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Recordings

Harmonia Mundi HMC902107 [CD]
15 Dec 2014

Schubert’s Winterreise by Matthias Goerne

This Winterreise is the final instalment of Matthias Goerne’s series of Schubert lieder for Harmonia Mundi and it brings the Matthias Goerne Schubert Edition, begun in 2008, to a dark, harrowing close.

Schubert: Winterreise D.911

Matthias Goerne, baritone; Christoph Eschenbach, piano.

Harmonia Mundi HMC902107 [CD]

$14.99   Click to buy

While there is little of the angst-ridden word-painting of Ian Bostridge, there is an unwavering attention to the meaning and expressive qualities of the text — as one might expect from a native speaker — and some surprising heightening and emphasis at times. Similarly, while Goerne does not adopt the sustained, penetrating intensity of a singer such as Mark Padmore, there is a growing sense of urgency which is all the more compelling because of the contrast created between the swift opening and the increasing violence of the final songs.

Goerne and his pianist, Christoph Eschenbach, are not melodramatic, but they are direct. Eschenbach plays with flexibility and responsiveness; the accompaniment is prominent, an equal partner on this journey through the austere winter landscape. And, however troubled the melancholy traveller becomes, the beauty of Goerne’s tone is never marred; the beguilingly sweet tone lures us into the bleak land, and we join the wanderer’s mesmerising descent into terror and isolation.

‘Gute Nacht’ begins purposefully, with a surprisingly brisk tread; Goerne’s voice is full of rich colours and the prominent piano accents in the ‘between-phrase’ motifs convey animation. But, with the shift to the major tonality at ‘Will dich im Traum nicht stören,/ Wär’ Schad’ um deine Ruh’ (I will not disturb you as you dream, It would be a shame to spoil your rest) there is a sudden withdrawal and wistfulness, an indication of the wide dramatic range and vocal control which will characterise the whole cycle. Typical too is the subtlety of Eschenbach’s response to the text, as the accompaniment to each stanza paints a slightly different hue.

A forceful and assertive ‘Die Wetterfahne’ follows, full of striking dramatic contrasts: crisp piano motifs convey the anger of the wind, but there is quiet introspection with the line, ‘Der Wind spielt drinnen mit den Herzen,/ Wie auf dem Dach, nur nicht so laut’ (Inside the wind is playing with hearts, As on the roof, only less loudly), before a tempestuous close. Eschenbach’s sensitivity gives expressive nuance to the piano introduction of ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ and in this song Goerne’s voice wells with directness and vulnerability: ‘Ob es mir denn entgangen,/ Daß ich geweinet hab?’ (Have I, then, not noticed That I have been weeping?). The ardency and focused tone powerfully evoke the passionate heat of his tears, that would melt ‘All the ice of winter’.

‘Der Lindenbaum’ is one of the highlights of the first part of the cycle and epitomises the performers’ intelligent musicianship. The opening is theatrical, the crescendo and culminating quaver chords quite brutal; the effect is to infer the realms of emotion that lay beneath the contained lyricism of the baritone’s beautiful utterance. Here Goerne colours the words wonderfully, heightening the rise to ‘ihm’ in the line ‘Es zog in Freud’ und Leide Zu ihm mich immer fort’ (In joy and sorrow I was ever drawn to it), and effecting a tender transition to the major mode, his tone full and earnest as the branches rustle and beckon: ‘Come to me, friend, Here you will find rest.’ But, there is movement as the chilling wind sweeps on, and the piano triplet semiquavers are unrelenting and cold. A telling diminuendo and pause precede the voice’s entry for the final stanza and there is a sudden and powerful sense of lassitude: ‘Nun bin ich manche Stunde Entfernt von jenem Ort,/ Und immer hör’ ich’s rauschen: Du fändest Ruhe dort!’ (Now I am many hours’ journey from that place; yet I still hear the rustling: ‘There you would find rest.’). Goerne’s rising fourth in the repeated last phrase is laden with weariness.

