Goerne and Eschenbach’s revelatory recital needs no words at Ravinia

Tue Jul 17, 2012 at 9:13 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Matthias Goerne performed German lieder with pianist Christoph Eschenbach Monday night at Ravinia.

Twenty minutes after the scheduled start time of Monday night’s lieder recital by Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach recital at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre, Ravinia president and CEO Welz Kauffman came out and announced that he had “some good news, some bad news and some good news.”

The first good news was that “no one had canceled,” which brought audible sighs of relief. The bad news was that the program insert with the song texts and translations had been “misplaced.” The other good news, said Kauffman, was that “we are getting them to you as fast as we can if you would be patient with us.”

By 8:30 ushers began distributing program inserts to patrons, but there were pages missing with works out of order and not enough copies for the near-capacity crowd. Kauffman appeared once again to state that the artists were “profusely perturbed” at the situation, that he took “full responsibility” for the foul-up, and “we will get it right next time.” Free CDs of Goerne and Eschenbach performing Schubert were offered to all patrons as a gesture of good will, and would be signed by both artists after the recital.

Since it was virtually impossible to read the mixed-up texts and translations anyway, Kauffman said that the lights would be brought down to prevent folks from rattling pages that were hopelessly confused, adding that the first half of the program was going to be performed as an uninterrupted set, and to please hold applause until the intermission.

As it turned out, that announcement was a vital component in creating an essential canvas of silence for Goerne and Eschenbach to weave a web of immense introspection in presenting Beethoven’s Gellert Lieder, Op. 48 followed by Schubert’s Gesänge des Harfners, D. 478-480, crowned by Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, Op. 121.

Apart from all being religious settings of 18th century poet Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, Beethoven’s Gellert Lieder have no motivic relationship and traverse a variety of moods, from the gentle Bitten that opens the set to the religious indignation of Die Liebe des Nächsten and the majestic affirmation of Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur. Most moving were the beseechingly melancholy Vom Tode and the penitent finale Bußlied, which Goerne imbued with considerable pathos and supplication.

The duo continued on to the Schubert triptych settings of verses sung by the blind harper in the second of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister novels, which offer a less grounded and more restless but no less urgent outlook. The doubled voice and piano melody in An die Türen will ich schleichen was particularly effective in underlining the dichotomy of begging.

The confidence of the Beethoven and the ambiguity of the Schubert settings were answered with that glorious burst of agnostic piety set forth in Brahms’ Four Serious Songs, which use biblical texts in a decidedly non-religious way. Setting pessimistic passages from Ecclesiastes, the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus and I Corinthians, the arc of these settings go from the futility of existence and the inevitability of death to an affirmation of all that really matters when all is said and done, love.

The highlight of the four was the tender emoting Goerne brought to O Tod, wie bitter bist du with its timely admonition that death is more feared by those who leave vast possessions behind than to the most needy among us.

There aren’t many lieder recitals where Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte, Op. 98, comes off as the optimistic portion of the program, but indeed, there was a deliberate change of mood where Goerne’s voice was made less dark, almost tenor-like at times to effectively evoke one in love, even if separated from his beloved. It was particularly effective that all six songs were performed without pause, emphasizing their unity as a cycle.

The evening concluded with a set of carefully chosen vibrant songs by Brahms which formed quite a revelatory contrast with his autumnal Four Serious Songs. Most memorable was the finale of the set, Lerchengesang, Op. 70, No. 2, which compares the distant songs of larks to delicate memories with Goerne’s voice curtailing to a gentle hush and Eschenbach’s skillful pianism disappearing like bells in the distance.

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3 Responses to “Goerne and Eschenbach’s revelatory recital needs no words at Ravinia”

  1. Posted Jul 17, 2012 at 11:12 pm by ChiLynne

    There were no missing pages (OK, maybe a cut-off line), and it was not difficult to figure out which page was the continuation. I don’t speak German, but it just wasn’t that difficult to follow. Welz K was very, very gracious, etc. I do think that the translations were helpful – even, necessary – because of the subject matter, especially the first half.

  2. Posted Jul 18, 2012 at 12:48 am by Nate

    This review reads more like a review of the program notes than the recital itself. Congratulations to the author for having a nuanced understanding of the repertoire and for making it clear that he was, in fact, physically present at the recital. Listening, though? Doubtful, if he writes more about the translations debacle than Eschenbach’s playing. If only the reviewer used his impressive background knowledge of the program to inform a more thoughtful critique of the performance (to which, by the way, the pianist was somewhat more important than Mr. Kauffman, though you wouldn’t know it from reading the review).

  3. Posted Jul 18, 2012 at 1:09 am by Dennis Polkow

    Comparing a couple of the programs before the recital began, there appeared to be a variance due to the fact that the pages were not numbered. This unfortunately also contributed to thwarting the collation process for the Ravinia staffers that were running off inserts while the curtain was being held and even beyond, to have more inserts available during intermission. The copy I was given — and many were given nothing at all — principally had most of the first work and then skipped to the beginning of the final work before doubling back to unlabeled segments of some of the inner works in no predictable order.

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