Monday 1 March 2010

Goerne/Deutsch - Schubert Lieder, 28 February 2010

Wigmore Hall

Der Jüngling und der Tod, D 545
Das Lied im Grünen, D 917
Die Herbstnacht, D 404
Lied (Ins stille Land), D 403
Der Herbstabend, D 405
Drang in die Ferne, D770
An mein Herz, D 860
Der Wanderer, D 649
Über Wildemann, D 884
Klage, D 371
Am Bach im Frühling, D 361
An die Laute, D 905
Des Fräuleins Liebeslauschen, D 698
Augenlied, D 297
Du bist die Ruh, D 776
An die Musik, D 547
An eine Quelle, D 530
Der Sänger am Felsen, D 482
Abschied von der Harfe, D 406
Liedesend, D 473

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Helmut Deutsch (piano)

I hope it does not sound unduly eccentric to begin by addressing of the programme notes to this recital. For often, the first engagement an audience member experiences with a performance will be from the prospectus offered in the programme notes. In many respects, the notes, from Richard Stokes, were informative, yet at the same time, they proved apologetic and somewhat evasive. The opening reads as follows:

Only Friedrich Rückert and Friedrich von Schlegel of tonight’s poets feature in histories and anthologies of German Literature. But as W.H. Auden wrote in The Poet’s Tongue: ‘We do not want to read “great” poetry all the time, and a good anthology should contain poems for every mood” – a sentiment that is exemplified by tonight’s concert. Schubert was as literary as any of the great Lieder composers (witness his settings of Heine, Goethe, and Schiller), but he also had a capacity for making friends; and in the heady artistic ambience of Biedermeier Vienna, where so many of Schubert’s friends were poets, painters, or composers, it was entirely natural that he should treat his poet friends as seriously as they treated him – indeed, the success of the Schubertiaden depended on such mutual respect. If Schubert composes some 150 songs to the minor verse of his friends and acquaintances, that does not imply a lack of literary awareness, but rather a gift for friendship.

I am not sure that it is an effective strategy to open by effectively apologising for the quality of the verse, though on this occasion, I think that it would require a tin ear to fail to recognise the inferior nature of some of the texts – and, indeed, to fail to sense relief when the Schlegel setting, Der Wanderer, and the Rückert Du bist die Ruh were presented. (Strangely, the butterfly failed to show its wings in the promised but denied Schlegel Der Schmetterling.) It is true that great verse does not guarantee great song, and equally that mediocre verse may lend itself to great setting. But there was, especially earlier on, perhaps a little much of the strophic for my taste, and a little too much of the upbeat mood for Matthias Goerne: not that he did not sing well, but his truest gifts tend to lie in serious repertoire, the more serious the better.

So much, then, for apologia, but what of evasion? The programme focused heavily, though not exclusively, upon settings of ‘minor’ poets known personally to Schubert, works that would often be performed in the Schubertiaden to which Stokes refers. Nevertheless, the only reference to Schubert’s love-life was to his ‘unsuccessful wooing of Therese Grob … almost certainly reflected in the little known Klage’. Anyone not in the know could be forgiven for failing to realise that Schubert’s apparently harmless ‘Biedermeier’ milieu was bohemian-oppositionist in its politics and morals, its homosexuality often blatant, and that most reputable scholars today consider the case for Schubert’s own homosexuality to lie somewhere between the probable and the unarguable. For those, determined for reasons best known to themselves to ‘defend’ the composer from such ‘charges’, insisting upon concrete ‘evidence’ whilst conspicuously failing to provide any of their own, one might simply point to a composer’s guidance, Hans Werner Henze having expressed incredulity that anyone might doubt that Schubert was gay, for one can hear it in the music. Now, one can take different positions on these questions, but is it not a little odd to fail to mention them, especially in a programme to which they are so directly relevant? For instance – and there are many instances – a letter (8 August 1825) from Antonio Mayer to Franz von Schober, with whom Schubert lodged and the author of the text to two of the present evening’s songs, might fruitfully have been quoted:

I am the happiest of men … - I have a three-coloured cat! … Since you have gone, I have relied much more on cats; it’s better than going to the dogs. I have made the acquaintance of two slender, one imposing, one curious, and two hardworking cats. I could tell you a lot about that, but since I don’t know if my friends are also yours, it would be doubly indiscreet to talk about it, first because it could bore you, and second because I could compromise my cats.

