Goerne’s art proves spellbinding in Schubert’s “Schöne Müllerin”

Thu Mar 06, 2014 at 3:37 pm
Matthias Goerne performed Schubert's "Die Schöne Müllerin" Wednesday at Carnegie Hall.

Matthias Goerne performed Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin” Wednesday at Carnegie Hall.

In “Trockne Blumen,” the third-to-last song in Schubert’s twenty-part cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, the lovelorn speaker asks “Wie seht ihr alle/ Mich an so weh,/ Als ob ihr wüßtet, /Wie mir gescheh?” (“Why do you all/ Look so sadly at me,/ As if you knew/ What would befall me?”, in Carngie’s program booklet)

In the context of Wilhelm Müller’s poem, the speaker is addressing a patch of wilting flowers just before he throws himself into the brook—But sung aloud, this moment reaches through the fourth wall to touch a guilty audience that has silently looked on, knowing all along that the mill-worker’s love was hopeless, and grieving for him as he slowly accepts that reality.

One could hardly ask for a better singer than Matthias Goerne to lead such a journey. The word “privilege” gets tossed around far too often (be it in music criticism or social psych), but it was indeed a privilege to hear his interpretation of the legendary song cycle at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday.

Goerne has an ideal voice for lieder. He has a perfectly smooth sound with a viscous, bordelaise quality at the bottom and golden cream in his middle and upper registers. A few bottom notes in “Mein!” sounded just at the edge of his reach, but for the most part, everything, even the extremes, seemed to sit comfortably within his tessitura. Often simple and tender in tone, he would occasionally let his voice grow until it enveloped the text like a heavy blanket.

He also had a first-rate partner in Christoph Eschenbach. There is a range of opinions on Eschenbach’s conducting, but acclaim for his skills as a pianist is widespread. As an accompanist, he has few peers and fewer betters. His rolling, luminous playing gave atmosphere to the music. He explored his part as thoroughly as one would a solo sonata, yet still listened carefully to his partner, facilitating a constant, spontaneous musical exchange.

Goerne did not try to play a dramatic character in his singing—This might not be every singer’s choice, but it is a valid one for this cycle. Die Schöne Müllerin, though it has a traceable narrative arc, is episodic in its progression. Each song is a quasi-vignette, and trying to inhabit the character of the mill worker as he jumps throughout the cycle can be more tiring than illuminating.

What matters is inhabiting the text and the emotions of each song, which Goerne did with complete conviction. He began the first song of the cycle, “Das Wandern,” with a distant, gauzy quality that combined youthful zeal with a sense of wonder at the world. Goerne’s consonants were sometimes unclear, but that meant that we heard more of his gorgeous vowels, which bloomed to echo in every corner of the hall.

Goerne adeptly moved from one humor to another, displaying a spectacular range of colors in the earnest “Danksagung an den Bach,” with plush velvet in his low voice and bright, bronze ring up top. To “Am Feierabend” he brought macho bluster as he tried to impress the miller’s daughter, and worked himself into a frenzy of frustration before transitioning to the plaintive tenderness of “Der Neugierige.”

He skillfully navigated the maddening back-and-forth of “Eifersucht and Stolz,” and followed it with mournful but seamless silk in “Die liebe Farbe” as he resigned himself to death for the first time.

When “Trockne Blumen,” the worker’s final song, finally arrived, it was breathtaking. In it we heard the somber, ghostly soothing of which Schubert is so fond: In other lieder, Schubert presents death as a calming, welcoming figure, most notably in Der Tod und das Mädchen, when the specter reassures the distraught maiden, “Bin freund, und komme nicht zu strafen.” Here, the victim accepts his own fate, offering what comfort he can to the listener.

Goerne displayed complete vocal freedom, some of his high notes, as on “Wovon so naß,” reaching towards heaven. In the two songs of the epilogue, “Der Müller und der Bach” and “Des Baches Wiegenlied” he created spellbinding calm.

It’s a shame that this performance was so sparsely attended. There was a video crew on hand; hopefully the recording will convince a few viewers to experience the devastating power of art song first-hand.

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