Thursday, May 3, 2012

Goerne and Andsnes: Death (and life) at Carnegie Hall

To be perfectly frank, Gentle Readers, I went into Matthias Goerne's Tuesday night recital with some doubts as to how a program constructed using selections from the Rückert-Lieder, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and the Kindertotenlieder, as well as Shostakovich's settings of Michaelangelo sonnets (Op. 145,) would work. In the event, Goerne and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes gave a bold, gripping, and ultimately haunting performance. Whether hallucinatory or bitterly realistic, these meditations on the transformations of death were beautifully realized by pianist and singer. I was repeatedly astonished--and fascinated--by Goerne's powerful and flexible instrument, and the variety of emotional colors found by Andsnes in the piano part. The Mahler selections I know relatively well; the Shostakovich I knew not at all; interwoven, they proved emotionally powerful and philosophically stimulating.


MAHLER "Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft"
SHOSTAKOVICH "Morning," Op. 145, No. 2
MAHLER "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen"
SHOSTAKOVICH "Separation," Op. 145, No. 4
MAHLER "Es sungen drei Engel"
MAHLER "Das irdische Leben"
MAHLER "Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen"
MAHLER "Wenn dein Mütterlein"
MAHLER "Urlicht"
SHOSTAKOVICH "Night," Op. 145, No. 9
MAHLER "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen"
SHOSTAKOVICH "Immortality," Op. 45, No. 11
SHOSTAKOVICH "Dante," Op. 145, No. 6
MAHLER "Revelge"
SHOSTAKOVICH "Death," Op. 145, No. 10
MAHLER "Der Tamboursg'sell" 

The first four songs were dreamily meditative, tones of melancholy becoming increasingly prominent in "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen" and "Separation." Goerne's use of text, and Andsnes' muted playing, suffused the final stanzas of the Mahler with a dreamlike awe. The influence of hymnody on "Es sungen drei Engel" was apparent in the style of Andsnes' playing, as well as the harmonies. The folktale shape of "Das irdische Leben" was belied by Goerne's dark, savage delivery, at a somewhat faster pace than I am accustomed to hearing. The last line, describing the child on the bier, was delivered not as an exclamation point, but as an expression of inconsolable disbelief that the unimaginable had happened. "Nun seh' ich wohl" was an aching threnody. Thereafter came another emotional turning point, with Andsnes' accompaniment for "Wenn dein Mütterlein" reminiscent of a Bach prelude in its clarity and purity. "Urlicht" was beautifully filled with silences, with Goerne's phrasing long, unstrained, suffused with deep longing, and deep confidence.
I was occasionally forgetting to breathe by this point, so the interval offered a welcome opportunity to inhale deeply (and restore circulation to cramped limbs, as we were sitting very still in the balcony.) "Night," like "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," offered a reflection on death as peace, but focused on the turmoil of the world, rather than its abandonment. Shostakovich's "Immortality," with eerie harmonies at the extremities of the keyboard, destabilized the calm certainties of Mahler with a hallucinatory meditation on the remembrance of the dead by the living... and of the living by the dead. Here came the last turn of the evening, towards increasingly angry and surreal confrontations with mortality. Goerne's superb use of text in "Revelge" kept me spellbound, with an ever-increasing sense of unheimlichkeit infusing the drummer's refrain. Andsnes brought out powerful echoes of Russian church music in the piano part of "Death," which set words of bitter, human rage to a solemnly liturgical melody. The drumrolls of "Der Tamboursg'sell" were evoked with chilling effect by the piano, and Goerne's delivery was of an apparent simplicity alert to layers of tragedy, with ironic emphasis given to "Leibkompanie," his last "Gute Nacht" dying into a stricken silence.

