Schubert – Goerne/Eschenbach – 3 [Schwanengesang & Piano Sonata in B flat]

Schwanengesang, D957
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960

Matthias Goerne (baritone) & Christoph Eschenbach (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 20 June, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Matthias Goerne. ©G. Paul BurnettThis was the last of three concerts featuring Schubert’s song-cycles. Given that the two artists involved have very distinctive interpretative styles, unsurprisingly critical reaction has been mixed.

‘Liebesbotschaft’ had a relaxed tempo, with both performers using a beautiful half-voice and imparting a conversational tone to the second stanza. In the postlude the bar-lines seemed to disappear in Christoph Eschenbach’s mellifluous hands. ‘Ständchen’ received a well-nigh-perfect performance. The tempo was slow, the rhythm beautifully inflected, and in the piano interludes the pace seemed even slower because of the change in phrasing and weight of the hands. Against this Matthias Goerne weaved a gorgeous web of lush pianissimo sound.

The opening of ‘Herbst’ (not originally in the cycle) perfectly portrayed the cold wind, the singer’s thread of sound at the start of the second stanza superb. ‘Der Atlas’ was immensely powerful and brought an exquisite contrast with the subtle quiet inflexions of ‘Ihr Bild’ – this really was pp and ppp singing at its finest! ‘Der Fischermädchen’ brought welcome relief, which was delivered in a jovial manner with a rocking accompaniment from Eschenbach. Of the last song ‘Der Doppelgänger’ little can be said, other than that it was terrifying and profoundly disturbing. No-one applauded until Goerne raised his head. Added as an encore, Schubert’s final song, ‘Der Taubenpost’, was given a perfect performance.

Christoph Eschenbach. Photograph: Eric BrissaudSchubert’s ultimate Piano Sonata received a quite extraordinary performance. The first subject was slow and got slower still in the second half of the theme. There were numerous tempo changes in the second subject and a mesmerisingly beautiful slowing for the exposition repeat. In the development at one point the instrument was barely audible as Eschenbach traced patterns of incredibly subtle sound. I have never heard the slow movement taken as a molto adagio, but the pianist got away with it. The left-hand cross-over notes in the first theme were barely touched, and the second theme was wonderfully hushed. There wasn’t much of a mood change for the central section. Faster, yes, but dynamics were restrained and only in the climatic section did ff briefly intrude. When the first theme returned the tempo was slightly quicker, but the poetry was superb and the coda seemed to last for an eternity. As in the first movement there were constant tiny tempo changes and extreme rubato, but it did work!

Much the same can be said of the remaining movements. The scherzo was average in tempo was average, the trio very sombre and very quiet. The opening of the finale seemed improvisatory and less successful as a whole simply because tempo changes had become predictable. Nevertheless it was quite an achievement to show this work in such a new light.

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