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Winter in Summer: Matthias Goerne at Tanglewood

We welcome this review from Tanglewood, an Ionarts exclusive, by guest contributor Seth Arenstein.

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Schubert, Winterreise, M. Goerne, C. Eschenbach
(Harmonia Mundi, 2014)
When an established musician presents a work in concert that he or she has recorded, the result often is the same or a similar interpretation of the work. To his credit, the highly regarded German baritone Matthias Goerne did something different Wednesday evening at Tanglewood as he performed Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey), a favorite of this site.

Not that Goerne’s 2014 recording of Winterreise, with Christoph Eschenbach on piano, is faulty, far from it. Yet in a heavily repetitive world, it was a treat to experience a master artist like Goerne performing a different interpretation, perhaps reacting to his new thoughts about Winterreise or to those of his pianist this night, Markus Hinterhäuser. From the piano’s opening notes of “Gute Nacht” (Good Night), the first of twenty-four Wilhelm Müller poems that Schubert put to music in this cycle, one could sense this was going to be a more nuanced, slower (dare we say slightly warmer?) Winterreise than is heard on the Goerne-Eschenbach recording.

To be fair, it was not a wholesale change from Goerne’s basic interpretation of Winterreise, which tells the dark, gloomy story about a man whose lover has left him. In recordings, Goerne tends to emphasize the insanity of this lovesick narrator. Indeed, Goerne expressed insanity at moments in his performance this evening, especially in the first twelve songs. By the night’s end, though, Goerne’s narrator sounded less mad than angry, though it was a controlled anger. For example, in “Der Leiermann” (The Hurdy-gurdy Player), the final song, Goerne conveyed the image of a dejected character more than an insane one. In his most affecting moment, Goerne whispered the narrator’s words compassionately, describing a poor, old man, standing barefoot on the ice, playing tunes on a hurdy-gurdy as best he can with frozen fingers.

Goerne was in stellar voice from the start, easily filling the 1200-seat Ozawa Hall with a full, warm sound in several registers. His knowledge of Müller’s words and sensitivity to Schubert’s music were apparent. Goerne’s “Mut!” (Courage) was lively but not overdone, his control and tone in “Das Wirsthaus” (The Inn) were exemplar. Pianist Hinterhäuser, who will become artistic director of the Salzburg Festival in 2016, was a revelation. While never overpowering Goerne, his playing was muscular and sensitive, leading Goerne and following him with great musicality. His light touch in the opening bars of “Die Krähe” (The Crow) made it easy to imagine a bird flying around the narrator’s head. Most effective were his sense of rhythm and use of rubato, particularly in “Die Wetterfahne” (The Weathervane) and “Irrlicht” (Will-o’-the-wisp).

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An interesting touch: Performing the work without an intermission, Goerne and Hinterhäuser varied the space between songs. Most began after a brief pause. A few, however, nearly bled one into the next, starting just seconds after the previous song ended. It was an interesting artistic choice by the artists, who seemed to be in interpretive sync all evening.

Something else you miss from listening to Goerne’s recordings is his stage mannerism. He tends to sing in the direction of the piano. As such, he spent much of the night looking in Hinterhäuser’s eyes, communicating with his pianist, instead of facing the audience. While slightly disturbing, if this is the price for a memorable Winterreise, I’ll pay it gladly. The house, which sadly was only 75% full, concurred. Reacting thunderously, Goerne and Hinterhäuser were recalled to the stage three times.

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