Friday, April 20, 2012

Goerne and Eschenbach in Schubert's Sublimely Sad Songs

Review by Rodney Punt

As the oft-twined saints Peter and Paul stand primus inter pares amongst their fellow apostles, so stand Franz Schubert’s twin song cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise beside similar works by other composers.

The towering achievements of the two song cycles, along with Schubert’s Schwanengesang, not to mention the hundreds of other songs he composed, were to elevate the heretofore lowly art song ("Lied" in German)  from its backwater eddy to a place in the mainstream of musical expression, a feat reminiscent of the above apostles galvanizing their once ragtag cult into a world religion.

Hearing both cycles in the span of three days was a rare luxury for lovers of song in Los Angeles, and it was provided by the LA Phil’s generous allocation of a full week to Schubert’s works in their series, Sublime Schubert. Guest headliners have been eminent German baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist-conductor Christoph Eschenbach. As a singer and piano duo, they performed Die schöne Müllerin this past Monday and Winterreise on Wednesday. Chamber music followed on Tuesday and orchestral music is slated for the weekend.

Composer Franz Schubert and his poet for both song cycles, Wilhelm Müller, were almost exact contemporaries who never met and who both died young. Their collaborations trace two storylines of a similar pattern: each involves the rejection of a suitor who had thought his love reciprocated, and when it was not he follows a path to depression and death. But from here the stories diverge.

Die schöne Müllerin has the more traditionally constructed narrative, with four human characters: the protagonist miller’s apprentice, his boss the miller, the latter’s pretty daughter, and a hunter who becomes the boy’s rival. A fifth character is the millstream with whom the boy shares his feelings and into which he eventually commends his body. The singer inhabits the boy’s internal emotional life in distinct chapters: hope, conflict, shocked despair and rapid death. A successful performance will properly gauge each of these episodes. The piano colors the drama with externalized evocations of hiking, rippling brooks, turning mill wheels, bumptious hunting, and finally the rocking of a lullaby.

In sharp contrast, Winterreise has only one real protagonist: a solitary man whose proposal of marriage has been rejected. Its “story” takes place entirely within the mind of this already spurned suitor who is on an inexorable and painfully incremental trek from dejection to despondency to dissolution to death. The piano takes on the role of mirror to the man’s mind, reflecting the emotional territory of its increasingly tormented thoughts. There is no real conflict; the cycle maintains variety by the protagonist’s increasingly ominous interpretations of random imagery he encounters along his bleak, trudging winter’s journey.

Performance history of the two song cycles

From the beginning, performances of these two works have employed different voice-types. Die schöne Müllerin has favored a high voice, often a tenor or lyric baritone of particularly pure intonation. Schubert chose for the work’s premiere the gifted amateur singer Baron Karl von Schönstein, to whom he eventually dedicated the cycle. Contemporary witnesses agree with Schubert’s choice. Since that authoritative precedent, a high lyric voice has most successfully depicted the naive miller boy, with a certain projection of vulnerability appropriate to the role.

By contrast, the first significant protagonist of Winterreise was the operatic baritone Johann Michael Vogl, the singer with whom Schubert has been most closely identified and an artist that the callow composer had earlier idolized on the operatic stage as the fearsome Don Pizarro in Fidelio. It was the dramatic voice of Vogl that premiered songs like ‘Die Allmacht’ and ‘Erlkönig’ (the latter to be performed in an orchestrated version by Goerne with the LA Phil this weekend). Though written in a key appropriate for tenor or high baritone, the cycle is often transposed down for a darker voiced singer.

As established in Schubert's Viennese circle of friends in the 1820's, the above division of labor was generally respected for a century and a half. Still, these two seminal works have been an irresistible magnet for singers of all voice types.

In recent decades, a trend to more overtly dramatize song cycles, especially Winterreise, has led to unconventional performances, including literally dramatized productions like the Winterreise Long Beach Opera produced a few seasons ago and video-dramas like those of mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender for Image Entertainment and tenor Ian Bostridge for Kultur. Bostridge and pianist Julian Drake gave a concert Winterreise performance two years ago at Royce Hall that was a startlingly odd drama in its own self-absorbed way. While these approaches add novelty to the Schubert song recital, they also sacrifice an element previously considered essential: a dignified reticence that infuses nobility into the suffering of the two protagonists.

Dramatic forays aside, modern-era representatives of the long performing tradition include tenors Peter Schreier, Fritz Wunderlich and Ian Bostridge in compelling versions of Die schöne Müllerin. Also high lyric baritones like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (one of Goerne’s teachers) and Gérard Souzay. Baritones and basses have generally best realized Winterreise: Hans Hotter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a switch-hitter between the two song cycles), Hermann Prey, Thomas Quasthoff, Thomas Hampson, and earlier versions from Goerne himself.

Die schöne Müllerin on Monday

The big question going into the two performances this week centered on how Goerne and his piano collaborator, Christoph Eschenbach, would convincingly interpret and perform the two very different song cycles in such close proximity to one another. The short answer: both performances shed light on their respective dramas, but the miller boy met with decidedly mixed results while the rejected suitor in winter was depicted with close to consummate mastery.

Most performances of Die schöne Müllerin clock in at around 65 minutes give or take a couple. Goerne and Eschenbach took a whopping 78½. The extra time had nothing to do with breaks between the twenty songs because they observed none. The cause was slow tempi that restricted the pacing to a crawl; in the last two songs forward momentum almost stopped.

