Neun Lieder und Gesänge, op.32; Sommerabend, op.85 no.1; Mondenschein, op.85 no.2; Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht, op.96 no.1; Es schauen die Blumen, op.96 no.3; Meerfahrt, op.96 no.4; Vier ernste Gesänge, op.96 no.4
Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Alexander Schmalcz (piano)
At his best, Matthias Goerne does serious (ernst) at least as well as anyone else. He may not be everyone’s first choice as Papageno, although what he brings to the role is compelling indeed, quite different from the blithe clowning of some, arguably much closer to its fundamental sadness. (Is that not, after all, what clowns are about?) Yet, individual taste aside, whom would one choose before him to sing Brahms, let alone the Four Serious Songs?
That set came last in this Wigmore Hall recital from Goerne and Alexander Schmalcz. Whilst it is difficult to imagine anyone having been seriously disappointed by the performance heard, I do not think it came close to matching a performance I heard last year in Salzburg from Goerne with Daniil Trifonov. Before hastening to judgement, however, I should caution that the fault did not necessarily lie with the pianist. Here, as indeed throughout, Schmalcz gave estimable accounts of Brahms’s musical structures, duly suggestive of both how they complement and how they do not the ways of the verbal texts. ‘Denn est gehet dem Menschen’ was perhaps the strongest performance here, offering a true sense of having reached the beginning of the end, finality clear even in the fury of its central stanza; ‘Es fährt alles an einen Ort…’. Echoes from Ein deutsches Requiem, always apparent, were perhaps more than usually so here. However, during the second and fourth songs in particular, a hectoring quality to Goethe’s performance, sometimes apparent earlier too, seemed to go a little too far in the role of the verbal Preacher (be it that of Ecclesiastes or St Paul). In the latter and final song, ‘Wenn ich met Menschen,’ there was a sense of the music never quite having settled; it seemed unduly complicated, as if minds of singer and pianist had not truly come together.
The Neun Lieder und Gesänge, op.32, fared much better. Why we do not hear these songs more often I really do not know. Perhaps it is simply that Brahms is still thought of more as an instrumental than a vocal composer. Surely the autobiographical element – Graham Johnson once suggested considering the set as a Komponistenliebe sequel to Schumann’s Dichterliebe – should attract. Above all, though, the sheer musical – and musico-dramatic – quality should. Wagner’s was not the only way. Schubert often hovered in the background, more oppressively than benignly, the opening ‘Wie raft ich mich auf in der Nacht’ suggestive almost of a retelling of the night of ‘Der Doppelgänger’, from a different, related person’s standpoint, several years later. Indeed that fabled ‘lateness’ of Brahms, however much it may stand in need of deconstruction, seemed, not inappropriately, present throughout this dark night’s proceedings. That is not to say that darkness was unvaried; it nevertheless predominated, still more so in the following ‘Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen’. ‘Ich schleich umher’ offered different forms of repression, repression remaining the operative word, however. Two August von Platen storms ensued, prior to a true sense of reckoning in another setting of that same poet, ‘Du sprichst, dass ich mich täuschte’, almost as if this were the cycle’s – if indeed a cycle it be – peripeteia. Hafiz, translated by Georg Friedrich Daumer followed, in three songs, the first two exquisitely bitter in their ‘Süsse’ (‘sweetness’, as the first has it) – or should that be the other way around? Blissful in its quiet ecstasy, ‘Wie bist du meine Königin’ seemed to hark back to Schubert’s ‘Du bist die Ruh’, without abdicating its ‘late’ knowledge that it would prove impossible to return.
Five Heine settings came in between. (There was no interval.) ‘Sommerabend’ benefited from especially fine piano voicing, as if shadowing the vocal line, a Doppelgänger to it, which in a way it is, yet not only in a ‘purely musical’ way. ‘Mondenschein’ proved in turn a moonlit Doppelgänger to its predecessor. The exquisite drowsiness of death and recollection, quite without hope of an after-life or any other ‘beyond’, came to us in the deathly ‘Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht’. An intermezzo-like reading – from both artists – of ‘Es schauen die Blumen’ was followed by a somewhat hectoring ‘Meerfahrt’. Perhaps that was the point – up to a point. Sometimes, however, as Heine might have advised, there are other forms of preparation than rage.