Schubert – Goerne/Eschenbach – 2 [Winterreise]

Winterreise, D911

Matthias Goerne (baritone) & Christoph Eschenbach (piano)

Reviewed by: Melanie Eskenazi

Reviewed: 17 June, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Matthias Goerne. ©G. Paul Burnett“I have coals of fire in my breast. It surprised me that the human heart is capable of containing and bearing so much misery. Was I born for this end?” John Keats’s plea to his friend Charles Brown, towards the end of his life in 1820, encapsulates part of the Romantic sensibility so searingly depicted by Schubert some six years later in “Winterreise” and it is this very sense of the burning pain of endurance which Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach convey with such absolute mastery. Joseph von Spaun characterised Schubert’s own singing of part of the cycle as given “in a voice wrought with emotion” – just as Goerne conveys it, and Eschenbach weights each phrase with an equal burden of feeling.

Goerne never stands still either physically or in musical terms, and this “Winterreise” is so different, not only to his early performances with Graham Johnson, but also to the partnership with Alfred Brendel – one might have thought that it had all been said after the latter, but no – this latest account surpassed even that interpretation, darker yet surprisingly more universal in its journey from one outcast’s misery to the sorrow of suffering humanity. As with their “Die Schöne Müllerin” two evenings earlier, there is no rustic preamble here, no charming farewell in ‘Gute Nacht’ – the hard road ahead is already clear from “Was soll ich länger weilen / Dass man mich trieb hinaus?’ which broke out as a cry of anguish, from which we had little time to recover before the aching poignancy of ‘Die Liebe liebt das Wandern’ had us floored again.

The contrast between anger and sorrow from ‘Ihr Kind ist eine reiche Braut!’ to ‘Gefrorne Tropfen fallen’ was startlingly powerful, with Eschenbach’s staccato chords in the prelude of the third song so finely suggesting both the falling tears and the lover’s weary tread, and Goerne’s “Dass ich geweinet hab” so sweetly tender before the tremendous forte at “Des ganzen Winters Eis”. ‘Der Lindenbaum’ was sung at first “with the greatest simplicity, with warmth, very legato” just as Lotte Lehmann advises, but this gave way to a sense of the futility of false hope.

In ‘Auf dem Flusse’ Goerne sang the lines “Den Tag des ersten Grusses, / Den Tag, an dem ich ging” as if the memory were almost too much to bear, and ‘Frühlingstraum’ finely balanced exquisite joy remembered and present misery bitterly tasted: not a dry eye in the house I think at “Die Augen schliess’ ich wieder” although it must be said that this was achieved without manipulation or striving after effect – all is in the service of the music, a very slow performance, with musical values as exalted as can be.

Christoph Eschenbach. Photograph: Eric BrissaudThe ‘trio’ of ‘Einsamkeit’ and the next two songs were the centre of the interpretation: the first was taken mesmerisingly slowly, the bewildered pleas of “Ach, dass de Luft so ruhig!” almost unbearably poignant, and the trotting rhythms of ‘Die Post’ cruelly jovial. ‘Der greise Kopf’ was perfection, with Goerne conveying all the incredulity of what is happening to the speaker. Goerne and Eschenbach showed in ‘Der Wegweiser’ that it is possible to achieve great effects by simple means – the crucial statement “Habe ja doch nichts begangen / Dass ich Menschen sollte scheu’n” given as if straight from the heart.

Scrupulous respect for the composer’s wishes is always evident in the maintaining of the gehende Bewegung which Schubert wanted in many songs, and that respect is nowhere more evident than in the monumental ‘Das Wirtshaus’ in which Schubert’s marking of Sehr langsam is observed in a way that so few other singers can achieve, the grand phrases shaped with nobility and fervour, the sense that even the graveyard will not welcome the wanderer conveyed in tones of increasing desperation.

In contrast Schubert wanted ‘Die Nebensonnen’ to be Nicht zu langsam which Goerne and Eschenbach achieved wonderfully. It is not the dirge it can become but contains some of the most challenging music in the cycle, all finely met with the kind of rapt intensity that is this singer’s hallmark. The final song, its subsequent silence broken too soon by a bellowed “Bravo!” was remarkable for its humility, voice and piano weighted not only with the final question but all the unanswered questions of the music itself.

A truly definitive “Winterreise” with singer and pianist as one, an “outcry of scorched sensibility” (Capell) which left us both awed and enriched.

  • Further performance on 20 June (Schwanengesang & Piano Sonata in B flat, D960)

  • Wigmore Hall

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