typical of Goerne, and was also demonstrated in the association of the Beethoven lieder which began the recital, with the Strauss and Mahler which followed them.

The words ‘Lisch aus, mein Licht!’ (Go out, my light) are not perhaps expected at the beginning of a recital, but this first line to one of Beethoven’s least frequently performed works established the atmosphere of its title, ‘Resignation’ as one which coloured the whole recital: quiet acceptance of sorrow after having tasted despair. Goerne’s beautiful, steady tone at the quiet outset and his startling forte at ‘lustig aufgebrannt’ were as fine as ever, but it took a little while for Alexander Schmalcz to be on his level, the first few songs being a little tentative as far as the piano was concerned. ‘Adelaide’ found singer and pianist in confident form, the most remarkable aspects again being Goerne’s control of dynamics from the softest piano to the most confident forte. ‘Maigesang’ is one of those songs which, like with Mozart’s ‘Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling’ is always useful for disproving the notion that Lieder are always concerned with misery: it’s sheer joy from start to finish, as seemingly artless and trembling with desire as anything in Schubert, and it was sung and played wonderfully, with Schmalcz actually appearing to relish those fiendish flourishes which characterize the moments between stanzas.

A similar ardour was shown in ‘Lied aus der Ferne’ with Schmalcz providing some wonderfully virtuosic playing in the long vorspiel, and Goerne conveying a real sense of one almost swept away with passion with the breathless fervour of the final invitation ‘Zum temple der Wonne, die Göttin sei du!’ The challenging second setting of ‘An die Hoffnung’ brought the first half of the recital to a magnificent conclusion: carrying on the theme of hope and acceptance, this declamatory piece looks forward to much later works and bears comparison, at least harmonically, with some of Wolf’s songs. Goerne is on home ground with this kind of music, and he gave it all he had: intensity, seriousness of purpose, grandeur and dramatic tension were all there, nowhere more so than at the tremendous conclusion, carrying us forward to Strauss, with the sun glimpsed ‘um den Rand des Erdentraumes.’

Three songs by Richard Strauss formed the prelude to the main work of the evening: they were of course all thematically related, mingling regret with sorrow and acceptance and culminating in a wondrous performance of ‘Allerseelen’ which avoided any sense of the mawkishness which the composer regretted as the fate resulting from the popularity of such songs, but still conveyed with piercing emotion the bittersweet nature of love and loss inherent in both words and music: ‘Komm an mein Herz, dass ich dich wieder habe’ could not have been sung with more ardour, or less affectation.

Although the work is perhaps most frequently heard with full orchestra, ‘Kindertotenlieder’ was of course originally written for solo voice with piano, and every performance of Mahler’s setting of Rückert’s poems written directly after the death from scarlet fever of two of his small children must come to terms not only with the almost unbearable emotion of the piece but also with the performances of those great singers of the past with whom the work has been associated: I mean of course Ferrier and Fischer – Dieskau. Goerne is as naturally gifted as both singers, and he also possesses the steady dignity of Rehkemper and the seamless legato of Baker: this was however a performance notable for its individuality, its sense that the great ones of the past have been heard, understood and loved and yet set aside to accommodate an interpretation which gives as much attention to individual words and which sets the voice as forward as Fischer-Dieskau’s, yet never overstates: which is as emotionally searing as Ferrier’s yet somehow manages to achieve a certain distance: and which has the nobility of Rehkemper’s yet still absorbs you and involves you as if you are hearing the music for the first time.

‘It’s the singing, of course, isn’t it…’ as someone said afterwards – and indeed it is. ‘Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn’ was sung with so beautifully coloured a tone that it would have been inappropriate had it not been for the edge of sorrow in the voice and the depth of meaning given to ‘Unglück’ – the closing line, ‘Heil sei dem Freudenlicht der Welt!’ was given in one arching line of melody – superb. Michael Kennedy once wrote, finely, of Fischer-Dieskau’s performance of ‘Nun seh ich wohl’ that ‘…the repeated phrase ‘O Augen’ is sung with a compassionate intensity that tells us all we dare know about this kind of remorse’ and I would pay Goerne the same compliment, ‘all we dare know’ being wonderfully apposite for his intensity of expression here. He was superbly accompanied by Schmalcz who never overwhelmed the voice, yet he still managed to suggest an almost orchestral depth in the tone.

The final song, ‘In diesem Wetter’ contains all that the whole work, and indeed Rückert’s poems in general, have come to mean – the depiction of raw emotion, feeling conveyed with acute sensitivity and a deep understanding of the connections between the natural world and the states of mind of the sentient beings who live in it. Goerne and Schmalcz conveyed every nuance of both words and music: the anger directed at the poet himself in the first lines, the sardonic bitterness at ‘Das sind nun eitle Gedanken,’ the sense of endlessly pouring rain in the background and most of all the heartbreaking turn towards acceptance of a sort at the end, where the storm still rages outside as it once did in the poet’s heart yet within his mind he ‘knows’ that his precious children are safe now, resting ‘als wie in der Mutter Haus,’ which must surely be one of the most lump-in-the-throat moments in music – Goerne did not fail to induce exactly that, whilst still leaving us with a sense of renewal, a sense poignantly extended in that wonderful encore, where ‘Wird us, die Glücklichen, sie Wieder einen…’ took on a whole new dimension.


Melanie Eskenazi



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