(The mill wheel in St Peter's Abbey, Salzburg)
Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach have been performing the three Schubert song cycles (including Schwanengesang) as a super-cycle for some time now. I heard their extraordinary Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall last year. This summer, they are performing all three in Salzburg; sadly, I could only catch Die schöne Müllerin, but one is better than none.
Circumstances were less than ideal. One of the many refreshing aspects of a few days in Salzburg has been a higher level of audience consideration. No applause during Gluck’s Orfeo, for instance! Sadly this audience was no better than a typical London crowd. An unfortunate apparent coincidence was the booking of the Mozarteum by the Association for the Bronchially Challenged for precisely the same time as the recital. Some members of its provisional wing, Give Tuberculosis a Chance, were also in attendance, one immediately behind me. Goerne, hardly a prima donna, seemed visibly annoyed by the clash; other audience members were livid, since such constant interruption becomes all the worse on an occasion so intimate as a Liederabend.
Nevertheless, I made the attempt to listen through the audience; insofar as I could, I was richly rewarded. It took Goerne the first song to get fully into his vocal stride, but already Eschenbach was busy with telling interpretative touches, such as the slight agogic accents applied to the piano interludes. I thought it slightly odd that Goerne should slow for the wheels’ turning tirelessly: it worked musically, but seemed a less than obvious response to the words. Wohin? was already deeply troubled, less carefree than usual: neither Goerne nor Eschenbach has any truck with the idea of Die schöne Müllerin as a lighter counterpart to Winterreise. One can argue about whether clearer contrast within the cycle would be desirable; I think there is room for more than one approach.
Danksagung an den Bach was frightening in the inevitability of what was unfolding, Eschenbach’s command of rhythm and harmonic motion crucial. Am Feierabend was as angry as I have heard, whilst its successor, Der Neugierige, provided illusory contrast with the freedom of an operatic scena. The third and fifth stanzas, both opening, ‘O Bächlein meiner Liebe,’ were extremely slow, time freezing, though not yet frozen: there is still a long way to go. To sing at such a tempo requires, apart from anything else, extraordinary reserves of breath: no difficulty for Goerne. Ungeduld came at us fast and furious indeed, though Eschenbach’s fingers could not always cope with quite so swift a tempo. There was no doubting Goerne’s ardency however.
The almost hallucinatory quality of Morgengruß truly made one shudder, likewise the attempt, however doomed, to shake off the veil of dreams (‘Nun schüttelt ab der Träume Flor…’). Throughout, of course, the brook rippled: it is at least as important a protagonist as anyone else here, somehow both conniving in and contemptuous of the false hope, the unreality of strength these musicians conveyed in Mit dem grünen Lautenbande. Fischer-Dieskau-haters would not have liked Goerne’s hectoring in Der Jäger; a bit of dramatic licence here, however, does no real harm, and the terror of the conclusion would surely have effaced any such doubts. The delirium of Eifersucht und Stolz provided a frightening prelude to the piano’s devastation in Die liebe Farbe, straight out of the world of the late sonatas. Goerne responded, in Die böse Farbe, with such vocal power at its opening and ending, that one knew the struggle had not yet quite been lost, likewise his better exultancy in Trockne Blümen, subsiding into chilling nothingness.
It was grave sadness, however, that characterised Der Müller und der Bach: a sense of peace being worked out, though that peace be perhaps too dreadful to be granted a name. One thing alone could follow, the hypnotic piano-brook’s lullaby of the final song. The cruellest of consolations was offered, cruel on account, not in spite, of its beauty. At last came a shattering stillness: if only the audience could have kept its counsel during the rest of the performance.