Thursday 18 June 2009

Goerne/Eschenbach - Winterreise, 17 June 2009

Wigmore Hall

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Christoph Eschenbach (piano)

A quintessential image of German Romanticism is that of the blaue Blume, the unattainable ‘blue flower’ first dreamed of by Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen. Yet, for the darker side of Romanticism, a flower is doomed to wither, to die, as soon as – perhaps even before – it has bloomed, let alone been glimpsed. It seems to me that a performance of Winterreise, one of the vey greatest works of the Romantic movement, must bear in mind both strands. The first is that hope, perhaps attenuated, but hope nevertheless, which arises from the straining after the unattainable: not just the narrator’s beloved, but also something metaphysical, indefinable. Second, and overwhelming, is the tragic fate, instantiated in catastrophic breakdown, of the apparently hopeless winter’s journey. Hope and hopelessness are never, and in this tale can never be, reconciled, but the conflict between them begets and furthers the drama. I do not claim that the two strands are equal in strength, but Winterreise’s tragedy is heightened, not lessened, by the ghosts of hope. It is, when searchingly performed, an unbearable journey; so it proved here.

For someone whose musical outlook has been so marked not just by German music, but also by German history, culture, and thought, it is quite ironic – and perhaps rather healthy – that the recording with which I first explored Winterreise was the extraordinary account by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten. I certainly do not expect to hear a Pears-like voice, should that exist, when I listen to Winterreise, but I think that it is partly from that early experience that, when I think of and listen to the work in my head, I hear a tenor, and that I retain a preference for the higher voice. This was an occasion when that preference never entered my head, so total was Matthias Goerne’s identification with the part and, in turn, mine with his performance.

It would be misleading to describe his or Christoph Eschenbach’s performance as operatic; this was Lieder-performance, without a doubt. And when I mentioned Goerne’s ‘identification with the part’, I certainly did not intend to imply a stage role, although he is a more physically demonstrative recitalist than many. However, there were many aspects of the performance which pointed, quite rightly, to Schubert’s shattering legacy to Wagner and beyond, to expressionism. Schubert always proves an ideal programme companion to composers of the Second Viennese School, much to the confusion or annoyance of an unimaginative, neo-Biedermeier contingent in the audience. Music drama, as such skilled exponents as Goerne, an unforgettable Wozzeck, and Eschenbach would keenly appreciate, has from Wagner to Henze owed a great deal to the example of Schubert’s only apparently smaller canvas.

The ominous tread of Eschenbach’s introduction to Gute Nacht, more insistent than one often hears, imparted a sense of fate, which would be borne out by the cycle, and yet that the dialectic between hope and its antipode also made its presence felt, for instance in Goerne’s subtle colouring of the word ‘Mondenschatten’. The moonlight’s shadow suggests that there remain possibilities; as the previous lines have it, ‘Muß selbst den Weg mir weisen/In dieser Dunkelheit’ (‘I must find my own way/in this darkness).* The almost infinite varieties of address on which Goerne could draw was exemplified by his explanatory ‘Gott hat sie so gemacht’ (‘God has made it so’), again tilting the scales towards fate, without overbalancing them. World-weariness was followed, quite justifiably, by the anger at injustice, temporal and otherwise, of Die Wetterfahne. The depth of tone so startlingly employed upon the words, ‘Ei Tränen, meine Tränen,’ (‘Ah tears, my tears’) in the following Gefrorne Tränen once again broadened the performers’ and Schubert’s musico-dramatic canvas. Likewise the ghostliness, peering forward to The Flying Dutchman, in the piano part of the far from placid Der Lindenbaum; Goerne’s warm yet chilling nostalgia during the final stanza fairly terrified.

The journey of contrast and underlying fatal unity continued with a burning anguish (‘heiße Weh’) which, in Goerne’s delivery truly burnt the listener, in Wasserflut. Auf dem Flusse proved almost too powerful for one to continue to listen, yet, as for Schubert’s traveller, there was no option but to do so. The final stanza was an object lesson in collaborative terror, the fury of the vocal part at one with an icy clarity in Eschenbach’s projection of the bass line. Near delirium remained controlled, if only just, in the ensuing backward glance (Rückblick). For me, it was in Rast that the piano part peered for the first time into the death-devoted heart of Tristan, late Liszt, and beyond, into the heart, or whatever might take its place, of twentieth-century expressionism. The strange, homeless harmony pointed to the Romantics’ perennial Heimweh (homesickness). To be at home, with oneself and with the world, was both an imperative and an impossibility. And this, despite the dream of spring that followed (Frühlingstraum). Here, the contrasting and developing characters of the first three stanzas were caught unerringly: Goerne’s naïve Romantic lyricism, in the first, especially its final line of happy birdsong, followed by the second stanza’s expressionism, and then the delusion and desperation of the third: not reconciling its predecessors, but an Adornian negative dialectic. The fourth, fifth, and sixth stanzas took a similar path, yet more extreme still, that final sixth stanza taken daringly slow, in almost frozen motion. If it was too much then to hope for repose in Einsamkeit, then the song opened with a sombre nobility worthy of the St Matthew Passion. Hope of a kind might still, just about, exist, although the build up to the final stanza’s Tristan-esque raging against the light suggested otherwise.

For one should remember, as Goerne and Eschenbach most certainly did, that the journey is both physical and metaphysical: a duality underlined by the painful appearance of Die Krähe, the ominous crow. What are its intentions? Do intentions still matter, or even exist? One can but hope, yet it is becoming a greater effort all the time. Eschenbach’s Letzte Hoffnung – a last hope indeed – brought hints of late Brahms and even Berg. And what hope could there be in Wozzeck or Lulu? A rare stumble at the opening of Der stürmische Morgen unsettled for the wrong reasons, but this was soon forgotten, as the bitterest of Goerne’s rage was unleashed upon seeing his heart’s likeness in the sky: ‘nothing but winter/winter cold and wild!’ This seemingly had to lead to Täuschung (‘Delusion’), otherwise the cycle would have ended there and then. Moreover, the delusion we heard brought a darkly seductive lilt, from both voice and piano, even perhaps a hint of the (falsely) consoling chamber music, of which Schubert was also such a master.

I was unprepared for the very slow tempo of Der Wegweiser, but how it worked! The metaphysical import of the signpost took on in this context almost the decisive nature of Wotan’s confrontation with Erda (and consequent rejection of Fate) in Siegfried. After that, Das Wirtshaus was taken more slowly still – and again, how it worked! This was a slowness lying beyond the glacial tempi Sviatoslav Richter would employ for the piano sonatas, yet the tread continued, as it must; it was not static. Rarely in tonal music can the major mode ever have sounded so bitter as it does in this song. We moved through Mut! and the phantasms of Die Nebensonnen to the exhaustion of Der Leiermann. Here we not only saw, through the vivid tone-painting, but we felt. Moreover, we felt not only the organ-grinder in, if this does not prove a contradiction too far, his numb lack of feeling; we also felt the protagonist’s horror, sympathy, and, just perhaps, his hope. For all the wretchedness of the organ-grinder, our hero could observe in him continuing resistance. And so could we.

There followed an all too brief silence, punctured by some cretin’s bursting in with a cry of ‘Bravo!’ He obviously thought – an abuse of the word, I realise – that he had been entertained by an Italian opera. The rest of us were as shattered as if we had been put through Wozzeck.

(* Here and elsewhere, I use Richard Stokes’s translation from The Book of Lieder, as quoted in the programme. Gavin Plumley’s excellent programme notes (to all three ‘cycles’) also deserve mention.)