Schubert’s settings of Mayrhofer filled the first part of the recital. Mayrhofer was an unstable personality who dramatically drowned himself. That happened years after these songs were written, but even his youth Mayrhofer had an unhealthy fascination with death, with water, stars and death, extreme even by the standards of early 19th century Romanticism. How much Schubert sensed Mayrhofer’s problems, we’ll never know as he broke off their friendship soon after the songs were written. But in these settings there’s a distinct sense of unnatural calm.
Steady, undulating rhythms evoke waves, whether on the Danube or in Venice. The effect is almost hypnotic, revealing Mayrhofer’s obsessional fixations. Water images occur frequently in Schubert’s music, but rarely as unnervingly as in these songs. “Die Erde ist gewaltig schön doch sicher ist sie nicht” (“Wie Ulfru fischt”, D 525) No wonder the poet envies the fish hidden in the depths, and the stars in the sky above.
The incessant rocking rhythms of the waters are matched by delicate triplets which evoke the twinkling of distant stars. “Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren” (D 360) is relatively calm, for it describes a sailor already on his journey to death, guided and comforted by the stars.
In performance, sometimes the loveliness of these songs distracts from true meaning, but a singer like Goerne understands their inner portent. His voice is capable of great force and fire, but in these songs he tempered power with extreme restraint, true to the spirit of Mayrhofer who was desperately keeping his demons under control.
Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister poems lend themselves to much greater dramatic intensity .As he enters his forties, Goerne’s voice has grown with maturity. There’s no one singing now who can match the gravitas of his lower register, but what’s even more impressive is the fluidity with which he can phrase and color words within lines with precise nuance.
These songs allow moments of great power. “Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß” (D 840) culminates in crescendi of anguish, which Goerne expresses with surges, not of volume alone, but of emotional depth. Eric Schneider has been playing with Goerne for about 15 years, but now he’s playing with more articulation and maturity. In the Mayrhofer settings his “star” and “water” passages were eerily acute. In the Harper songs, he made the piano sing like a harp, not a huge concert hall harp, but the smaller, more intimate harp a wandering minstrel like Wilhelm Meister would have played: it was uncannily vivid, very haunting.
“An Mignon” (D 161) refers to Mignon, whose frail innocence is tested by tragedy. In many ways, Goerne’s agility in lighter, higher passages is even more impressive, for dark timbred voices don’t easily lend themselves to such gentleness. Fast paced songs also test a deep baritone, so the frisky “Der Fischer” (D225) truly tested the agility of Goerne’s pacing. When he sings the words of the girl in the poem he doesn’t even try to mimic a female voice, instead making the transition by brightening and sharpening the tone.
Good technique makes such singing possible, but what makes Goerne’s musicianship so interesting is the emotional depths he can reach. “Ich denke dein” he sings in “Nähe des Geliebten” (D 62), warmed with heartfelt ardor. But the beloved isn’t actually near but far away. So the voice swells, open-throated, matching the expansive motifs in the piano part.
This was the first of two Schubert recitals taking place at the Wigmore Hall in London. The second will also appear here in Opera Today.