Matthias Goerne at the Wigmore Hall

Audiences in the Wigmore Hall are formidably
erudite and can appreciate a well-chosen programme of lesser known Schubert. Even if you
didn’t know the repertoire, a mere glance at the texts made it clear that these were philosophic
songs about cosmic anguish. Songs about Greek heroes pondering fate aren’t supposed to be
cute and fluffy.

A friend who hears some 60 high level Lieder concerts a year, has heard all the greats in his
lifetime. Yet even he said this was one of his most memorable experiences. Goerne turns 40
this year, and still hasn’t reached his prime but the depth and colour in his singing was
astounding. “Schöne Welt, wo bist du ?”, he opens with passionate force, then almost
immediately softens his voice to evoke the delicate “springtime of nature”, which lives on only
in the “Feenland der Lieder”. The transit is seamless, and the myriad shadings of color in each
phrase are achieved with effortless technique, so deeply assimilated that it comes as naturally as
instinct. Several of these songs are rarities which Goerne only added to his repertoire for these
two concerts, the second of which I attended, but you would never have guessed.

When Goerne sings, he intuitively inhabits the world of his songs. It’s as if he becomes a
conduit for the music. Because we’re used to performers as stars with “persona”, it’s not so easy
to adjust to performers for whom image is utterly secondary. It does make careful listening more
important, because you can’t rely on non-musical clues like the performer’s “noble mien”. But
what rewards careful listening repays ! Mayrhofer’s poems are comparatively straightforward
but Goerne gives them the dignity Schubert heard in them. For example, “Der entsühnte Orest”
resounds with rounded vowel sounds which Schubert reflects in his setting. The pattern isn’t
obvious in a superficial reading of the poem, but Goerne curves the words to emphasise their
roundness. Suddenly the “heimatliches Meer” becomes a vivid presence. Then when it starts to
“softly murmur Triumph ! Triumph !” its role in the song is enhanced. The poem may dwell on
worldly success, but in the final strophe we know that Orestes (or rather Mayerhofer, the poet
who later drowned himself), will find peace in what the sea represents.

In “Meeres Stille”, Goerne evoked the endless depths of the water with exquisitely resonant deep
tones, shaped so carefully that they seemed to pulsate. Holding and floating the notes like this
vividly captured the image of the “deep silence” that “weighs on the water…..a glassy surface all
round”. The pauses in this song are subtle, but important to the meaning. Goerne incorporates
this “todesstille fürchterlich” by extending the line so it seems to hover in the memory while
nothing is in fact being sung out loud. This song is famous and often performed, but never quite
with the profoundity heard here.

Similar subtlety marked “Der Kreuzzug, where a monk watches knights in their splendour
marching off to the Crusades. Goerne’s voice wraps sensually round words like “Seide” (silk),
contrasting the image with the austerity of the monks cell. Then he sings the monk’s words with
quiet dignity. “I am a pilgrim, just like you”. Then the intensity of the final verse wells up with
dramatic intensity. “”Life’s journey through treacherous waves….is after all, a crusade too….”.

Through the recital I was struck by the way Goerne nuanced his singing, by varying depth and
well as light and colour. As if he were painting in oils, he can create multiple shadings in a
single stroke, blending and intensifying as needed. Oils are pliable, shaped by texture as well as
colour : Goerne’s subtle adjustments from deep timbres to lyrical light add depth as well as
colour. In comparison, so many other performances have come across like crayon drawings !
Masterpieces may not have the same immediate impact, but they reward deeper appreciation.

The pianist here was no less than Ingo Metzmacher, the conductor. A sympathetic pianist makes
a huge difference, and Metzmacher’s contribution here was superlative. His playing was
powerful and uncompromising. He was infinitely more inspiring than the milder Elisabeth
Leonskaya who accompanied Goerne in a similarly difficult Schubert program in the Wigmore
Hall at the beginning of the season. Sometimes a pianist needs to support and nurture :
Metzmacher knows that this is a singer who can be challenged. And such results ! His firmness
in “Philoktet” created a pulsing undercurrent, underpinning the voice. In “Das Heimweh”, he
emphasised the “yodelling” in the piano part. It’s extremely important because it evokes the
song of the milkmaid echoing across the mountains. Schubert knew no male voice could get the
same effect, so he put it into the piano. Metzmacher’s interests lie very much in modern music,
so it was particularly interesting to hear what he does with Schubert Lieder. He played the
extended 11 note sequence ending “Abschied”, colouring each note distinctly, capturing the
varying pauses. It beautifully confirmed the solemn, contemplative mood of the song, while still
reflecting the prayer-like vocal line, to Goerne’s reverential “Lebt wohl, klingt klagevoll”.

This concert was a historic occasion, more so than the first night, because it ended with the
presentation of the first ever Wigmore Hall Medal for exceptional service to song. This isn’t
going to be a regular award, simply because such contributions are not routine, by any means. As
John Gilhooly, Director of the Wigmore Hall said, it was being “dedicated with great affection”
to Goerne who, in his 14 years of association with the venue has shown his belief in “all that the
Wigmore Hall stands for”. Since the Wigmore Hall aims for the highest possible standards, and
has done so for a hundred years, that is praise indeed. Excellence is never going to have populist
appeal, but that’s not the point. It’s fundamentally more important to create goals to aim for in
the first place.

Goerne beamed as he received the medal, but in his typical self-effacing way, chose to thank the
audience by singing instead of making a speech. Never has “An die Musik” come over as
sincerely and more heartfelt. I was quite overcome and didn’t realise until later that I was in

© Anne Ozorio 2007

image_description=Matthias Goerne
product_title=Matthias Goerne at the Wigmore Hall
22nd February 2007, London