Matthias Goerne set to launch Schubert marathon at Ravinia

Sat Jul 25, 2009 at 1:32 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Baritone Matthias Goerne will perform all three Schubert song cycles at Ravinia beginning next week.

For many artists, a performance of one of Schubert’s song cycles is something to prepare for and then recover from. The daunting task of performing two-dozen varied and intensely dramatic songs in an unbroken span requires physical stamina as much as uncommon vocal technique and interpretive depth.

Starting Monday at Ravinia, Matthias Goerne will tackle not one, not two, but all three Schubert song cycles with Christoph Eschenbach at the keyboard. The 42-year-old German baritone will kick off the Schubert marathon at the Martin Theatre with Die schone Mullerin, continuing Wednesday with Winterreise, and concluding on Friday with Schwanengesang. If that’s not enough vocal heavy lifting, Goerne will cap the week performing Viennese music with Eschenbach conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Sunday.

Unlike many singers who revise their interpretive approach to a Schubert cycle with each performance, change for the sake of change isn’t Goerne’s way.  “I’m not one of those who says everything I did ten years ago was completely wrong,” says Goerne from his home in Germany. “I believe that by the time you do a recording it should be so settled and clear in your mind that it can be like that for the rest of your life.”

Still, while he has previously recorded all three cycles for Decca, he is now setting down new versions for harmonia mundi with Eschenbach.  “Of course, with six or eight years in between, things are modified,” Goerne says. “I’m older now, the voice has changed, and the life experiences are completely different. But the basic direction is basically the same.”

Some see Die schone Mullerin and Winterreise as two sides of the same coin. The first tells of the happy, rustic country lad who realizes that his beloved, the beautiful miller maid, has found another lover, and his resultant anger, devastation and ultimate suicide— a more youthful spring version of the interior winter journey of Winterreise.

For Goerne, however, the two cycles inhabit completely different Schubertian spheres. “The most obvious difference between Die schoene Mullerin and Winterreise is that the first cycle ends with a suicide,” he says. “But the whole cycle of Mullerin is younger and less reflective, more wild and also more dramatic. In a way the ending of schone Mullerin is an exception to the whole world of Schubert.”

“Four years later, Winterreise is a different piece of music and it’s a different kind of person we are talking about,” he adds.  “There’s still loneliness and resignation. Nothing is really secure, he’s still not finished with the past. But there is still maybe a chance, there’s a little hope.”

Assembled by Schubert’s publisher years after his death, Schwanengesang does not offer a cohesive dramatic arc, as with the two earlier cycles. But it contains several Schubert masterpieces—Standchen, Der Atlas, Der Doppelganger—and Goerne belives that Schubert’s “swan song” is no less a valid artistic experience.

“It’s not that Schwanengesang is weaker,” says Goerne. “It’s just not so logically organized. Schwanengesang, compared to the other cycles, is coming from another planet. We’re no longer talking about love affairs and social things.  There’s no other piece that’s comparable in Schubert, especially the Heine [settings]. It really is outstanding.”

“The songs were the last songs he composed and the B-flat sonata—[which Eschenbach will perform as a prelude on Friday] was the last sonata he composed. And to have this combination is fascinating—the same emotions are involved. There’s a richness, sound-wise from the melodies, from the rhythms, the fusion between the texts and the music line.”

Goerne learned his craft in Leipzig, studying under Hans-Joachim Beyer, and legendary lied predecessors Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarkopf also provided artistic guidance. “[Beyer] was my first teacher and I learned all the basic things from him,” said Goerne. “But the combination of these three over the years made everything, in a way, perfect.”

Goerne’s new Die schone Mullerin with Eschenbach was recently released and the men performed the three Schubert cycles in London and Schwarzenberg last month. Ravinia is the final stop, and the only U.S venue for the series.   “To be able to do all three cycles in a week with Eschenbach at Ravinia is wonderful,” says the singer.  “It makes a big difference when you have a pianist like Eschenbach.”

Having performed the Schubert song cycles all over the world, Goerne is always struck by the reaction that this deeply personal yet universal music has on audiences, even when they do not understand a word of the German texts.

“You never have to change a thing about the way you do the cycle for the audience,” he said. “You can do it in London, you can do it New York, you can do it in Hong Kong or Japan. There is something so unique, so powerful and touching inside of Schubert’s world that people get the meaning. There’s a kind of blind understanding that always comes across.”

Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach perform Schubert’s Die schone Mullerin 8 p.m. Monday at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre, Winterreise 8 p.m. Wednesday, and  Schwanengesang 8 p.m. Friday. Friday’s concert also includes the Schubert Piano Sonata in B-flat major, D.960.  Goerne will also perform August 2  in a Viennese program with Eschenbach conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.; 847 266-5100.

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