A dazzling performance of Schubert at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.
Just as most British music critics and journalists were raging against the latest Arts Council financial diktat, Parisians were able to witness and feel part of an event which demonstrated clearly that in France, the noblest manifestations of Music and the Arts are valued. Whilst Brits are being told sniffily that Opera ought to be ‘going out into car parks’, the status of Chevalier (Knight) of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres was awarded to Matthias Goerne, in recognition of his contribution to Music in France and worldwide. The ceremony took place after a searing performance of some of Schubert’s Lieder as orchestrated by Alexander Schmalcz, and ended with a heartfelt speech by the baritone in which he referred to “your wonderful country, so interested in music”. A packed house gave him an ecstatic response.
Schubert’s songs may be more familiar as intimate pieces for voice and piano, but these orchestral settings highlight the grandeur of the composer’s ambitions as well as his ability to express the most profound emotions. ‘Grenzen der Menschheit’ must be one of Schubert’s most complex and difficult songs; both intellectually and emotionally it is a challenge for singer and audience, and is sometimes essayed by, shall we say, those not exactly in possession of a low E. No fear of that with Goerne, who rises to every possible height and depth, the sense of wonder at ‘Kindliche Schauer / Tief in der Brust’ as powerful as Goethe’s ultimate question – ‘Was unterscheidet / Götter von Menschen?’ (What distinguishes Gods from Men?) which was sung with profound sublimity. Manfred Honeck directed the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen with equal distinction.
In complete contrast, the singer caresses the vocal line in ‘Des Fischers Liebesglück’ alongside gently flowing oboe, flute and bassoon; this song is especially successful with the orchestra, again finely directed by Honeck, who seems connected to Goerne by an invisible thread. This superficially joyful song is still tinged with melancholy, the lapping waves so beautifully captured in the orchestra and the lovers’ seclusion so delicately pointed by the singer. That sense of sorrow overshadowing joy is so often present in Schubert, and Goerne is the master in revealing it.
“…Parisians were able to witness and feel part of an event which demonstrated clearly that in France, the noblest manifestations of Music and the Arts are valued”
The ending of ‘Erlkönig’ was so shattering that my companion almost jumped out of her seat. You could not ask for more impressive playing of those whizzing string passages which herald the approach of the Erl King and echo the pounding of the horses’ hooves, nor could a more dramatic narrative be presented than that which Goerne gave us here, from the child’s terrified cries of ‘Mein Vater!’ to the eerie blandishments of the spirit. The final line was completely shattering, and followed by a stunned silence and tumultuous applause.
The second part of the concert was given to the fastest rendition I’ve heard of Schubert’s ‘Great’ 9th Symphony. Matthias Goerne said of the Bremen players that “There isn’t a better chamber orchestra around” and this performance demonstrated that unequivocally. Honeck takes the symphony at an absolutely cracking pace, yet never compromises on exactitude of phrasing or interpretation of themes. The Andante con moto exuded melodic grace and the Finale was full of mercurial inspiration. Schumann’s description of the symphony, inspired by Mendelssohn’s performance of it, as possessing “…life in all its phases, colour in exquisite gradations, the minutest accuracy and fitness of expression” was made clear throughout this superb performance by an orchestra at the top of its form and a conductor with both authority and musicianship.
In a wonderfully appropriate gesture, partly in tribute to ‘our new Chevalier’ and partly in recognition that this was just after Remembrance Day, the Max Reger setting of Schubert’s sublime ‘Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen’ was given as an encore, in an appropriately devout and poetic performance.