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Matthias Goerne [Photo by Marco Borggreve for harmonia mundi]
26 Apr 2012

Matthias Goerne, Los Angeles

Los Angeles lieder lovers were treated to two extraordinary Schubertian journeys on April 16th and 18th when bass-baritone Matthias Goerne partnered with Christian Eschenbach performed the song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s celebration of the composer’s 215th birthday.

Sublime Schubert

Matthias Goerne, baritone; Christian Eschenbach, piano. Walt Disney Concert Hall. Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin April 16, 2012. Franz Schubert: Winterreise April 18, 2012.

Above: Matthias Goerne [Photo by Marco Borggreve for harmonia mundi]


But then any performance by Goerne is sure to be extraordinary. The German singer has taken every aspect of the performance of lieder far beyond what it was when lieder recordings of an earlier generation of singers; Gerhard Husch, Friedrich Schorr, Lotte Lehman, became available to international audiences. His physical and vocal presentations have offered fresh insights and set new standards for the two generations of lieder aficionados nurtured by the voluminous recordings (at least twelve of Winterreise alone) and world-wide performances of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Goerne was in fact, considered Fischer-Dieskau’s anointed heir. Not only had he studied with him, as well as with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, but Fischer-Dieskau had recommended his young student as a replacement for himself when he retired in 1993. Goerne, however, considers the most important teacher in his life to have been Hans-Joachim Beyer, an assistant at the Mendelssohn Hochschule in Communist East Germany (he is cited on the singer’s web page) with whom he studied for two years. For an hour and a half a day, according to Goerne, ‘‘we only did exercises, no singing. Lots of la-la-la-la, ne-ne-ne-ne.’’

I first heard Goerne sing Winterreise at his Carnegie Hall debut in 1999 and was mesmerized by the intensity of his singing, a kind of innigkeit that few singers could achieve. He had burst on to the international musical scene several years earlier, much heralded for his youth, and for the warmth of a dark voice capable of floating the most tender pianissimo phrases. He was thirty-two in 1999, and accompanied by sixty-eight year old Alfred Brendel, long associated with Fischer-Dieskau and now drawn back to the world of lieder by Goerne’s voice and talent. Goerne was clearly nervous. He was dressed unconventionally, repeatedly moved his body, touched his hand to his nose obsessively, and his early pianissimi were not always audible. Yet he seemed in a world of his own into which his flexible voice drew a willing audience. Clearly, since then he has made journeys of his own. Though his appearance and his (what to some seem excessive) movements remain essentially unchanged, his voice has filled out and darkened, as has his view of both Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin. In the intervening years he has performed and recorded an extensive German repertoire with many pianists, but in Christian Eschenbach, with whom he is currently recording Schubert songs for Harmonia Mundi, he seems to have found a musician intimately attuned to his own view of these works.

Both song cycles are based on poems by Wilhelm Müller, almost exactly Schubert’s contemporary. Both tell the story of young men, who having loved and lost, are driven to darkest despair, and both reflect the highly romantic age in which they were created. Romantic, not only because they speak of love - but of unattainable, unrequited love (opera lovers, think Werther) - and because the romantic era was characterized by a new awareness and intimacy with nature. In Müller’s poetry every reference to a tree, a flower, a cloud, a drop of water, every adjective describing a tree, a flower, a dog, a bird, assumes a far deeper meaning. When Schubert added his lyrical gifts and musical onomatopoeia to this fevered mix, he created a medium in which every syllable of every sung word – every note on the piano, is not merely itself, but may foretell, recall, reflect on any shade of human destiny. Die schöne Müllerin consists of twenty songs, Winterreise of twenty-four, sung without interruption. To construct the cycle, each song, with its own story, its own mood, in its own key and rhythm, must fit in its place as neatly and properly as a stone in an arch. The highly compressed world of lieder is an art form that sorely tests singers and their pianists.