‘Wasserflut’ marks a tightening of the emotional screw, the tension between the voice’s triplets and the piano’s dotted rhythms creating a dragging sense of labouring onwards, as the singer’s tears fall in the snow. Goerne’s baritone burns with ferocity as the ice breaks into pieces: ‘Und das Eis zerspringt in Schollen,/ Und der weiche Schnee zerrinnt.’ And, in the second stanza his pushes so far that he almost loses control of the intonation. Now we understand the depths of the wanderer’s unrest. The mental schism widens in the succeeding songs, conveyed by gestures such as the pause before the final verse of ‘Auf dem Flusse’, before the voice surges forward in a desperate bid to restore the singer’s sense of self: ‘Mein Herz, in diesem Bache/ Erkennst du nun dein Bild? (My heart, do you now recognize/Your image in this brook?).

Eschenbach remains an attentive partner. In ‘Ruckblick’ the troubling juxtaposition of fire and ice in the text prickles in the oscillating triplet semiquavers of the piano introduction; and in ‘Irrlicht’ the piano’s triplet motif is surprisingly hard and insistent, its repeated note followed by an accusing rise. In contrast, Goerne’s sixth and octave leaps are beautifully mellifluous, the richly decorative melody suave and lyrical. The final stanza is strikingly assertive but drifts into pensiveness at the close.

The dynamic and expressive contrasts of ‘Rast’ are so great that we begin to fear for soul and mind of protagonist; might we too be sucked into his darkness. The folksiness of ‘Frühlingstraum’ is bitter-sweet and the song is never allowed to settle, the schnell episode rushing forward with restlessness and haste: such contrasts between wistfulness and pain are disturbing, and the Eschenbach’s final broken arpeggio is full of poignancy.

Goerne’s forceful repeating cry, ‘Mein Herz’, in ‘Die Post’ rings out above Eschenbach’s light- of-foot gallop, but the vigour of this song dissipates in the ensuing ‘Der greise Kopf’. The very slow tempo intensifies the morose pessimism of the text and establishes a mood of disillusionment and exhaustion, of body and soul, which is perfectly captured in Goerne’s lyrical falling phrases, with their almost painfully lovely mordants. The wanderer stares at the road ahead, and at the vista of his own life, and the immensity of blackness before him is powerfully portrayed by the piano’s whispered final phrase which sinks gracefully into silent pathos. Eschenbach’s crisp off-beat semiquavers in ‘Die Krähe’, high above the baritone, evoke the predatory crow, etched in the sky, circling slowly, while the rhythmic imbalances of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ further restrain the forward momentum. Goerne suggests the faltering of the wanderer, both literal and metaphysical, as he stretches the pulse, even though the vocal line is smooth and unbroken. There is tension at the top of the challenging closing phrase, ‘Wein’ auf meiner Hoffnung Grab’ (And weep on the grave of my hopes), but never strain.

As we move through the final songs Goerne’s baritone becomes fuller and the range of expression broadens. ‘Täuschung’ conveys dreamy preoccupation but the comforts of delusion are swiftly erased in ‘Der Wegweiser’ where Goerne’s monotone is solemn and morose, mimicked by the deathly tread of the accompaniment with its eerie chromatic bass line. The low repetitions of the final stanza, ‘Einen Weiser seh’ ich stehen’ (I see a signpost standing) are ominous.

In ‘Das Wirthaus’, the traveller stops beside a graveyard and longs for rest but, turned away from the tavern, is forced to go onwards. Goerne and Eschenbach adopt what some may find an excessively slow tempo, but it does establish a funereal lethargy; it is dignity rather than irony that is brought to the fore here, and the piano’s full chords take on an ecclesiastical colour, fading gently at the close. After the angry defiance of ‘Mut!’, ‘Die Nebensonnen’ is almost unearthly in its still beauty: again the tempo is very slow and Goerne’s narrow melody circles as if entranced. The human presence of the hurdy-gurdy man in ‘Der Leiermann’ brings no consolation; the quiet phrases are drained of emotion, yet powerfully suggestive of resignation borne of despair.

The tone of the ending is desolate but powerful: Romantic Sehnsucht has been translated into a very modern disorientation and loneliness.

Claire Seymour

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