“So, then, how many stars for this one?”
“You are joking, right? How could it be anything but 5? Where is there a fault?”
If there was one, it was the endurance needed by the audience to sit motionless and cough-free during an hour and a half of the most concentrated music making, of a seriousness which admitted no levity. On the day, the programme had changed from the usual timings (with interval) to this much more intense structure, and it was remarkable that the only distracting sound was a few puzzled audience members leafing through their programmes to find the right songs in the Shostakovich cycle, that having been truncated (mercifully) to three.
The last time we heard Matthias Goerne at the Wigmore, he was accompanied by someone almost twice his age: this time, the pianist was nearer half that: Goerne seems always to be searching for just the right partner to collaborate in his vision, and each new partner seems to bring him new insights and new interpretations. Beginning a recital with Berg’s Vier Lieder, Op. 2 sets out the uncompromising challenge straight away – this is to be a deeply serious, no holds barred exploration of man’s (and woman’s) position in a harsh and unyielding world, and Goerne and Daniil Trifonov evoked all the changing moods of Berg’s music, especially the despairing irony at the end of ‘Warm die Lüfte.’
Schumann’s Dichterliebe is one of those works which can make you feel you’ve heard it all, so popular is it with audiences and so loved by singers – but this interpretation made us think again. With Menahem Pressler as his accompanist, Goerne gave us a highly charged, dramatic Dichterliebe, the moods of the poet and lover sharply delineated in often extreme contrasts. Here, with Trifonov at the piano, the mood was far more uniformly sombre and much more subdued in delivery. ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ was sung as a regretful reminiscence, the voice quietly intoning the words with only a brief pressure on ‘Verlangen’ and the piano so delicately touched, the playing so verging on the tremulous that one had to be very attentive to pick up all its nuances – perhaps that was the intention, and if it was, it succeeded.
This set the tone for the rest of the cycle: reverent, almost prayerful, with the piano as close a partner to the singing as we’ve ever heard. The nachspiel to ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’ was itself a small study in how to evoke emotion with just a handful of notes. The more ‘angry’ songs were not so much dramatic expressions of the lover’s loss or, as in the case of the ‘wedding’ songs, sardonic expressions of his misery – rather, they were integral parts of a whole in which the initial bitterness seemed to have been replaced with resignation. ‘Aus alten Märchen’ provided the expected flood of feeling at ‘Ach! Jenes land der Wonne,’ but it was melancholy rather than raw. After such singing and playing – and most especially after the wonderfully sustained, glowing postlude, you could almost feel the audience itching to stand up and cheer.
But that was not allowed, as we had to press on with some sublime performances of Wolf’s Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo and three songs from Shostakovich’s Suite on verses of Michelangelo Buonarrotti. The high points here were ‘Fühlt meine Seele,’ with the final line ‘Daran sind, Herrin, deine Augen Schuld’ grippingly communicated, and ‘Dante’ with its heartfelt reflections on genius.
Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge is a work which Goerne has recently recorded: once more, this interpretation was different to those which we’d heard him give with different pianists some years ago. Josef Joachim wrote of the final song, “How beautifully Charity shines forth from the 3/4 time and how heart-rending is the introduction of the 4/4 time! If only one could hear it sung once with all the beauty that one sees in it.” – and this was a performance in which beauty of tone was paramount, together with the magisterial authority which is so typical of Goerne. Trifonov partnered him with equal intensity, especially in the final notes of ‘Ich wandte mich,’ and that last song was powerful in its consolatory message.
Ninety minutes of the most serious of songs, unbroken by applause or even pause, is a challenge for both performers and audience – one triumphantly met here. On Monday June 27th, Goerne takes to the Wigmore’s stage with yet another accompanist, Kristian Bezuidenhout, for an all-Beethoven programme including An die ferne Geliebte.