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Winter Not Over Yet

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Schubert, Winterreise, M. Goerne, G. Johnson

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Schubert, Winterreise (Live, Wigmore Hall), M. Goerne, A. Brendel

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S. Youens, Retracing a Winter's Journey: Schubert's "Winterreise"
It is Budapest, Prague, and Vienna time at the Kennedy Center this month, and Matthias Goerne is in town to help Christoph Eschenbach celebrate. On Monday night, Goerne and Eschenbach performed Schubert's song cycle Winterreise in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, in advance of Goerne's equally awaited performance, with Michelle DeYoung, in Duke Bluebeard's Castle with the National Symphony Orchestra later this week (March 8 and 10). Matthias Goerne has already recorded Schubert's gloomiest song cycle twice, once with Graham Johnson for the Hyperion Schubert Edition and a second time, live at the Wigmore Hall, with Alfred Brendel -- both quite good. In the past few years, he has been recording the Schubert song cycles with Eschenbach, too -- Die schöne Müllerin (2009), Schwanengesang (to be released next month). They have also reportedly already recorded Winterreise, too, and based on this performance, it will be a version of interest but not likely to replace either of Goerne's earlier discs.

Goerne has tended to emphasize the deranged character of the narrator of this cycle, although there are ways to understand the story that do not involve the protagonist being mentally unbalanced. It was much the same here, with Eschenbach's willingness to push the envelope of rubato and musical individuality encouraging Goerne to take more time with each line, to give a broad range of dynamics and tone color to each song. His diction, of course, his love of the poetry was as clear and fervent as ever, and even without any break at the mid-point of the cycle, the intensity of both performers held one's attention unfailingly. Unpredictability was often the most important quality of some songs, like "Wasserflut," which had some almost crazed outbursts at the end, and the howl of rage at the end of "Auf dem Flusse." At the same time, in songs where the narrator turns nostalgically to memories of the past, Goerne tempered his voice toward a lighter, more tenor-like sound, a voice of happy youth. Only once did the range of the transposition used not sit comfortably in Goerne's voice, at the high notes on the refrain "Mein Herz!" in "Die Post."

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, From Matthias Goerne, phenomenal control in Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ (Washington Post, March 7)

Tim Smith, An affecting journey to the soul of 'Winterreise' from Goerne, Eschenbach (Baltimore Sun, March 6)
The weak point in this version is with Christoph Eschenbach at the keyboard -- not his ideas, which were often brilliant, but his hands. His variations of touch and voicing from stanza to stanza in the strophic songs, like "Gute Nacht" and especially in the haunting final song, "Der Leiermann," were striking. Technically, however, the songs with more challenging accompaniments were hesitant, slightly fudged, or a little sloppy -- the triplets of "Erstarrung," the fast movement of "Rückblick," the runs in "Mut" -- not enough to make one forget this version's achievements, but it did tarnish it. Still, there were moments of intense poignancy from the combination of Goerne and Eschenbach, none more than the fifth song, "Der Lindenbaum," performed with such nostalgic freedom, a haunting mixture of remembered happiness and the whisper of suicidal longing. Quibbles aside, this was rewarding listening, another indication of the greatness of this quintessential Romantic song cycle, which can be interpreted so many ways. Susan Youens has written an exhaustive book on the cycle -- the poet and his poetic sources, the resonances with Schubert's life. Always willing to read new ideas, I came across one of the most outlandish: Roger Neighbour has even gone so far as to speculate -- quite wildly -- that Schubert was the surviving half of a "blighted twin" pregnancy, and that fetal memories explained his sense of alienation from the world, as in Winterreise. Think of that what you will!

Matthias Goerne and Michelle DeYoung join Christoph Eschenbach for a performance of Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, with the National Symphony Orchestra, paired with the suite from The Miraculous Mandarin (March 8 and 10), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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