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From Goerne to His Distant Beloved

Live from Wigmore Hall come Mathias Goerne and Alfred Brendel in this Gramophone Editor’s Choice record of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (op. 98) and Schubert’s Schwanengesang (D957). EMI and Decca seem to be going toe to toe in their Saengerwettstreit - the red label pitting English tenor Ian Bostridge with Leif Ove Andsnes (Winterreise - nay) or with Mitsuko Uchida (Die schöne Müllerin - yay) against the German baritone (Ionarts reviewed his recent Mahler here in Washington) and his lieder traversals with Brendel (Winterreise - yay) or his recital pianist Eric Schneider (Schumann songs, Ionarts review here).

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven & F.Schubert, Song Cycles,
M.Goerne, A.Brendel
Decca 4756011

The winner is, no doubt, the listener. Both artists bring different qualities to the Lied (apart from the obvious difference in register), and though both can be very dramatic, they are so in dissimilar ways. Both are never less than musical and impeccable; both have some more and some slightly less successful outings. (I didn’t think much of Bostridge’s Winterreise, while I like Goerne’s; I was less taken by Goerne’s Schumann disc but love Bostridge’s Die schöne Müllerin.)

With the Beethoven/Schubert disc, Goerne has another winner. Live as it is, one might imagine a more polished or more nuanced account (haven’t we our fair share of those, though?), but Goerne leaves nothing wanting as regards drama and a compelling forward drive that adds urgency without evoking haste. With a Beethovian of the first rank like Brendel at the piano, it is needless to say that Goerne gets a most sensitive, robust, and confident accompaniment that is second to none.

Schwanengesang, too, is expertly presented, but unlike in the Beethoven, his voice appeals a little less to me here. Partly, it has to do with a shift in my preferences in songs. The more I listen to Lieder, the more I prefer a tone that just flows out of the singer’s mouth. Seemingly without effort and with a very natural sound. (Ian Bostridge, Werner Güra, François LeRoux, to name a few, often embody that ideal.) In contrast, Goerne sounds slightly forced in some of the Schubert songs, with that deeply anchored chest voice of a darker, dead-serious quality. Perhaps he was, at that point in the concert, more conscious of producing the necessary volume to fill Wigmore hall with his sound? I don’t know if the Schubert was actually sung after the Beethoven, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that had been the case, given the change in naturalness of voice over the progress of an hour. (The order of applause and the encore Die Taubenpost suggest so, too.)

That personal caveat notwithstanding (and disagreeing significantly with the Gramophone reviewer who found the Schubert dramatically thought out to the last phrase), it is a very impressive and enjoyable recording of Schubert’s last songs, conveniently lumped together in a posthumously named cycle. These 14 plus 2 songs contain some of the most haunting works Schubert wrote for the voice, and unlike Brahms’s genial but austere last such efforts, are a good and accessible example of his art. The Beethoven standard, like it or not, must be Fischer-Dieskau. Brilliant as I think Dieskau’s Ferne Geliebte is, Goerne has so much to add to the cycle with his very different baritone voice and its darker quality. (In many ways, Dieskau is matched more closely by Bostridge’s singing.) An die ferne Geliebte has not seen so many recordings that we could ignore a new one of such quality. The artists themselves ought to be enough for interest in this CD, and if I withhold my most glowing recommendation from this effort, I am pleased as punch whenever I listen to it.

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