Goerne weaves a spell in unforgettable Schumann and Mahler at Ravinia

Tue Jul 02, 2013 at 2:29 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Matthias Goerne performed songs of Schumann and Mahler Monday night at the Ravinia Festival. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Singing Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt Abhanden gekommen (I have retired from the world) Matthias Goerne seemed transported, his voice rapt and otherworldly, his hand outstretched and hovering as if in search of some indiscernible solace that remained remote and unreachable.

There were several such moments Monday night at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre where Goerne presented an extraordinary evening of Schumann and Mahler lieder with pianist Alexander Schmalcz that provided a musical highlight of the year, as complete and involving an artistic performance as one is ever likely to experience.

At a time when the vocal recital is almost completely ignored by Chicago’s leading presenters, give credit to the Ravinia Festival for continuing to offer such events every summer. Goerne has been an annual visitor to Highland Park in recent seasons, where he has performed all the Schubert song cycles and mixed lieder programs to strong acclaim.

This year the German baritone offered a unique evening, with a “cycle” he has crafted of songs by Schumann and Mahler. Goerne has taken nine songs from each composer—culled from various sources—and fashioned a surprisingly unified cycle. As with Winterreise or Die schöne Müllerin, the entire set was performed without interruption, with each setting flowing easily into the next.

The eighteen songs don’t make a straightforward narrative but a more elliptical progression of sorts. The opening settings begin with tales of lost love and ghostly visits, proceeding to the passing of loved ones and premonitions of the protagonist’s own death, culminating in a final group of war settings, reflecting the carnage of the battlefield, soldier’s deaths and a farewell to earthly life (Mahler’s Der Tambourg’sell).

The selections don’t exactly make for a light-hearted romp, but Goerne has crafted and arranged his cycle with intelligence, skill and discernment, the songs forming a fine foundation for this singer’s remarkable vocal art.

The opening apparitional selections drew hushed, tender vocalism from Goerne that showcased his ability to float a long high phrase with striking control and elegance. As the songs grew more dramatic, the baritone unfurled his ample resources with a remarkable range of vocal hues.

Goerne doesn’t cut a prepossessing figure onstage, yet, with his total identification with each song’s expression, he conveyed the nuances of every stanza with striking commitment and closely varied shading. The singer often seemed to personify the songs in his very body, swaying with the piano line, bending low in bass passages and rising on his toes as the vocal line ascends, his restless physicality likewise achieving a kind of transcendent grace.

Virtually every song received memorable advocacy but there were highlights. Goerne darkened his tone effectively in Schumann’s Erlkönig-like Dichters Genesung and floated tender mezzo voce head voice in Liebesbotschaft. He conveyed a weary longing for release from life in Schumann’s Der Einsiedler and brought a fresh sense of spiritual awe in Mahler’s Urlicht (making one appreciate how effective the song is on its own, apart from its more familiar appearance in the composer’s Second Symphony).

Goerne’s characterful vocal acting was supreme in Mahler’s Das irdische leben, intensely dramatic with a thunderous “Totenbahr” at the coda; the ensuing Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle was beautifully rendered.

For the final group of soldierly settings Goerne rose to the heights, impassioned and stentorian in Schumann’s Der Soldat, and bringing inexorable, unhinged power to Mahler’s Revelge. In the final setting of Mahler’s Der Tamboursg’sell (The Drummer Boy), the singer seemed to inhabit the tragic title youth on his way to the gallows, the boy’s mounting dread segueing into a bleak acceptance of his fate, with Goerne’s final “Gute Nacht,” hanging in the air.

This was vocal artistry on a world-class level, and there is no doubt that Matthias Goerne has grown into the finest lieder singer of his generation, the mantle inherited from his teacher Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Any initial disappointment that Christoph Eschenbach would not be Goerne’s keyboard partner as on previous occasions, was immediately dispelled by the playing of Alexander Schmlacz. The young pianist displayed a tonal sensitivity and range of coloring equal to his colleague, with the extended solos of the Mahler settings as expressive and eloquent as Goerne’s vocalism.

The prolonged cheering and ovations brought both men back for several curtain calls and three encores were offered, all by Schumann: Requiem, Widmung, and Ins Freie.

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