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Matthias Goerne in Schumann Songs

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Robert Schumann, Lieder, Matthias Goerne, Eric Schneider

Matthias Goerne is undoubtedly one of the foremost baritones of his generation, and thanks to the support of his current record label, Decca, he enjoys a visibility (or audibility, if you wish) like few other Lieder-singers.

His recent Winterreise with Alfred Brendel on the same label (he had already done the Winterreise once with Graham Johnson for the Hyperion complete Schubert Song series) was a tremendous success, and while it did not replace long-cherished favorites of mine (Hans Hotter with Gerald Moore, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Jörg Demus, Peter Pears with Benjamin Britten—the latter for the piano playing), it offered dramatic insights and plenty of musicality to cherish. His Schöne Müllerin with regular accompanist Eric Schneider at the piano that came before is even more successful.

Little wonder that expectations should be high for his disc of Schumann songs. The recording is difficult to assess: the first few listenings were rather a disappointment, a mixed bag at the least, mostly because of the songs themselves. The arrangement's logic and order escapes me, and not all songs are equally strong. Schumann may be popularly underestimated for his output after 1849, but at least his songs are far less obviously beautiful and more difficult to absorb. But even some of the works that came out of the productive year of 1840 fall short of his most beautiful.

The dramatic ballades that Goerne chooses—Belsazar, Die beiden Granadiere, and Die Löwenbraut—offer their greatness only very reluctantly. Indeed, Die Löwenbraut may just not have any. For a lover of Schumann, clearly, these reservations are of little concern; what matters is that Goerne endows all but a few songs with the best his voice has to offer: a dramatic and well-rounded, voluminous voice of natural pronunciation and with excellent diction. But he can also 'do' mild and tender, though perhaps with less authority. Die Lotusblume (op. 25, no. 7) sounds terrifically urging and romantic, but it's also one of the stronger op. 25 songs he chose for the recording. Dichters Genesung seems derivative (or foreboding, rather) of both Die beiden Granadiere and Belsazar, both of which are impressive and impressively performed (though neither are favorites of mine). The five songs from op. 90 included here, too, take repeated listening to warm up to. Nachtlied (op. 96, no. 1) is potentially gorgeous, but so slow that it's difficult to concentrate and experience as one, elongated whole. Widmung (op. 25, no. 1) is one of Robert Schumann's finest melodies and lacks nothing in urgency with Goerne behind it, but I could see how a sunnier, lightflooded, and delighted (slightly slower) version might give me even more pleasure. Werner Güra (whose latest Lieder recital on Harmonia Mundi charmed me utterly) comes to mind.

The final song (very cute) is Zum Schluss (op. 25, no. 26). It closes on a conciliatory note a disc that demands repeated and concentrated hearing to appreciate. As such, it is not a good introduction to the Lied, or even Schumann songs. (Güra, again, would be an optimal choice for that.) Nor, for that matter, is it a good introduction to Goerne, even when he sings admirably. If you like Goerne and Schumann already, though—and are willing to give the disc a few spins, preferably with headphones—it should grow on the willing ears and delight.

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