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February 26, 2007

Echoes from a Beautiful World: a Schubert Recital by Matthias Goerne at the Wigmore Hall, London

Posted by David Conway

Schubert Recital
by Matthias Goerne (baritone)
accompanied by Ingo Metzmacher (piano)
Wigmore Hall, London
22nd February 2007

Some time around 1970, my father, who was in the schmutter trade, came across Jack Cohen, the founder of Tesco, fulminating in the company's warehouse over several rails of suits. Tesco had just started selling men's clothing, and these garments, imported from Romania, were part of their initial stock. Jack was spitting blood;

Look at this rubbish,
he spluttered, dragging my father over to inspect it,
it's like cardboard, we're never going to move this crap.
It is surely the last of this stock of cardboard pinstripe that was borne by the shoulders of Matthias Goerne when he gave his Schubert recitals at the Wigmore Hall; vast, clunking and sinister, it combines with Goerne's hooded eyes and generally haunted visage to give us the impression of an East European minor Mafioso fallen on hard times.

As if this were not in itself sufficiently potentially distracting, there is the mystical ballet in which Goerne indulges while singing, a sort of classical pole-dancing with his right hand firmly anchored on the corner of the piano's raised lid, his eyes now eagerly engaging those of his accompanist, now sweeping his audience. But none of these mannerisms turned out to matter - because his supreme artistry immediately swept away these superficial representations of the material world and united us with the spiritual world of the composer.

Goerne's voice has a startling clarity that transcends mere mechanics of diction. The essence of the great lieder-singer is far more than beauty of tone, voice control or placement of pitch. It is the ability to tell the words, to command the attention of an audience in the same way as does a great actor. That is why singers such as Fischer-Dieskau or Peter Schreier were able to continue to arouse intense emotional complicity with their audiences long after their technical competences had peaked. The physical presence of an audience is of course a prime element of such communication, of which a recording or broadcast can give only a distant impression.

Goerne, who is now perhaps at the height of his technical powers, before a devoted audience, was therefore able to deliver a recital exemplary of its genre. The voice, perhaps as a consequence of his ventures into opera, seems to have more force behind it - a force whose highest levels are virtually always kept in reserve, but of which the listener receives sufficient hints. The liquorice tone, smooth, black and slightly bitter, underlines the outsider image, not only of Goerne himself, but of most lieder-writers and of the poets whom they set. Goerne himself is therefore, as an artist, an incarnation of the lied as an incarnation of romanticism.

The recital programme contained few of Schubert's "greatest hits" - perhaps only one of the items, Fruhlingsglaube, could be counted as truly familiar. The first half of the recital was devoted largely to lieder associated with the world of classical Greece, starting with a setting of Schiller's Die Götter Griechenlands (The Gods of Greece) and then concentrating on settings of Johann Mayrhofer. The verses by Schiller set the tone:

Beautiful world, where are you? […] Only in the enchanted world of song does your fabled memory live on.
Mayrhofer, who was a friend (and for some time a flat-mate) of Schubert was a fairly prolific poet of the Biedermeier period, forty-seven of whose works were set by Schubert (more than of any other poet except Goethe, in fact). In them, typically, the world of Greece is similarly idealised; the first of the Heliopolis poems (which also figured in the recital) begins
In the cold, raw, north I heard tell of a city of the sun. Where is the ship [...] that will take me to those halls?
Schubert responds hauntingly to these pleas with music of alternating textures and modes separating the present and the "here" from the past or the "there".

Particularly memorable amongst Goerne's interpretations was the setting of Goethe's Meeres Stille ("Calm Sea") where, with perfect support from Metzmacher, he paradoxically evoked a deep emptiness and silence whose pulse was almost palpable. Other striking performances were of the "Pilgrim's Song" by Schober, another member of Schubert's circle, a sombre lay of renunciation, and of two other Mayrhofer settings; Der ensühnte Orest ("Orestes purified") where a wanderer's return is accompanied by the rippling of the water that has borne him there, and the appropriately final Abschied ("Farewell"), slow, dark, inexorable, that left the audience silent for many moments before anyone dared applaud.

The occasion was taken, after the recital, to present Goerne with the first Wigmore Medal which will be given to artists of major stature who have been particularly associated with the Wigmore Hall - a gift which he reciprocated by giving as an encore a perfect rendition of An die Musik. The honour was appropriate; a musician whose talents are prized by connoisseurs, being acknowledged by those connoisseurs in their hang-out of choice. Much as I had profoundly enjoyed the evening, I began frankly to experience a shadow of the contemporary social sin of elitism.

At home, I looked up Mayrhofer's original text to Heliopolis, and found that it was prefaced by a number of epigrams, of which two in particular struck me;

incomprehensible to the superficial, appreciated by the deep
As the Persians did homage to the sun, so will the peoples venerate art.
The application of these phrases to a Wigmore Hall audience, almost entirely as middle-class and middle-aged as myself although here and there spiced up by the odd celebrity (on this occasion, for example, the actor Ian Holm), is painfully obvious. The superior form of escapism embodied in Mayrhofer's visions of the antique perhaps carries less freight for us today, when even educated society is less familiar with the classic world, and when we can hop on an Easy-Jet at a moment's notice should we wish to trawl through that world's degraded remains. But the opportunity to lock out, through music, a complex outside world and retreat to one of primary emotions of love and loss, remains as highly seductive today as two hundred years ago.

An audience at the Wigmore can enjoy pretending its innocence, and its desire to escape the thralls of materialism, as much as did the circle of listeners at a Schubertiad of 1820; at the same time of course it is self-gratifyingly asserting its "deepness", and fulfilling Mayrhofer's prediction of the apotheosis of art. And it still has the "cultural access" to enable it to indulge these deeply satisfying (if politically incorrect) feelings - which present educational priorities will deny to future generations as pre-20th century music, culture and history get shoved off the syllabus. In the future society envisaged by Blairism - and maybe even I fear in that envisaged by the Cameroons - an evening like this will be incomprehensible to all. Which I suppose will mark another advance for equality.

David Conway's previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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