Rückert-Lieder [selections: Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft; Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen]
Des Knaben Wunderhorn [selections: Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen; Es sungen drei Engel; Das irdische Leben; Urlicht; Revelge; Der Tamboursg’sell]
Kindertotenlieder [selections: Nun seh’ ich wohl warum so dunkle Flammen; Wenn dein Mütterlein]
… interspersed with …
Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Op.145 [selections: Utro; Razluka; Noch’; Bessmertie; Dante; Smert’]
Matthias Goerne (baritone) & Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley
Reviewed: 1 May, 2012
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Matthias Goerne is a thinking-man’s singer who communicates the essence of text and music through both vocal inflections and physical gesticulations. His voice has a warm, fluid quality, with a rich lower register. He was ably partnered by Leif Ove Andsnes.
The program consisted of deeply personal and profound songs by Mahler and Shostakovich, interwoven to establish conceptual bonds among them, on themes related to death and afterlife as seen from the perspectives of childhood and old age. The two composers’ philosophical approach suits Goerne perfectly. Most of the Mahler songs were taken from Rückert-Lieder and Des Knaben Wunderhorn, each a compendium. Two of the songs were from a true song cycle, Kindertotenlieder; although their inclusion flaunted Mahler’s express direction that none of the songs should be performed separately, they certainly enhanced the evening’s fare.
The Shostakovich songs were taken from Suite on Verses of Michelangelo, composed to celebrate the quincentenary of the birth of the great Renaissance artist. Shostakovich organized Michelangelo’s sonnets into nine movements surrounded by poems on truth and immortality. Both the poetry and the music have a retrospective and autobiographical character communicated intensely. Several of the poems express Michelangelo’s anger and frustration with the way artists were treated in his native Florence, and thus parallel Shostakovich’s resentment of the Soviet regime.
Goerne sweetly captured Mahler’s evocation of the fragrance of the linden tree in ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’, which opened the recital. The song’s arching lines and tender sentiments related to Shostakovich’s ‘Utro’ (Morning) that followed, although the latter’s recitative-like style and more intimate expressions of undying love are more direct and less symbolic than the setting of Rückert’s text. In Mahler’s Wunderhorn Lied, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ (Where the Beautiful Trumpets Blow), which expresses love haunted by the specter of war that will separate the lovers, Goerne caressingly sang the simple yet charming theme of the young soldier asking his beloved to admit him before he heeds the call of distant military tattoos, and the lovers’ imminent separation was echoed in the next Shostakovich song, ‘Razluka’ (Separation). In both, Goerne nobly expressed the lover’s stoicism in the face of death.
Departing from the pattern of alternation, Goerne then grouped together five Mahler songs, all dealing with death of the very young. In ‘Es sungen drei Engel’ (Three Angels Were Singing), Goerne took a flexible approach to the middle section, slowing up at first for the chorale passage, and Andsnes forcefully drove home the minor-key segment after the singer admits to having sinned. Goerne heightened the tension in each succeeding verse of ‘Das irdische Leben’ (Earthly Life) as the boy cries more and more fervently for bread, and his mother responds only that he must wait for tomorrow – which never comes. Hesitations in the continuous revolving rhythms of the piano accompaniment were misconceived, however. Mahler envisioned this whirling background as symbolic of the ‘wheel of life’, which turns incessantly.
Goerne gave ‘Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen’ (Now I See Well, Why with Such Dark Flames), the first of the two Kindertotenlieder selections, an exquisitely phrased and deeply-felt reading. He began ‘Wenn dein Mütterlein’ (When Your Mother) by cutting short each of the opening quarter-notes as if to imitate the mother’s footsteps, an interesting affectation which he repeated. He brought to this song a profound, yet stoical character that rose above the tragic nature of the text, even at the end as he repeatedly cried out the pitiful words “zu schnell” (too soon) to express sorrow at the loss of the little one. Then in ‘Urlicht’ (Primal Light), the Wunderhorn song that closed the first half of the program, a broad pace emphasized the song’s devotional character, but when the singer rejects the angel’s attempt to turn him from his path, Goerne’s manner was rather too tame for such a defiant pronouncement.
Shostakovich’s ‘Noch’’ (Night), which opened the second half, aptly followed ‘Urlicht’, for both songs mention an angel and share a rocking accompaniment. The desolate character of ‘Night’ befits its expressions of frustration with the “shamelessness and criminality” that are “all around”. ‘Night’ also has much in common with the next Mahler song, perhaps his greatest, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (I am Lost to the World). Both settings give voice to a deep-seeded disgust with the world’s tumult, an ensuing feeling of alienation, and finally in the Shostakovich, sleep, and in the Mahler, envelopment “in meinem Himmel, in meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied” (in my heaven, in my love, in my song). Goerne’s sotto voce treatment of that final line in the Mahler was exquisite.
As with Mahler’s ‘Das irdische Leben’, the piano accompaniment in Shostakovich’s ‘Bessmertie’ (Immortality) concentrates on whirling figuration, here sounding more like circus music than the more grinding expressionless whirr of the Mahler. But Shostakovich’s vocal line is dark and joyless, the piano part becoming more serious as the song progresses. The demonstrative assertions with which ‘Immortality’ ends and the succeeding ‘Dante’ begins are of a different stripe, the former consoling in the fervent belief that true immortality is achieved in the remembrance of survivors, the latter vehement in reacting to Dante’s ill-treatment. ‘Revelge’ (Reveille), Mahler’s greatest anti-war statement, subtly reacts to the tragedy of senseless killing in combat. The artists’ energetic march-tempo sometimes hurried through important climactic passages, but did evoke a sense of mockery that communicated more than the words themselves. A few added Luftpausen into the reprise may have been the reason for the rather restrained conclusion.
The last two songs fitted together perfectly. Shostakovich’s ‘Smert’’ (Death) opens with a brief march, which disconnects as the setting continues. Andsnes pounded out doleful chords that evoked an enraged response from Goerne in the final lines asking what use is salvation “If death is quicker and always lays bare the shameful state that it finds us in.” This was a perfect lead-in to Mahler’s ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’ (The Drummer Boy), another anti-war song, telling of a drummer-boy awaiting execution, pitifully bidding good night to his comrades as they pass by his cell. Andsnes had his page-turner cover the low strings with her hand at the beginning, and again when the opening was reprised, to make the trilled notes sound like a military drum roll (an effect that Mahler suggests). Here a measured approach to the funeral march’s first subject enhanced its doleful character. The song’s concluding “gute Nacht” might have been a fitting conclusion to the concert, save that the encore, a dramatic reading of Beethoven’s An die Hoffnung (On Hope) ended the evening on a positive note.