Great musicians never stop learning, and this collaboration between a distinguished 92 year old pianist, the founder of the Beaux Arts Trio, and the baritone regarded as today’s supreme interpreter of Lieder, showed that even those who have reached the summit still have much to learn from each other. Matthias Goerne seems to seek out great pianists with whom he can establish the kind of rapport he desires for particular works, and in Menahem Pressler he has found the Dichterliebe accompanist who enables him to give a truly great performance of this most beloved of song cycles.
This was a Dichterliebe of the strongest possible contrasts, from the powerful, passionate rage of ‘Ich grolle nicht’ to the hushed rapture of ‘Ich will meine Seele tauchen.’ In every song, Pressler’s playing was the exact equivalent of the voice in this sombre, authoritative reading. Some regard these songs as ‘delightful’ gradually becoming ‘sad,’ but in this performance the anguish and bitterness are there right from the start, ‘Sehnen und Verlangen’ (Longing and desire) as vivid in the hesitancy suggested in the piano as in the voice.
The unmatched beauty of Goerne’s legato line, his ardent seriousness and his warmth of tone were all there, but the interpretation has become more daring with Pressler at his side; it’s almost as though he’s been given the impetus to take the slower songs to the next level of prayerful reflection. Many were sung as though to himself, as if we were listening in on the poet’s and composer’s private thoughts, yet so fervent was the phrasing and so intense the silence which the performance engendered that we did not feel distanced in any way.
In both ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh” and ‘Ich will meine Seele tauchen’ Goerne displayed his characteristic ability to combine a seamless legato with the interpretation of significant words and phrases in such a way as to lean on them without making them bear too much weight, and Pressler’s playing touchingly evoked the intensity of such lines as ‘In wunderbar süsser Stund.’ In ‘Allnächtlich in Traume’ just one phrase was sufficient to single this out as great interpretation: ‘Du sagst mir heimlich ein leises Wort’ (You say a secret, soft word) – that crucial ‘Heimlich’ given just the singularity it needs, and the piano tentatively edging forward.
‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’ combined eloquent singing with playing of the utmost tenderness; as the voice part halted in mid air at the song’s close and the piano completed the phrase, the silence in the hall was intense. ‘Aus alten Märchen’ was a study in how to depict emotion in song, from the longing of ‘dort mein Herz erfreu’n’ to the bitterness at the melting away of the vision. The final song was a combination of the anger and yearning of what had preceded it, the sublime nachspiel played with ineffable tenderness.
After this, the Lieder from Op. 89 and the songs set to poems by Lenau might have seemed an anti-climax, but they bore the same intensity and refinement, especially in ‘Heimliches Verschwinden’ and ‘Ins Freie’ from Op. 89,which seem to present two facets of the composer’s nature. Lenau’s poems from Op. 90 are not for the faint-hearted, and Schumann’s settings of them challenge performers with music of sometimes devastating bleakness; even Hardy’s Neutral Tones is not so desolate. The final lines of ‘Der schwere Abend’ in which the poet parts from his troubled love whilst wishing both were dead, might seem an odd closure for a recital, but they were in keeping with its seriousness and uncompromising power.
This was not an evening to suit everyone; those who simply cannot cope with a singer who does not stand stock still and does not ‘sing nicely’ as well as those who balk at the odd jarring note from the piano would not be happy, but for the rest of us it was an evening which will not be forgotten for a very long time. Fortunately it was recorded for the Wigmore Hall Live series.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.