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05 Mar 2010

Matthias Goerne at Wigmore Hall, London

In this, the first of two recitals with pianist Helmut Deutsch, baritone Matthias Goerne continued his very personal journey through the landscape of Schubert’s lieder, a passage which is currently being preserved on an outstanding series of discs by Harmonia Mundi.

Matthias Goerne at Wigmore Hall, London

Matthias Goerne, baritone; Helmut Deutsch, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Sunday 28th February


The paths on this occasion carried him largely to sombre, meditative places, the domains being defined by a series of mainly minor poets - friends and acquaintances of the composer, and with whom he performed, conversed and relaxed in the Viennese salons of the 1820s.

‘Der Jüngling und der Tod’ (‘The youth and death’), with a text by Schubert’s early champion, Josef von Spaun, opened the recital, firmly establishing the literary and emotional tone; for here, Youth cries out for the ‘calm embrace’ of Death, yearning to be led to ‘dreamed-of’ lands far from the torments of life. Deutsch’s dramatically dark piano postlude presented a stark contrast with the subsequent gentle grace of the strophic ‘Das Lied im Grünen’ (‘Songs in the open air’); but despite the apparent sense of ease, a tremulous disquiet troubled the surface as the speaker looks ahead to the days when life is ‘no longer green’.

Songs by Johann Gaudenz von Salis-Seewis followed. The introspective text of ‘Die Herbstnacht’ (‘Autumn night’) allowed Goerne to settle into the seamless, legato stream of sound - seductively sustained, yet coloured by delicate emotive shadings - for which he is revered. Indeed, the understated melancholy and brooding might have become a little too pervasive, particularly given the performers’ propensity for performing the songs with scarcely a break, and the more agitated contours and sentiments of ‘An mein Herz’ provided a welcome contrast.

Despite the attempts of Richard Stokes, in the programme notes, to bolster the merits of these lesser lights of German Romantic verse (“If Schubert composed some 150 songs to the minor verse of his friends and acquaintances, that does not imply a lack of literary awareness, but rather a gift of friendship”), it was a setting of Friedrich von Schlegel, ‘The Wanderer’, which proved to be the highlight of the first half. Deutsch’s aural impression of the ‘moon’s light’ perfectly captured in rare harmonic nuance the silvery gleam; and, the more sophisticated relationship between voice and accompaniment drew an added depth from the performers - a seriousness which was sustained through the anonymous ‘Klage’ (‘Lament’) and Schober’s ‘Am Bach im Frühling’ (‘By the stream in spring’), where the sudden wanings of colour and weight in the voice revealed the omnipresence of death.

After the interval, Goerne and Deutsch seemed even more in harmony, embraced by a shared aesthetic vision. The second half began with upwardly curving ripples from the keyboard, signalling a rare moment of lightness. In ‘An die Laute’ (‘To the lute’) the serenading lover urges his instrument to be tender and soft - not to win his loved one’s heart, but rather so that the jealous neighbours are not disturbed. After settings of Freiherr von Schlechta and Johann Baptist Mayrhofer, it was again perhaps telling that it was the more stellar figures of Rückert and von Schober who had so obviously had inspired Schubert to expressive heights. The former’s ‘Du bist die Ruh’ (‘You are repose’) was exquisitely shaped, the second climax approached and wrought with remarkably controlled passion. In the concluding lines, Goerne created a quiet stillness of remarkable and touching delicacy. In contrast, the satisfyingly familiar ‘An die Musik’ revealed the darker colours in Goerne’s baritone range, and the dialogue between voice and piano left hand enabled Deutsch to enter into the conversation as both accompanist and equal.

The final two songs, ‘Abschied von der Harfe’(‘Farewell to the harp’) and ‘Liebesend’ (‘Song’s end’) lowered a sombre curtain on the evening’s proceedings. The performers offered no hint of consolation, Goerne sustaining the embedded melancholy until the dying strains, as ‘From a cold heart/ the magic of song now steals away,/ and ever closer step/ transience and the grave.’ As throughout the recital, there were no melodramatic gestures, no exaggerated mannerisms, just a heartfelt sincerity communicated by the most controlled and often understated musical means.
What was most striking about this recital was Goerne’s ability not only to present the material with consummate mastery, but also to convey a genuine sense of inhabiting the experience of these songs; to balance introspection with direct communication, all the while sustaining a mood of intimacy worthy of the Schubertiaden itself.

Claire Seymour

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