Schubert’s Winterreise by Matthias Goerne

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 stˆren,/ W‰r’ 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 Tr‰nen’ and in this song Goerne’s voice wells with directness
and vulnerability: ‘Ob es mir denn entgangen,/ Dafl 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 hˆr’ ich’s rauschen: Du f‰ndest 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 ‘Fr¸hlingstraum’ 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 Kr‰he’, 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. ‘T‰uschung’ 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

image_description=Harmonia Mundi HMC902107 [CD]
product_title=Schubert: Winterreise D.911
product_by=Matthias Goerne, baritone; Christoph Eschenbach, piano.
product_id=Harmonia Mundi HMC902107 [CD]