Matthias Goerne & Pierre-Laurent Aimard – Schumann (2)

Tief im Herzen trag’ich Pein, Op.138/2
Gebet, Op.135/5
Requiem, Op.90/7
Liederkreis, Op.39
Kernerlieder, Op.35

Matthias Goerne (baritone) & Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 9 June, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Wigmore Hall diary suggested that this recital of Schumann songs and the one two evenings earlier (reviewed by Anne Ozorio) would be different; in fact they were the same.

Matthias Goerne. ©DeccaMatthias Goerne’s recitals at Wigmore Hall have customarily attracted full houses and so it was on this occasion. I am inclined to wonder if there might be an element of masochism in his loyal followers, however, for his choice of programme virtually always puts them through a gruelling experience, performing grave, cheerless repertoire in a style that demands intense concentration. This balmy summer evening in London offered no relaxation from expectations.

Goerne’s programming of these two Schumann collections conformed entirely to pattern: written in the turbulent year of 1840, when the battle with Ferdinand Wieck (father of Clara, Schumann’s intended) was at its bitterest, both cycles have moments of joviality but melancholy and misanthropy are never far away. Richard Stokes pointed out in his typically illuminating programme notes the small number of “happy” songs in the Schumann cycles performed here (five in the Eichendorff “Liederkreis”, which is three more than the Heine companion, Opus 24, and five more than in “Dichterliebe”!).

The appetiser for the two cycles consisted of three unconnected songs, all slow in tempo. The familiar Goerne vocal characteristics were present: a tonal range that encompasses solid bass resonance and a secure, not-strained top register, together with an elasticity of phrasing. In “Tief im Herzen trag’ich Pein” the line demands that the singer repeatedly leaps to a high appoggiatura, while in “Gebet”, to words by Mary Queen of Scots, the hapless victim’s cries of grief on a high falling semitone exploit that same area of the voice. One had the impression in this song that the whole thing consisted of a single phrase, so consistent was Goerne’s legato. The third song, “Requiem”, written just prior to the death of the poet Nikolaus Lenau, threatened a continuation of the same negative mood but in fact the poem expresses the felicity of the transition to eternal life. Pierre-Laurent Aimard made his first prominent appearance with his flowing accompaniment, joining Goerne in mellifluous high-baritone guise in the strongly diatonic passage of triumph as the angelic choirs welcome the deceased.

So the disparate nature of the Eichendorff cycle was heralded by a fitting variety of mood. The generally slow tempos were established from the first song ‘In der Fremde’, which an intensely inward Goerne phrased with daring breadth. The Loreley song ‘Waldesgespräch’ was a typical Goerne offering. A spontaneous creative touch was produced at the end of the first verse, at the words “Du schöne Braut! Ich führ dich heim”: the narrator’s original curiosity suddenly froze into a fearful realisation of the danger he was in. Then the dual layers of Goerne’s voice allowed him to play the Loreley as seductive at “Du kennst mich wohl”, then heavily peremptory for the final deadly declaration “kommst nimmermehr aus diesem Wald”. A different character was portrayed in ‘Die Stille’, that apparently unsophisticated song of unbridled joy. Goerne brought out an element of camp exaggeration at the end of the middle verse, intensifying it to an extreme level by the end; Aimard then used the postlude to poke fun at his partner’s excesses.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Photograph: Graham TurnerI could not help but detect an element of excess also in the most celebrated song of the cycle, ‘Mondnacht’: at the exceedingly slow tempo chosen one wondered whether the prelude to verse two would actually come to a dead stop. Admiration for Goerne’s molten tone was tempered by regret that he and his partner had chosen to squeeze very last drop of effect out of the song in this extreme way.

The temperature rose as the cycle approached its climax. The piano counterpoint throughout ‘Wehmut’ was prominently brought out, while the postlude asserted the instrument’s dominance, maintained by the prelude to the following ‘Zwielicht’. In that song one admired again Goerne’s breath-control (and the mechanics of his breathing, too!). He came back fighting, fully releasing his operatic power in the final song ‘Frühlingsnacht’, which became a contest of equals with the piano.

After the interval the even more diverse “Kernerlieder” were mined for similar opportunities for shifts of colour and mood. The heavily perfumed piety of ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud’, gave way to the drunken gusto of ‘Wanderlied’, with its reminiscences of Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte”. Goerne and his studious, imaginative partner revelled in the contrast between the dance-rhythms of ‘Wanderung’ and the profound melancholia of its successor ‘Stille Liebe’. The vocal control that allows this artist to sustain lengthy diminuendos was several times in evidence, especially impressively in those songs where the softening succeeded a powerful climax. Songs would often end with the equivalent of a film fade to black, of which the most spectacular was “Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes”. The generally grave mood is enforced by the particularly low tessitura but the final image was magically raised to transcendence with an almost inaudible ppp in head voice. Most unusually, the singer acted out the postlude.

Goerne is not a singer who produces glorious tone for its own sake. It is strictly rationed in the interests of interpretative veracity but just occasionally the taps were turned on, for example in ‘Frage’, though characteristically within a few bars a pianissimo thread of sound had replaced it. In the next song ‘Stille Tränen’, too, the release of truly operatic power at the climax was followed by a well-measured fade, in preparation for the sense of reverie the singer brought to the last two lyrics, which are set to identical music.

Goerne’s total immersion in text and music did lead to a disconcerting tendency to hunch up and turn sharply to his right into the bend of the piano, sometimes to the extent of facing his accompanist directly. From my seat on the favoured side of the auditorium that was a minor mannerism to absorb, while those on the other side must surely have been robbed of impact and communication.

The two musicians were uncompromising: they did not offer an encore. Goerne is a supreme technician, who communicates a detailed, stimulating conception of musical and poetic union in the predominantly grim parts of the repertoire he visits but I was left wondering if he has a lighter side. His use of the voice as an expressive instrument suggests that he could adapt to piquant French song, for example. A recital devoted to the elusive wit of Erik Satie by this pair – now that would be something!

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