Chicago Classical Review

January 20, 2014

Goerne and Eschenbach deliver memorable Schubert journey

Lawrence A. Johnson

Goerne and Eschenbach deliver memorable Schubert journey

Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 1:02 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Matthias Goerne performed Schubert’s song cycle “Die schöne Müllerin” Sunday night at Symphony Center.

With Christian Gerhaher’s cancellation of last month’s scheduled Winterreise, it fell to Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach to kick off Symphony Center’s Schubert Song Series with Die schöne Müllerin Sunday evening.

Goerne and Eschenbach have performed Schubert’s three great song cycles at Ravinia in recent years to considerable acclaim yet it was heartening to see the return of serious lieder recitals to downtown Chicago. The audience was smallish—not quite filling the main floor where all were seated—but attentive and remarkably quiet during Schubert’s hour-long journey.

Schubert’s twenty-song cycle follows the narrative of a young miller. The songs begin cheerfully with the initial settings showing a confident and energetic youth. A third of the way through, the lad falls in love with the title beautiful miller maid. Ultimately, he loses her to a huntsman, which leads to his tragedy and eventual suicide.

The surface narrative doesn’t reflect the depths of Wilhelm Müller’s poetry, with its complex symbolism and leitmotifs of nature, green, and the brook—a friend and confidante to the young man, eventually beckoning him to his death. Schubert’s fecund, melodically rich music depicts the evolving emotional state of the protagonist with a degree of unsparing psychological penetration that is almost clinical.

Christoph Eschenbach

Goerne and Eschenbach have recorded the Schubert cycles and performed them together around the world, yet there was not the slightest hint of routine in Sunday night’s riveting performance. The partnership between the two men was extraordinary with Eschenbach’s piano amplifying and expanding on Goerne’s vocalism in virtually symbiotic fashion.

Goerne’s dark baritone and dramatic style are especially well suited to the shadowy existential angst of the later settings yet he was a fully invested protagonist from the get-go: strong and confident in the opening “Das Wandern” and “Wohin?” and displaying a slightly not-quite-right degree of boastfulness in a declamatory “Am Feierabend.”

For such an ample voice, Goerne handled the faster songs with striking clarity and rhythmic alacrity, as with his vehement anger at his romantic rival in “Der Jäger.” The singer also conveyed the folksong-like simplicity that is at the heart of Schubert’s art, as with the penultimate setting “Der Müller und der Bach,” while plumbing the varied expressive depth of each song.

The highlights in this performance were many: the existential bleakness of “Die liebe Farbe,” the romantic intimacy of “Tränenregen,”and the final song “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” with Goerne’s soothing, persuasive singing as the brook beckons the miller to end his suffering, almost making you want to jump into your grave (or brook) and join him.

Yet the finest moment came with “Der Neugierige.” The most beautiful song of the cycle—where the smitten miller begins to doubt his infatuation—Goerne’s hushed, inward caressing of the vocal line was simply spell-binding.

As in previous collaborations, Eschenbach—who had conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra the previous evening—was a full partner with Goerne, bringing an equally terraced array of hues and dynamic detailing to his piano playing.

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