Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach in Late Schubert

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Matthias Goerne. Photo Marco Borggreve.
Matthias Goerne. Photo Marco Borggreve.

Ravinia Festival
Matthias Goerne, baritone
Christoph Eschenbach, piano

Franz Schubert:
Monday, 27 July, Die Schöne Müllerin
Wednesday, 29 July, Winterreise
Friday, 31 July, Schwanengesang, Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960

Ravinia in the North Shore suburb of Highland Park is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony, although every year the pop side of the Festival seems to encroach a little more on the serious. I wonder if Music Director James Conlon had anything to do with engaging Tom Jones and the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Luckily there are two venues at Ravinia, the large Pavilion programmed for the masses, and the 850 seat Martin Theater, where chamber music and song recitals are performed. Bryn Terfel made his American recital debut in the Martin, and it was a coup this year for Ravinia to secure for the theater Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach’s traversal of the three major song cycles of Schubert in a single week, concerts otherwise heard only in London and Austria. The two artists also gave a public master class coaching Schubert with young singers in the Festival’s Steans Institute training program. It was then a week of sheer delight for lovers of German Lieder, whose average age, sad to report, seemed to hover somewhere around 67.

Matthias Goerne began his career as anointed heir to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and it is instructive to place his art in a larger historical context. The most important pre-War German baritone was Heinrich Schlusnus, who possessed one of the greatest natural instruments of the last century allied to Golden Age vocal technique. A clip of him singing Richard Strauss’ Zueignung appeared briefly on YouTube, and was an astounding illustration of the singer’s sheer beauty of tone and effortless emission. In his Lieder singing it would, however, be difficult to say that Schlusnus did any “interpretation” at all. He was content simply to sing the songs as beautifully as can be imagined. What now seems to us a certain interpretative reticence also marks the significant work of the baritone Gerhard Hüsch, who made the first commercial recordings of the Schubert cycles, and who in the style of his career pointed the way most directly to Fischer- Dieskau, the fons et origo of our modern concept of Lieder interpretation. We now take for granted the great expansion in repertoire he achieved, his concern for scholarly attention to musical detail, and his self-conscious pointing of the texts through an endlessly varied tonal palette. In my memory of Fischer-Dieskau as a recitalist I recall the impression that his goal was to prompt the public to experience the many nuances he had found in the texts and music. There was always something of the didactic in his performances. Matthias Goerne by contrast does not seem to be concerned with his audience at all, but rather with putting himself entirely in the emotional world of the song and allowing other people to watch the process if they like. This accounts, I think, for his very eccentric stage deportment – the crouching, the swaying, the standing up on tip-toes, the singing at the pianist or into the piano itself. He does with his body what is prompted by what he feels, and is not concerned that tradition has stigmatized much of it. It can be slightly embarrassing to watch Goerne on stage; better to close one’s eyes and listen.

Goerne’s baritone voice is classically lyrical, invariably at the center of the pitch, capable of long mezza voce lines and exquisite pianissimi. There is to my ears a slightly occluded quality to it, as if the singer were projecting through a mass of cotton balls. But he has cultivated this covered sound intentionally. In his master class he objected repeatedly to singing that was too much in the mask and had what he called a “fake metal”. The right Schubert sound is, he said, darker and more connected to the body. He may though be taking this concept so far that it threatens his vocal integrity. In all three of his recitals Goerne made use of an artificially heavy red-faced mega- forte sound that I do not ever recall hearing from him in the past, the very thing that compromised the career of Bryn Terfel, who by nature has a much larger instrument. The final syllable of the word Gestalt in the Doppelgänger was brutally ugly, which Goerne would no doubt say is what he intended. It is not healthy vocalism.

In its interpretation the Schöne Müllerin was the most provocative of the three evenings. No charge against Schubert of musical sentimentality could stand in the face of this performance. Goerne’s protagonist was psychologically unbalanced from the start, his repeated cries of mein! not an expression of youthful exultation, but rather pathological obsession. Every moment of seeming innocence and happiness was tinged with the expectation of disappointment and the temptation to despair. There was no need to give any special inflection to the girl’s supremely deflating response in the tenth song, ade, ich geh nach Haus, since the whole cycle was situated in that emotional place. This approach invariably involved certain exaggerations, especially in the tempi. Der Jäger was simply a jumble, and places in the final song threatened collapse they were so slow. But there is no doubt that the audience was given a thorough re-imagining of a cycle burdened with many tralaticious interpretative gestures.

The Winterreise was more conventional in presentation, and interested me most because of its violent contrast of effects. I have never heard the langsam section of Frühlingstraum more beautifully and heartbreakingly executed, while at the same time the forced and overly weighted tone in places like the endings of Auf dem Flusse and Einsamkeit was worrisome. The music became frightening no doubt, but not perhaps for the right reasons. Aggressive forte singing also somewhat marred the Schwanengesang, where there is so much opportunity for it. In Der Atlas I was reminded of something the vocal critic Conrad L. Osborne wrote about Florestan’s aria in Fidelio: the singer must not express desperation by sounding desperate. By the same token Die Taubenpost (removed from its usual place and given as an encore, the Rellstab song Herbst having been inserted in the cycle – details not revealed in the program) was a model of elegant and graceful singing. One can only hope that continued pressure on the voice will not make such singing increasingly difficult for Goerne.

Christoph Eschenbach’s playing throughout was wonderfully idiomatic and attentive to every breath (or in Goerne’s case gasp) that the singer took. His complete independence of fingers allows him to trace any melodic line he wanted to emphasize, creating previously unappreciated bits of counterpoint with the vocal part. He knows that rubato is possible in Schubert and where and how to apply it. He can reach the most gossamer of pianissimi – the last bars of Des Baches Wiegenlied will remain among the great moments in my experience of Lieder performance. In the B-flat Major sonata that filled out the last concert Eschenbach may have missed notes here and there in this massive and notoriously difficult piece, but his sense of style and musical architecture more than compensated.

By the end of the week I felt that I had come to know these artists very well, and while I did not agree with every interpretative decision they made, their devotion to music and generosity in sharing their insights were out of the ordinary, as was the experience of encountering them at the Ravinia Festival.

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