Starting a recital with An die untergehende Sonne was daring. Immediately we’re thrown into darkness and the murky depths of inner consciousness. “Immer tiefer, immer leiser, immer ernster”. The text may be peaceful, but the dizzying descent in the piano part hints at something more unsettling. Without a break, Goerne launched into Der Tod und das Mädchen. The tolling prelude makes it clear this sleep is death. The poet is Matthias Claudius, but the concept goes right back to the Middle Ages, It permeates Schubert’s aesthetic.
The theme recurs in Die Rose and Viola. Note the contrast between the two poems and Schubert’s settings. Die Rose is a poem by Freidrich von Schlegel. It’s beautifully, concisely written. The first stanza in particular scans so tightly, it’s like music: no wonder Schubert was drawn to it. It’s such a good poem, it’s a joy to read and savour word by word. Schlegel covers a wide range of images in a few brief lines. Goerne respects each word, colouring and shading with nuance, so the rose comes alive in sound, before it slowly fades away.
In contrast Viola, is to a poem by Schubert’s rakish friend Franz von Schober. “Schneeglöcklein” runs the refrain. Six verses down the violet awakes. Seven stanzas later she flees “von der tiefsten Angst verfleischt”. The violet’s come out too soon and is caught by the frost. Silver bells, bridegrooms, flowers anthropomorphized so corny that even Disney might cringe. Even Schubert struggles to make sense of the endless verses. Both Schubert and von Schober would have known Goethe’s poem Das Vielchen, and probably Mozart’s setting of it. Strophic ballads don’t have to be maudlin. Goerne makes the song believable by singing without excess ornament. After Die Rose, it’s hard to take Viola. It’s a measure of Goerne’s skill that he can pull it off.
Another very intelligent pairing : Auf dem Wasser zu Singen and Der Zwerg. Both songs describe death on the water, but in sharp contrast. In the former, Schubert’s melody dances delicately, so you can almost see the “schimmernden Wellen” as the boat gently glides on the lake. Don’t be lulled. The little boat is a metaphor for the passing of time. The poem, by Friedrich Graf zu Stollberg-Stolberg ( double barreled prince) is altogether more sophisticated than the shock horror gothic in Der Zwerg which ends in suicide-murder.
Matthäus von Collin’s poem isn’t bad, though. Rather than being a subtle mood piece it’s a saga in miniature. The dwarf and the queen have a long, complex history. She willingly accepts being murdered, even absolving the killer. It’s pretty kinky. Schubert doesn’t exaggerate the lurid colours, though his setting is dramatic. This song is always a show stopper, it’s so good. Again, Goerne doesn’t give in to pathos, his singing giving the dwarf dignity and respect. That last line, “An keiner Küste” is so chillingly sung that Goerne hints that the real horror is yet to come. The dwarf might not escape in death, but be cursed to sail forever on the lake, trapped in time.
But as usual, Goethe gets the last word. Pairing An die Entfernte with Ganymed brings out another dynamic in this extremely well planned programme. The first ends with the plaintive call “O komm, Geliebete, mir zurück”, and the second contains the soaring phrase “Ich komme, ich komme ! Wohin? Ach, wohin?” Schubert emphasizes the significance of this phrase by setting it in high relief, pauses on either side to accentuate the arc in the line. And then, “hinab strebt’s ‘s hinauf!,” Goerne’s voice lifts upwards, impressively. He catches the impatience in the song - “Mir! Mir!” and “Aufwärts!”. The stillness that prevailed before is now blown away by urgency. The concert began with the downward spiral of the piano prelude of An die untergehende Sonne, but ended with energetic animation, thrusting upwards.