Though Die schöne Müllerin is a tale of lost love, it begins brightly with the sound of the rushing brook and turning of the wheels that propel the mill. (Ah, Schubert’s exquisite ability to portray sunshine on streams) Generations of singers have performed the cycle in a way that is sympathetic to the doomed youth. Early on Goerne viewed the protagonist as an emotionally disturbed man. His depiction of the rejected youth has darkened to the point where he considers him as madly self-centered, paranoid to the point of blaming everyone else for his troubles. “Mein”, generally treated as a joyous discovery of love, begins with the voice of the murmuring brook in the piano. Entering the scene, the boy tells the brook to stop its murmuring so that he can fill the world with his discovery that the müllerin loves him. However, Christian Eschenbach’s brook didn’t murmur, it thundered. And Matthias Goerne didn’t entreat it to silence, he commanded it. And for the repeated words “mein, mein, mein”, usually heard as a bright joyous syllable, Goerne reached into the depth of his voice for a “mein” that sounded almost villainous.

“Des Baches Wiegenlied” (“The Brook’s Lullaby”) the last song of the cycle completes the romantic cycle – the boy who has yearned for love, found it and lost it, now drowns himself in the brook. Goerne and Eschenbach performed this piece at an extremely slow pace. Astonishingly, as overtones hovered almost interminably between phrases and their resolution, neither singer nor pianist lost the melodic and harmonic threads of the piece. At its conclusion, Christian Eschenbach’s hands remained on the keyboard and Matthias Goerne, bent low, with his head almost in the body of the piano, commanded the audience to silence.

Eventually it erupted into applause.

The two artists looked exhausted.

The protagonist of Winterreise has already lost the girl when we meet him. He is traveling he knows not where, through the natural world at its most fearsome; in the winter - with snow, ice, blowing clouds, fierce winds. He is followed by a crow, dogs bark at him, his tears freeze, the brook freezes over. Though the overall mood of the cycle varies little, Schubert makes use of folk tunes throughout Winterreise, and an endless variety of subtleties are depicted in text and music: rhythmic and harmonic patterns describe tear drops, footsteps, hoof beats, rays of light, threatening clouds. There are few recollections in Winterreise. It is about the present. A man is telling us of the aimless day-to- day bleakness of his life. To sing for an hour and a half about despair in all its various shades and shapes, requires the highest degree of that innigkeit and intensity of which Goerne is a master. He and Eschenbach seemed as one in the coloring, pacing, and tempi of Winterreise. This was the angriest Winterreise I ever heard, yet it was sung as though fury was the only reaction available to the lost soul on the stage. “You have a voice that speaks to people....a way of focusing a listener’s attention,” Fischer-Dieskau is said to have told him.

“Der Leierman”, (“The Organ Grinder”), the touching concluding song is enigmatic. It depicts an impoverished old man, ignored by people, pursued by dogs, wandering barefoot through snow, constantly playing his tunes in the hope of a few cents. Does our unhappy young man follow him? And of so, into what? The constancy of hope and life? Or to certain death? We cannot know. We are left to make our own conclusion.

For the effect that Matthias Goerne’s voice has on the listener, I hope that readers of this review, particularly those not acquainted with German lieder, repeat a little experiment I just tried. Search “Der Leiermann” on “You tube” and listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Ian Bostridge, Peter Schreier, the superb Thomas Quasthoff, and any other great voice that you can find, then listen to Matthias Goerne. Beyond the question of interpretation, I think you will find a certain (without intending to be off-hand about it, I have to say) je ne sais pas in his voice. A depth? A gravelly quality? A slight vibrato? Whatever it is, I think it will find an echo in your own heart.

And what about Herr Goerne’s own journey as a singer? “Time and patience are the most important things,’’ he has said. ‘‘In every phase, whether you’re 21 or 31, you need to feel that this moment is the ne plus ultra. You can’t tell yourself that in five years you’ll do a piece differently or better. But five years later, you look back and you can see that you’re in a new place. It’s a sign that you’ve been working hard.’’

Estelle Gilson

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