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Matthias Goerne, Alexander Schmalcz, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Matthias Goerne, Alexander Schmalcz, Wigmore Hall

Matthias Goerne, Alexander Schmalcz, Wigmore Hall

Velvet-voiced baritone makes journeys of his own through Schubert's songs

Goerne: He finds the live truth in these 200-year-old songsphoto: Marco Borggreve for harmonia mundi

When you go to a Schubert recital, you’re plunged into a whirlpool of emotional ambivalence, heat and chill running together, music and lyrics not always playing the same tune. When Schubert seizes on a poem, it’s not because he’s interested in Mickey-Mousing that poet’s sentiments - on the contrary, he may see a purple passage of words and set it simply, as if deflating it, or he may take a plain statement of action (looking out of a window, say) and fill that phrase with complex music containing a world of dark feeling.

When Matthias Goerne is the singer, this counterpoint gets a third layer, as this supremely responsive and intelligent singer decides his own view of whether he’s with Schubert or with the poet, and whose character he’ll portray in the performance. This rich emotional conversation made last night’s recital at the Wigmore Hall a vivid, sometimes confusing experience, an interrogation of how humans feel, and how they make their feelings known.

It was also an experience of often profound security and expressive inspiration. Goerne has not only an exceptionally velvety, hush-grained baritone, but he almost never doubts the live emotional truth in these almost 200-year-old songs. This isn’t always so in Lieder recitals - if a singer takes the wrong psychological tack, or if they produce their voice more for beauty of sound than to articulate the words’ meaning, they leave the songs seeming artificial and old-fashioned, prisoners of the poetry’s overheated era, where every man loses his girl (if indeed he ever got her) and it is always blackest night.

Goerne is midway through a marathon Wigmore Hall series, singing 200 of Schubert’s 600 songs over three seasons, and recording 11 CDs for harmonia mundi. Schubert composed many of his songs in cycles, but the hundreds of single songs, set to 115 different poets, are something else altogether to programme. The listener is reliant on the singer being as gifted a programmer as performer. The coherence of last night’s 20-song programme was striking; instead of theming them on particular poets or chronology, Goerne offered two cycles of his own devising, separately driven narratives of emotion, two journeys both starting at night and both ending in loneliness - but of satisfying contrast. Like a traveller, he is meeting up with several pianists on the way: last night it was Alexander Schmalcz, who rose strongly to the occasion from a prosaic start.

The first journey began on a lyrical night, Nacht und Träume, and ended in frozen horror, with the tremendous gravedigger’s song Totengräbers Heimweh, a concise fantasy of spiralling depression and almost certain suicide that transfigures the banality of Jachelutta’s words ( "O death, come close my eyes, Life alas is so oppressive") and seems to ride to the edge of music itself.  Singer and pianist together made something exceptional of this.

The second started lighter, with more songs from his teenaged years - and yet what was a 19-year-old doing writing such prodigiously moving songs about loving and losing as Die Sommernacht (The Summer Night, where his free, almost improvised vocal line amplifies the poet Klopstick’s profound grief) and Jägers Abendlied (Huntsman's Evening Song, where he disagreed with the poet Goethe’s orders for wild music)? And Goerne reminded us Schubert wasn’t just a sucker for misery - here were two ditties for a peasant sing-song, Erntelied (Harvest Song) or Herbstlied (Autumn Song), as fresh and crunchy as apples.

An Silvia (To Sylvia) and Ständchen (Serenade), masterpieces from Schubert’s late twenties, fitted sweetly into this apparently more juvenile, pastoral half, two songs with Shakespearean links and as uncloudedly loving as anything Romeo would sing to Juliet. But there’s a grave in that story, and Goerne put in Die Sommernacht soon after. He ended on a striking final pairing, Der liebliche Stern (The Lovely Star) where it’s disorienting how gently Schubert sets these raving verses of a man whose love has died, as if to point out that she actually didn’t care for him, and An die Geliebte (To the Beloved), where the only consolation this unrequited lover has is a tear on his girl’s cheek. It’s a simple tune in a major key, yet the freedom of the vocal line aches, and as so often with Schubert it can be the simplest major-key cadence that leaves the big questions hanging.

  • Further performances by Matthias Goerne in his Wigmore Hall series on 28 February, 7 & 11 March 2010. Information here.
  • Matthias Goerne's website
How gently Schubert sets these raving verses of a man whose beloved has died, as if to point out that she actually didn’t care for him

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