There were reasons why Mayer might have to employ discretion – though it would surely take an exceptionally dull member of Metternich’s secret police not to discern the true concern of this passage – but is there any reason for us to do so? Might it not be enlightening in a recital such as this to explore a ‘gift for friendship’ (Stokes) by compromising Mayer’s cats?

My only real cavil concerning the performances was that Goerne and his pianist, Helmut Deutsch, took a while to suggest doing so themselves. The darker songs were darker, to be sure, but the apparently less consequential songs tended towards the Biedermeier as conventionally understood. Der Jüngling und der Tod sounded from both musicians as if it were a deeper, more considered brother to Erlkönig, the sepulchral piano postlude especially impressive. Then Das Lied im Grünen was beautifully gentle, yet hardly ecstatic. Fair enough, one might say, questioning whether it even should be ecstatic, but the preponderance of prettiness in the strophic songs might have benefited from the odd hint of subversion, if only for variety’s sake. That said, Das Lied im Grünen nevertheless exhibited touches of underlying melancholy, much to its advantage – and to ours. Similarly, Neapolitan harmony in Ins stille Land was made to tell in unexaggerated fashion, though just a touch of greater emphasis would have done no harm. It was certainly welcome to hear true Romantic agitation in An mein Herz, all the more so for being expressed within a tight formal framework. The tensions surely speak of something.

With Schlegel’s Der Wanderer, however, we entered another world, Deutsch unerringly portraying Schubert’s masterly sense of a lack of grounding in the moonlit harmony. Deutsch and Goerne enabled us almost to see, and certainly to feel, the silver of moonlight, its metaphysical import sensed as clearly as its more straightforward representation. One must never settle, always journey. Indeed. And whilst the ensuing Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze setting, Über Wildemann, speaks a different language, one also knew that the roaring winds were not simply a natural phenomenon. As the first half drew to a close, one gained the impression that Goerne in particular was seeking to impart unity to the songs by performing them without a break, almost as a cantata or perhaps a cycle of sorts. The sudden paleness of his voice for the words ‘Werd’ ich wieder hellen,’ in Klage, strongly suggested that death would be the only cure for the poet’s predicament. Thereafter, the Romantic sickness unto death, blue flower and all, in Schober’s Am Bach im Frühling, was readily apparent, as much in the subtlety of Deutsch’s brook ripples as in Goerne’s heavy-heartedness. Perhaps, then, the musicians had simply taken a little while fully to get into their stride.

An die Laute, which opened the second half, was charming in its evocation of the lute, hints of something darker emanating from the jealousy of the neighbours’ sons. It set the scene well for the serenade of Des Fräuleins Liebeslauschen. (The missing Schmetterling should have been heard in between.) I very much liked the post-Mozartian – there can be no real turning back – poise of Augenlied, recalled three songs later in the overt portrayal of true Mozartian pathos in Der Sänger am Felsen.

First, though, we heard two of my favourite Schubert Lieder, Du bist die Ruh, and An die Musik. The stillness of the first song was such that one hardly dared breathe – and the audience, unusually for London, behaved relatively well. Through this stillness, the limpidity of Deutsch’s piano part could sing with almost heartbreaking dignity. The Schober setting, An die Musik, was affecting in a more straightforward way – at least on first appearances, for here art conceals art, and perhaps something else too. Liedesend, which closed the recital, offered a conspectus of different moods: sternness, majesty, gentleness, vehemence, clemency, and finally foreboding. It does not quite convince me, though Goerne and Deutsch gave it their all; however, the final foreboding of the grave rather overshadowed the rest, as doubtless it must.