Matthias Goerne, Los Angeles

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,

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 schˆne M¸llerin. 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 M¸ller, 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 M¸ller’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 schˆne M¸llerin 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 schˆne M¸llerin 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
m¸llerin 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

image_description=Matthias Goerne [Photo by Marco Borggreve for harmonia mundi]
product_title=Sublime Schubert
product_by=Matthias Goerne, baritone; Christian Eschenbach, piano. Walt Disney Concert Hall. Franz Schubert: Die schˆne M¸llerin April 16, 2012. Franz Schubert: Winterreise April 18, 2012.
product_id=Above: Matthias Goerne [Photo by Marco Borggreve for harmonia mundi]