The two performers dramatized every moment in micro-phrases, parsing Schubert’s strophic meters as if they were dissecting an animal, one shaking organ at a time. The duo had also freighted this most tender of musical tragedies with the weight of Shakespearian drama.

Goerne is a big man with a lumberjack’s build. He possesses a fearsome gaze and a hefty middle and lower vocal range that can thunder when called upon. He can also float in doses a uniquely resonant and compelling, if darkish, upper voice and head tone. These qualities serve him well in performances of the crazed Wozzeck on the opera stage and they would be successfully tailored to the rejected and embittered suitor of Schubert’s Winterreise two days later. They would also be appropriately employed in this evening's startling outbursts of animal energy in the minor roles of the burly miller and swaggering hunter.

Overt masculinity, however, is not the trait of the impressionable miller boy, who may have enjoyed his first shave shortly before he meets the boss’s pretty daughter. In the Müller-Schubert conception, the miller lad is full of sunny optimism, uneasy hopes and tender daydreams through the first thirteen songs. Hinting at his insecurities as he wistfully contemplates his girlfriend’s green ribbon in ‘Mit dem grünen Lautenbande’, he is jolted and jilted only in the fourteenth song with the arrival of ‘Der Jäger’, which launches his angry feelings.

Yet Goerne’s characterization of the miller boy had been heavier and darker from much earlier. ‘Halt’, only the third song, was burly if not stentorian. ‘Morgengruss’, taken at a snail’s pace in the manner of a Tristanesque dream, was far too psychologically complicated for a simple miller lad. Perhaps it was the strain from the high tessitura -- Goerne employed sculpted arm and hand movements as if to beckon an elusive lighter voice -- that tinted darker the miller boy's youth and vulnerability until the more comfortable ‘Tränenregen' loosened up the vocal tension. The following ‘Mein’ was sung with a dark coloration more appropriate for the hunter than a pixilated miller boy. All these songs precede 'Der Jäger'.

The question remained whether Goerne’s otherwise generous talents are suitable at this stage in his career to the role of the miller lad. Given unknown factors like the momentary condition of the singer's voice, a single performance cannot answer that question definitively. Yet it was undeniable that the conception of the miller story by Goerne and Eschenbach was by traditional standards heavy and plodding.

Piano collaborator Eschenbach seemed also not in peak form on Monday; perhaps he had not fully accustomed to his instrument. His touch communicated brittleness here and there. And though it remained within acceptable standards, his control was not always the ultimate in artfulness or fluidity. Were the two artists possibly still recuperating from their trip to Los Angeles?

Winterreise on Wednesday

As contrasted with Monday's Die schöne Müllerin, Wednesday’s Winterreise was performed as if by a fresh team from another planet. What they had struggled for but could not achieve on Monday seemed to arrive without excessive energy. The emotional essence of the profound work was captured both in big picture and telling details. Phrasings had plasticity, yet the vision also an organic unity.

The approach as on Monday was to dramatize the cycle -- again it was slow, coming in at 81'40 minutes -- but here it all worked without exaggeration. The old-school practice of letting the music and words carry the load of the drama was blended with the new style of gestural elements and exploring poetic byways for maximum revelation and effect. Not incidentally and unlike on Monday, both performers adhered more closely to Schubert's markings on this outing.

Goerne's voice was in peak form up and down the registers and much more secure technically. His performance felt comfortable and centered. One visual sign of this was his relative lack of hand and arm sculpting and altogether more natural breathing. As a result, his lonely protagonist was surprisingly gentler and more focused than had been the hapless miller boy on Monday.

The lower tessitura preserved Goerne's freshness throughout and left him with enough reserves to handle climactic moments with relative ease, as at the evening's highest reach in the otherworldly 'Die Krähe'. Other highlights: the shuddering quality of 'Gefror'ne Tränen', the gentle rubati in 'Der Lindenbaum', the spooky effects of both piano and voice in 'Irrlicht', the first intimations of death in 'Rast', the quicksilver changes of mood in 'Frühlingstraum', the self-realization of rapid aging in 'Der greise Kopf', the sensation of death as faithful friend in 'Die Krähe', the detachment from life and the living of 'Der Wegweiser', and the almost literal rising of the spirit in the otherwise banal  hurdy-gurdy tune of 'Der Leiermann'.

Eschenbach was at one with his singer. While the pianist’s seventy-two years have left some mark on his finger fluency, he was on this occasion fully in control and finely nuanced. From the perspective of the work's hand-and-glove psychological requirements of the piano with the voice, this was a most gratifying performance.

The Goerne-Brendel Winterreise recital at the Disney in 2004 was on a very high level, but this evening's was one for the ages. It stands among the finest live performances I have heard.


Sublime Schubert
Die schöne Müllerin by Franz Schubert -- Monday, April 16, 8 pm
Winterreise by Franz Schubert -- Wednesday, April 18, at 8 pm

Colburn Celebrity Recital,  Disney Hall, Los Angeles
Matthias Goerne, baritone
Christoph Eschenbach, piano

See LA Opus on Facebook. Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]


Anonymous said...

This is simply gorgeous writing - congratulations, Rod! You're the best!


Stephen said...

Wonderful article - I love getting all the background on the compositions and the composers. It opens up my awareness not only of these compositions by of the whole genre. Thank you!