April 30, 2016

Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach – « Vier Ernste Gesänge Lieder » by Johannes Brahms

by Jon Sobel

Music Review: Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach – « Vier Ernste Gesänge Lieder » by Johannes Brahms 

by Jon Sobel

Baritone Matthias Goerne has the kind of voice that resonates in a wide range of frequencies, including on the high end. On his new recording of the theatrical melodies of Brahms’s lieder and gesänge on the new album Vier Ernste Gesänge, it sounds at times almost as if there’s more accompanying him than just distinguished conductor and pianist Christoph Eschenbach‘s two hands. Both musicians here display exceptionally soulful (as well as wonderfully compatible) senses of rhythm and timing, and timing is so important in conveying the spirit of these sublime songs. 

Goerne’s dark, oceanic basso and brushed-velvet high register sail through and link the songs of Op. 32, including the defiant No. V, the lovesick angst of No. II, the sheer beauty and drama of No. I, and two poems derived from Farsi originals: the ethereal complaint of No. VIII, and the lullaby feel of the romanic love song No. IX. 

Goerne and Eschenbach take just the right soft approach to the stripped-down, almost childlike melodies of two songs from Op. 85 set to texts by Heinrich Heine: the pastoral “Sommerabend” with its mermaid imagery, and the evocation of soft moonlight soothing a troubled heart in “Mondenschein.” Three Op. 96 songs follow, also with text by Heine. 

In the “Vier Ernste Gesänge” (four serious songs) of Op. 121 Goerne glided effortlessly through varying harmonic landscapes illustrating the moods of Biblical and Bible-related texts, swelling and subsiding through the grimly lively accents of No. I, the descending arpeggios of No. II, the consolatory long notes and gentle, widely arcing melody of No. III, the martial No. IV with its quintessentially Brahmsian, unexpected yet somehow inevitable internal harmonies in the piano accompaniment. Goerne’s high notes are especially supple in the last two. 

I can imagine the opening lines of No. IV feeling especially meaningful to Brahms: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” Through works like these, beautifully conveyed on this new Harmonia Mundi release, Brahms indeed spoke with the “tongues of men and of angels.” 

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