Matthias Goerne & Alexander Schmalcz

Tief im Herzen trag ich Pein, Op.138/2
Gebet, Op.135/5
Requiem, Op.90/7
Frauenliebe und -leben, Op.42
Vier Lieder, Op.2

Matthias Goerne (baritone) & Alexander Schmalcz (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 20 April, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The vast majority of songs – in whatever milieu – are about love, lust, death, sorrow and despair, with occasional bits of joy and bliss. These emotions are gender-neutral so there is no real reason why most of these songs – as with the opening Schumann group – cannot be essayed by either sex.

However there are some that are specifically male or female by virtue of the language used and the two cycles Matthias Goerne presented belong to the female group. Nevertheless both “Winterreise” and “Die Schöne Müllerin” have been sung and recorded by women and the prospect of hearing one of today’s great Lieder singers in such repertoire was enticing. It was therefore surprising to see that there were a considerable number of empty seats at the rear of the hall, but then the adverting of this recital simply stated that Goerne would sing just the two cycles: high prices for about 45 minutes of music. Even with the additional items, and one encore, this was still a short recital.

Did quality make up for the lack of quantity? In the first Schumann song the opening couplet was sung with superb legato, an eloquent rise and fall to the phrasing and a subito piano that was exquisite. In “Gebet” (Prayer) the tone darkened enormously at the opening of “Requiem” was seen as an invocation with subtle opening of the tone as well as concentration and intensity. In that marvellous piece of crass 19th-century misogyny, “Frauenliebe und –leben”, there were numerous examples of word-painting through the use of a huge range of tonal colours and dynamic nuance. The mezza voce in the first song, the double and triple piano nuances in the second stanza of the sixth song, the hollowing of tone, and the use of a different colour for each note of the final two lines in the last song will live in my memory as examples of great singing.

But there is a big difference between singing and interpretation and the recital’s first half left an impression of emotional flatness. The rapture of the cycle’s opening song was not conveyed, nor was the bliss at the start of the second. In “Requiem” the words were not really about an individual and the tempo seemed rather slow and uniform. It was all slightly amorphous. Alexander Schmalcz’s contribution was very much the same, everything flowed smoothly by with minimal use of pedals and rubato and the postlude to ‘Frauenliebe’ was detached.

Berg’s Opus 2 songs aren’t heard that often, which is a pity; they combine romanticism with hints of later Berg. Goerne’s command of their rhythmic complexity was exemplary as was his dynamic control.

The Wagner was afflicted with the same problems as the Schumann, though; time and again a word, syllable or phrase would be beautifully highlighted, as in the third stanza of ‘Der Engel’, which was a magnificent display of sustained pp colouring, or in the start to ‘Stehe still!’ where Goerne’s fluid phrasing was exceptional – but there was no real emotion on display, everything was externalised, with ‘Träume’ decidedly non-dreamlike.

So great technique, but not great insight, but the recital did make me think that I would have liked to hear Prégardien, Schreier or Partridge at the height of their powers essay the Schumann. Perhaps the tenor voice might bring an added dimension?

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