Die schöne Müllerin, D795
Matthias Goerne (baritone) & Christoph Eschenbach (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: 15 June, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
The applause was a long time in coming in a Wigmore Hall full to capacity at the end of the first of three recitals in which the partnership of Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach is offering the three Schubert cycles within a week. The enduring spell left by Schubert’s closing lullaby was slow to dissipate but eventually the audience rose to acclaim the performers. Their solemnity was understandable: this was as psychologically mesmeric, technically faultless and musically united a performance of the final song that I can recall hearing. Five verses of slow, concentrated singing and playing left one full of admiration. Goerne maintained an unearthly beauty of sound in this long extended farewell to the protagonist of the cycle. In fact the performers even had the stamina and control in the last verse to withdraw their volume as the music, and life with it, drifted away to silence.
Did the rest of the interpretation impress those who gave the pair a standing ovation equally, I wonder? It was challenging, idiosyncratic, perverse even. The opening four songs seem straightforward. They set the scene and introduce us to the essential characters and locations: the miller himself, the stream, the mill and the miller’s daughter. They seem immune from too much ‘interpretation’. Not here, however. ‘Wohin’ is musically a masterpiece, portraying the stream’s constant motion in an asymmetrical structure but psychological complexity is not normally detected in the setting. Here it was subjected to an ostentatious slowing in the third verse, a sudden fortissimo in the fourth when the miller asks where the stream is leading and a premonition of something sinister to fear in a palpable hesitation at the mention of supernatural creatures in the depths of the water. Ominous signs were already invading the narrative before it had properly begun. ‘Halt!’ enhanced the feeling of unease: the miller’s bounding reference to the strong sunlight was not joyful but aggressive, delivered in a raucous fortissimo.
This was not the fresh, eager, innocent young man whom Wilhelm Muller brings before us in a conventional reading of the poems but a character seen by these artists as psychologically unbalanced. In this context ‘Am Feierabend’ was a seminal song. The hero’s lack of masculine strength in the physical employment at the mill was palpably frustrating for him and Goerne displayed annoyance in the phrases about his weakness. When the opening lines were repeated it was in a thunderous fortissimo.
His approach to wooing the miller’s daughter had a disturbing implication of force. ‘Ungeduld’ was taken at a breathlessly fast tempo, with Goerne interpreting the repeated cries of “Dein ist mein Herz” not as the hyperbole of youth but as something much more dark and possessive. The refrain of the third verse verged on the hysterical. There was an dislikeable element in this young man’s character, augmented by a severe reading of “Mein!”, barked out in a sergeant-majorly way, the title word itself roared , the address to flowers and sun defiantly reminiscent of gloating partisan newspaper headlines (“Is that the best you’ve got?”). The pianist’s race to end the postlude reinforced the unendearing impression.
The arrival of the huntsman released an extraordinary assault by both singer and pianist. Goerne spat out a ceaseless volley of bile in ‘Der Jager’ and followed up in ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’ with an impossibly fast tempo which made the words tumble over themselves. In ‘Morgengruss’, however, he gave way to something much more courteous and gallant. Here the varied use of rubato, calculated yet apt, relieved the possible monotony of this strophic song. The miller’s divided personality was depicted in the two songs about his lute and its green ribbon. In ‘Pause’ Goerne conveyed the difficulty of the sacrifice he had made in some of the most intensely-felt singing of the evening, supported by some prominent details in Eschenbach’s accompaniment. The conception of the miller as insensitive was again represented in ‘Mit dem grünen Lautenbande’, where he addressed the girl flippantly, even dismissively.
The treatment of ‘Der Neugierige’ was eccentric for musical reasons. Each phrase in the opening section was punctuated by a brief, unwritten silence, while the addresses to the stream were taken at a daringly slow tempo, a test of Goerne’s breath-control, which he admittedly passed impressively. Eschenbach excelled in the transitions.
The portrayal of the miller as aggressively unstable subsided in the final quarter of the cycle with only the occasional upsurge. The artists switched their emphasis in these largely slow, melancholy songs with their premonitions of death to beauty and nobility of sound, culminating in that memorable finale. Goerne darkened his tone for ‘Die liebe Farbe’. How exquisitely he requested the construction of his grave. This time the big crescendos stemmed from intensity of feeling, not abrasiveness. Eschenbach’s rallentando in the postlude was as powerful as the decisive chords with which he had ended many of the earlier songs.
The two combined at the end of ‘Trockne Blumen’, that paradoxical song in which the doomed protagonist takes comfort that the girl will realise after his death that his feelings towards her were true. As the singer declared his confidence in ‘Der Mai ist kommen, der Winter ist aus’, the pianist strongly asserted his own counterpoint before gradually slipping away in a quite magical postlude. He had been generally economical of movement at the keyboard but by no means played safe. His partner showed palpable warmth and admiration as the two received their applause.
The baritone’s voice was in fine shape, the resonant sound in the bass clef complemented by a liquid head-voice which was as well lubricated as I ever remember it: the repeated upward progression in ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ were sublime. The ability to switch from sustained lyrical singing to fierce declamation was a necessity given the chosen characterisation and it was achieved without any apparent wear to the tone.
A positive, explicit but highly interventionist interpretation, then. Hearing it, some would doubtless have felt that damage was done to Schubert’s fragile cycle, as I do. There was, however, little sign of that among the enthusiasts who acclaimed this performance.
- Further performances on 17 (Winterreise) & 20 June (Schwanengesang & Piano Sonata in B flat, D960)
- Wigmore Hall