Sunday, 14 August 2016

Salzburg Festival (7) - Goerne/Wang/Matthes - Brahms, 9 August 2016

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Brahms – Die Schöne Magelone, op.33

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Yuja Wang (piano)
Ulrich Matthes (narrator)

I had not initially been intending to attend this concert, but, owing to a mix-up, stupidly returned my ticket to hear Grigory Sokolov’s recital; by the time, I realised my mistake, the concert was sold out, as it continued to be until the day itself. I therefore bought myself a ticket for what seemed to be the next best option that evening. Why mention that at all? Partly to explain why I think I should have got more out of the concert, had I been more fully prepared.

For this was a performance of Brahms’s ‘song-cycle’, Die schöne Magelone, with narrative coherence provided by readings from Ludwig Tieck’s romance, the Liebesgeschichte der schönen Magelone und des Grafen Peter von Provence. Ulrich Matthes’s delivery of those readings was, to my second- or third-language ears quite outstanding. He did not try to upstage the musical performances, but nor was he unduly reticent; he understood – on one case, with wry, infectious amusement – the particular tone of Tieck’s verse, its direction, and its preparing the way, in this particular context, for Brahms’s setting of the songs within the romance, one per chapter. I should have benefited from a translation, whether in titles or in the programme, but only the songs were translated. It was certainly good practice for my German-language skills, and the language is not in itself especially difficult, but I could not help but think that an international festival such as Salzburg might have made provision for people in my situation and, indeed, for those with less or no German. There were, sadly, quite a few departures from the hall – accompanied, needless, to say by still-more disruptive tutting from some of those remaining.

None of that offers any reflection, of course, upon the readings themselves, which I should have loved to hear again, having more firmly an idea in my head of the direction and nature of the verse. Nor does it offer reflection upon the musical performances from Matthias Goerne and Yuja Wang. I did not find them especially well matched; nor did I find Wang’s piano tone especially well suited to this particular repertoire. That is perhaps more a matter of taste than anything else – however unfashionable this may be, Brahms will probably always retain at least a veneer of mahogany for me – but Wang’s bright, unapologetically Steinway-ish tone sounded to me more appropriate to Rachmaninov, say, than to Brahms. By the same token, though, there was much to admire in the clarity of her playing; there was no muddiness here. I liked the post-Schubertian lilt both she and Goerne imparted to ‘Sind es Schermzen’, for instance. However, for the most part she seemed somewhat withdrawn as an ‘accompanist’, rather than an active participant.

Goerne, by contrast, offered keen narration, far more dramatically committed than he had seemed in the Kindertotenlieder a couple of nights earlier. He placed Brahms not only as a successor to Schubert but to Beethoven too; indeed, in the aforementioned ‘Sind es Schmerzen’, the dialectic between, say, the heritage of  a song such as Erlkönig and that of the Beethoven Lieder Goerne had recently sung at the Wigmore Hall was vividly, dramatically apparent. A subtle, never exaggerated sense of near-Wagnerian – yet only near-Wagnerian – intoxication at times, for instance during ‘Wie soll ich die Freude’, proved another welcome ingredient to the mix. The conflicts of ‘Muß es eine Trennung geben’, the playfulness of ‘Sulima’ – no Orientalism here, thank God! – and the genuine optimism, even happiness of ‘Wie froh und frisch’ marked important stations on our procession to the close. And yet again it was Beethoven, in ‘Treue Lieder dauert lange’, who came to mind in something approaching ecstatic conclusion. Even for me, a non-native-speaker, the additional context had proved invaluable.