In response to prolonged and enthusiastic applause, Goerne and Andsnes gave a generous encore of Beethoven's rarely performed "An die Hoffnung," Op. 94. This was previously unknown to me, but had my riveted attention from the opening lines: "Ob ein Gott sei? Ob er einst erfülle was die Sehnsucht weinend sich verspricht?" (The full text may be found here.) Goerne's delivery was impassioned as it had been throughout the evening, and I hung on his words. True to the spirit of the evening, the selection offers no concrete answers to the questions it poses, but the sheer beauty of Goerne's tone seemed to half-answer the invocation to hope. I should perhaps note that on this, my first live hearing of Goerne, I spent the first few songs wildly puzzling over how to describe his timbre. My first thought on his dark, rich baritone was that it was the opposite of metallic, a sound connected to nature. But inchoate impressions that a voice is like the sound of sun and shade on trees, of a cold river and the stones in it, communicate almost nothing (perhaps less than nothing.) Perhaps scarcely more helpfully, I was later put in mind of a cello: long lines of sound delivered with rich tone, always balancing between darkness and light, eloquent of Sehnsucht, seeming to be eloquent even of things which can scarcely be spoken, but sometimes sung.


  1. I saw Goerne perform Wintereisse at the Kennedy Center this past January (or February?). He sang very beautifully, and was very deeply focused on the act of singing; however, I found that I didn't find his interpretation totally convincing. The sounds he made were always very elegant and well-executed, but I think the emotional content kind of suffered for it. I would have preferred a more broken, less attractive sound in places - something more hollow and worn out on "Der Leiermann", for example. And, of course, his focus on the quality of the sounds he was making really affected his physicality as a performer. I don't know if it was the same for you, but he could be very animated at times as he engaged his body in the process of producing (and manipulating) sound. I tend to think that's actually really interesting to watch in a recital (provided the singer isn't TOO awkward), but I think I would have appreciated it more if I hadn't had my interpretation issues!

    I also thought Eschenbach seemed to be having a little trouble keeping up on the piano - he seemed a little rushed (or under-rehearsed) at times, so that didn't help.

    1. My first instinct is to say "Lucky you!" but I'm sorry to hear that the Winterreise was a less than satisfying expereince. On this evening, Goerne and Andsnes seemed very connected to each other as well as to the music, which was a big part of the recital's standout success, for me. Goerne's singing was indeed very physically engaged (and my post-recital YouTube binge would seem to suggest that this is characteristic.) I did find it interesting... and on this evening, not distracting at all. I'm not sure how this would have affected a more "narrative" recital. On Tuesday, Goerne's sound was consistently gorgeous, but I thought that his coloring of sound and (a thing I could only judge in the German) use of text brought plenty of anguish. It's an interesting interpretive question, though! I'd suggest a marathon of Winterreise recordings, but I'm not sure that would be psychologically healthy.

    2. Winterreise marathon! It can only end in lots of dark clothing and eyeliner and writing bad poetry. Of course, I'm the weirdo who prefers Ian Bostridge's Winterreise - though I just listened to a bit of Florian Boesch's recording (I seem to remember Alex Ross or Nico Muhly raving about it via blog...), and it it wonderfully intimate.

    3. Ha! I also really like Bostridge's Winterreise, although I've yet to find an account of the cycle which I decidedly prefer to all others. If a tenor named Shawn Thuris ever ends up in the D.C. area, though, check him out; I heard his Winterreise live and it was both powerful and introspective. I haven't heard the Boesch; I'll have to look it up!

  2. The topic seems now to be Winterreise, so I have to chip in...... Check out the women - Christine Schaefer's is the one I keep going back to - hauntingly beautiful, ethereal - a sort of detached passion. I was at Alice Coote's Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall in January - quite different - very angry, almost scary - you would not have wanted to meet her on the road.... There's a surreal youtube video of Brigitte Fassbaender singing Der Lindenbaum, which makes me want to get the whole recording - she is unique.
    Back to the men: Henk Neven's new CD is great. And are we holding our breath for Jonas' recording, as he is starting to sing it in Munich this year? Given that he is well enough by then - Inshallah - it should be good. But for me, it will be hard even for him to beat Christine Schaefer's for beauty and cool spookiness.

    1. Glad to broaden the conversation. I do hope that more female singers continue to take on the Winterreise. Fassbaender is indeed extraordinary, and I love both her interpretation and Christa Ludwig's quite different one. I'm quite jealous of your chance to hear Coote; we don't get enough of her in NYC. You make me want to revisit Christine Schaefer's recording; to be honest, I run hot and cold on it. I couldn't say I'm holding my breath for Kaufmann's recording, but it should be interesting, at the very least (and who knows, maybe I'll be surprised and devastated in the best way.)


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