Goerne & Brendel recital – 3rd June

An die ferne Geliebte, Op.98
Schwanengesang, D957

Matthias Goerne (baritone) & Alfred Brendel (piano)

Reviewed by: Geoff Allen

Reviewed: 3 June, 2001
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

With Alfred Brendel as a true partner for the gifted Matthias Goerne, there was a tangible air of expectancy in the Hall.

An die ferne Geliebte is the first song-cycle, Beethoven’s finest contribution to Lieder. The piano links each song, underlining the cyclic, unified construction; within each song Beethoven’s pianistic resource subtly reflects the words.Beethoven’s art – more complex in its concision, perhaps more difficult for the listener – is less obviously attractive than Schubert’s.

Goerne and Brendel heightened An die ferne Geliebte’s emotional content, declaiming as if one musician. Yearning for the unobtainable underlines this cycle. Brendel delineated Beethoven’s rusticity and birdsong without threatening the music’s intensity or structure. The cycle ends with a reference to the first song, elaborated to a majestic finale, fully realised here by Goerne’s probing, emotional portrayal.

Schwanengesang is not Schubert’s compilation; rather publisher Tobias Haslinger collected the composer’s seven settings of Rellstab and six of Heine, adding ’Die Taubenpost’ (Seidl). That said, the Heine group does form a collection of ’longing and loss’ songs; the Rellstab selection is more varied in its subjects and includes three sensual love songs. Goerne and Brendel chose to supplement the Rellstab group with ’Herbst’ (D945) – placed between ’Aufenthalt’ and ’In der Ferne’ – which inhabits a similar world to the others; Herbst has previously been interpolated by Peter Schreier and Brigitte Fassbaender. To keep the ’cycle’ at fourteen numbers, ’Die Taubenpost’ was offered as an encore; Rellstab and Heine were separated by the interval – a ’song-cycle’ fragmented.

In Schwanengesang, as in the Beethoven, Goerne was at his peak – his dark-toned, soft-grained, warm, emotionally charged voice rising to the challenge of these wonderful songs, Brendel a perfect companion. Brendel has been accused in some quarters of an over-intellectual approach, which can squeeze-out music’s feeling. This was certainly not the case here as evinced by his lovely, rippling ’water music’ playing in ’Liebesbotschaft’ or his perfectly delicious shaping of the incomparable melody of ’Ständchen’; the fast, trotting rhythm of ’Abschied’ was exhilarating. In contrast, for Heine, one was numbed by Brendel’s ’shiver’ during the disturbing ’Die Stadt’ – in the last line, ’Wo ich das Liebste verlor’ (’where I lost my love’). In ’Der Atlas’, Brendel’s array of dynamics and colour was illuminating.

Goerne charmed in ’Ständchen’, revealed the grim irony at the close of ’Kriegers Ahnung’, and was an uncompromising portrayer of alienation in ’Aufenthalt’ and ’In der Ferne’. For the Heine songs, Goerne tracked inevitably through initial optimism via gradual darkening to hallucination – the ultimate song, ’Der Doppelgänger’, was shattering, the audience stunned into a long silence before applauding, indicative of Goerne bringing every word vividly to life.

There is no such thing as perfection – these two artists came pretty close to making that assertion false.

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