19 Jun 2009
Goerne and Eschenbach : Winterreise
When Matthias Goerne was six, he heard Winterreise and was captivated.
Verdi Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House - a masked ball in every sense, where nothing is quite what it seems. On the surface, this new production appears quaint and undemanding. It uses painted flats, for example, pulled back and forth across, as in toy theatre. The scenes painted on them are vaguely generic, depicting neither Boston nor Stockholm, where the tale supposedly takes place. Instead, we focus on Verdi, and on theatre practices of the past. In other words, opera as the art of illusion, not an attempt to replicate reality. Take this production too literally and you'll miss the wit and intelligence behind it.
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Maurice Greene (1696-1755) had a highly successful musical career. Organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a position to which he was elected when he was just 22 years-old, he later became organist of the Chapel Royal, Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge and, from 1735, Master of the King’s Music.
When Matthias Goerne was six, he heard Winterreise and was captivated.
Obviously, he was too young to understand all the complex emotions in the piece but what he recognized was that they mattered. Winterreise is so powerful that even a child, albeit a talented one, could be inspired to commit it to memory.
There have been hundreds of Winterreises at the Wigmore Hall over the years. This is an audience that knows the work bar by bar and isn’t easily impressed, so when most of the house stood up in applause it was serious praise indeed. I first heard Goerne sing Winterreise some 15 years ago, near the start of his adult career (he was a child prodigy in East Germany). He was only 26, yet Irwin Gage was playing, and Alfred Brendel was listening in the stalls, rapt with attention. Goerne and Brendel became a legendary partnership, creating some of the finest Schubert performances ever produced. Their recording of Winterreise is one of the must-hear classics.
Christoph Eschenbach is a superlative Schubert performer too, so this new series of Schubert cycles at the Wigmore Hall is a significant event. Goerne and Eschenbach have already recorded Die schöne Mullerin as part of the new Harmonia Mundi Schubert Edition. Goerne’s earlier recording of that cycle is exceptional. Quite frankly, you can’t “know” that cycle without having heard that recording, because it puts paid to the myth that the cycle is sweet and innocent. Darker undercurrents almost always flow through the Romantic.
With Eschenbach, Goerne’s refining his approach to Winterreise yet again, this time even more cognizant of the structural underpinnings beneath the text. Each song marks a different stage in the journey, and those stages are in themselves significant, to be savoured for what they portend. The journey starts in a huff, the protagonist impulsively dashing out of town, the wind images in ‘Die Wetterfahne’ expressing turbulent confusion. Gradually the woman who caused the problem fades into a more generalised image on which the man can hang his feelings. ‘Der Lindenbaum’ is a temporary halt, a short moment of calm before “Die kalten Winde bliesen..” Then the true impact of the words “ich wendete mich nicht” sinks in.
This is a psychological journey, away from the town and its bourgeois values. The protagonist is out in the wilderness, in uncharted territory, where only animal spoor marks a path. Thus Goerne and Eschenbach employ a deliberate, watchful pace: paying close attention to each passage, every detail counts. Eschenbach even brought out the faint pre echo of the posthorn that appears as early as ‘Der Lindenbaum’. Similarly, the village dogs appear, in the rhythms that start ‘Im Dorfe’.
Landscape is important in Winterreise: it is a mirror of the protagonist’s soul. Schubert builds images of nature into the piano part not merely to illustrate text, but to act as an alter ego, almost a third party commentary beyond the protagonist’s highly subjective anguish. Pathetic fallacy operates, of course, for the protagonist hears his troubles reflected in the storm and swollen river, and sees frost patterns as flowers. But there’s infinitely more to the idea of Nature in the Romantic imagination. It stands as a symbol of something greater than mankind, something that endures beyond the personal and immediate.
This has implications for interpretation. Some performances depend on exaggeratedly emotional singing, on the assumption that the protagonist must be mad, since he gives up civilization to follow a crazy old beggar. Thus follows the idea that the journey can only end in death. But that trivializes the whole logic behind the cycle. If the protagonist is mad, why are we so drawn into this psychodrama? Wilhelm Muller – and Schubert – wanted us to experience the journey through the man’s feelings, to sympathize with why someone should choose a wilder path in life. Perhaps in more psychologically repressed times the idea of madness and death prevailed but for the Romantics angst was a code for what we now call the subconscious. The Romantic interest in emotional extremes was a reaction to the tidy elegance of classicism. Schubert’s contemporaries were troubled by the world Winterreise revealed, and rightly so.
The protagonist is driven to his limits but never loses sight of the world around him, even though he interprets it in terms of himself, for example when he thinks the crow is a companion. In that sense he’s not a depressive, turned entirely away from reality. Some point to ‘Der Nebensoonen’ as evidence that the man must be nuts if he sees three suns in the sky. But it’s a physical phenomenon that in extreme cold, the sun appears distorted in this way. For a century, we’ve become so used to electricity and urban living that we can’t imagine such things as reality. Goerne sings with quiet, understated dignity, as if he’s witnessing a miracle in nature. True, the protagonist still sees the eyes of his beloved wrought as huge cosmic images in the sky, but perhaps there’s something more.
The cycle ends with the strange hurdy-gurdy of ‘Der Leiermann’. The Leier isn’t a lyre, but a primitive instrument, turned rather than played, making a mechanical circular sound. The old man is “Baarfuss auf dem Eise”, barefoot on the ice, exposed to the elements, without a shred of bourgeois respectabilty. And yet he doggedly makes his way from village to village, despite being hounded by dogs and men. “Wunderlicher Alter!” sings the protagonist, what kind of phenomenom is this? Orpheus in rags?
Goerne sings the final sentence with overwhelming grace and wonder. “Willst zu meinen Liedern deine Lieier drehn?” Will the man follow the old beggar, who perhaps once set out on a similar journey? Perhaps he’s like the crow, whose companionship is coincidental not real. But the old man is human and plays a vaguely musical instrument. Perhaps he’s a symbol of the power of music, which like Nature endures whatever may happen to an individual. Throughout the cycle, the rhythms of the hurdy gurdy and lurching footsteps lurk in the shifts of pace and intensity. The Leiermann haunts the whole piece, though it takes performance of this very high standard to bring them out.
|Sehnsucht||An mein Herz||Die schöne Müllerin|