in: Reviews

August 1, 2010

Goerne and Haefliger Unapologetically Probe Human Experience in Schumann, Brahms

by

In an ambitious program of songs and virtuoso piano pieces by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Andreas Haefliger filled Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood on July 30 with a full palette of affecting melodies, romantic harmonies, and layers and layers of inner voices and textual meanings. The program included Schumann’s lieder to texts by Heinrich Heine (Opus 45, No. 3; Opus 127, No. 3; Opus 142, No. 4; and the Liederkreis, Opus 24), and Brahms’s Three Intermezzi for Piano Solo, (Opus 117), and Nine Lieder und Gesange, (Opus 32, to texts by August Graf von Platen-Hallermunde and Georg Friedrich Daumer), with one encore, the Brahms Ach, Wende Diesen Blick (“Oh, Turn Away this Gaze”).

Matthias Goerne, a disciple of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, brings to his audience the master’s legendary investment of meaning into every syllable, exacting articulation, and tonal nuance, and in addition to these attributes, a dark, velvety baritone voice, with a range that descends to a succulent F like a 16-foot diapason on a 19th-century organ.

If a fair comparison can be made to his teacher (based on listening to recordings and a single live performance during the Edinburgh Festival in the early 1980s), where Fischer-Dieskau is elegant and controlled and carefully modulates each gesture as well as every phrase, Goerne permits himself to express passion in the extreme, hugging the narrow portion of the lid of the piano, rocking from foot to foot, and reaching out and pulling the audience into nearly overwhelming surges of melody and feeling.

Neither breaking his voice nor affecting emotion through vocal tricks, Goerne inhabits the music in a manner that is both thoroughly convincing and deeply moving. So strongly, so powerfully, indeed, that one searches for comparisons to masters known barely to suppress what lurks below, to Rostropovich, perhaps, and surely to Horowitz, of whom Leon Fleisher once observed that were he not to tame those subterranean magmas with his prodigious technique, they would burn up the hall.

Utilizing a similarly eruptive metaphor in his magisterial volume, Music in the Romantic Era, Alfred Einstein observed that the songs that closed the first portion of this concert came after a period in which Schumann had written “only piano music and, being a genuine Romantic, had thought instrumental music the only fitting means by which the inexpressible could be expressed, and the inmost secret of feeling could be penetrated. He had felt that the word, as something too rational, was a fetter, a limitation. But when with Opus 24, the Heine song-sequence, he began to write lieder, he was like a volcano in eruption.”

Schumann wrote 138 songs in 1840 and departed from Franz Schubert both in a reformulation of the role of the text — in Schumann’s words, “to liberate the word from the curse of reason, and by means of the unity of feeling between language and music, to fuse them into something like a universal art-work” — and also in the use of the piano, in less a subordinate role than a seeking with the singer “a more highly artistic and more profound kind of song.”

With Andreas Haefliger as his collaborator, Goerne engaged powerfully with a pianist of surpassing musicality and stunning technical capacities. This was manifested in his rapturous facial expressions when Haefliger performed Schumann’s pianistic commentaries, evocations, and variations on the vocal text. The piano, while never overwhelming the voice, played an equal role in this mostly satisfying concert—mostly, but not entirely, it must be said, and not due to any fault of the performers, who did their best to manage a curve ball thrown their way by the Tanglewood printer. Although the event was scheduled for 8:00 pm, the program supplement carrying the texts and translations could not be located. The artists “prefer not to go on until the audience has them in hand,” announced Benjamin Schwartz, an artistic manager of the BSO, “and they are being copied now.” Although the crowd in the hall seemed patient, a wave of rhythmic clapping swept in from the lawn. At 8:40, the artists appeared.

Such wonderful music can, of course, be appreciated from sound alone, but unlike listening to the opera on the radio, when one is facing two performers so obviously involved in expressing this “more profound kind of song,” it can, and did indeed prove to be an exercise in frustration. There were so many heart-felt expressions of unknown meaning, so many achingly unanchored melodies, movingly uncertain harmonic transitions, that splendidly descending baritone lines down to that gorgeous low F —yes, low F — that gave emphasis to suspensions and appoggiaturas that left one suspended.

The Brahms piano Intermezzi began in a gently rocking 6/8 meter with a quietly expressed melody, each note lovingly articulated, and thoughtfully voiced inner lines. The predominant Eb tonality gave way suddenly to a C minor that floated ambiguously, unclear in direction, before resolving gently through F minor and Bb to Eb.  This taste of straightforward harmonic logic quickly gave way quickly to a succession of rich, chromatic chords with only wisps of melody and tangled inner voices that collided in bitter dissonances. Where was Brahms taking us? But the first theme returned with a warm, delicious sense of comfort and, as it descended, a charmingly Romantic progression emerged: Eb, D, C, Bb, Ab, G, and the lovely cadence Ab, A diminished, Eb, Bb, Eb, ending with a sweet, bell-like Eb octave. Where had we been?

Haefliger’s impressive control and ability to develop crescendos and diminuendos over many measures or three-note passages gave feeling to the next, more rapid section, with its complex counterpoint and repeated, embedded V7-tonic resolutions in lively, chromatic sequence, dense tangles of suspensions in the center of the keyboard. The melody was brilliantly subordinated here – always evident but requiring extra attention to enjoy it — and all the activity was muted, as if a quilt were thrown over an emotional storm.

Then a moderato introduction with ambiguous tonality led into a beautifully articulated melody in the left hand, with chords above, and then a unison line in both hands that arched upward in Bb, A minor, and D minor arpeggios before resolving in a sad, simple A 7th D-minor cadence. Something was certainly stirring here, and with a shudder, the tonality shifted to Bb with sparkling, repeatedly struck high C’s and D’s over flowing left hand harmonies.

Where these twinkles sounded as sweet tenths and unresolved ninths, now the upper line became gnarly and passionate, with several Eb to D, and Ab to G appoggiaturas. The rubato section that followed was polychromatic, with an impressively moderated, beautiful paced crescendo leading to a restatement of the first melody, this time offered over an unexpected cadence through a new harmonic path: B 7th, E minor, E diminished, A 7th, D minor. Because of Haefliger’s secure sense of the logic of all of this, and his secure handling of the challenging dynamics and chromaticisms, one felt that a confident guide was taking over this mountainous route.

The Brahms lieder that closed the concert were enjoyed with translations in hand. And what evocative words they were:

— on sexual fantasies (bashfully expressed, perhaps alluding to Brahms’s confused sexuality and giving emphasis to their commanding significance): “How I roused myself, in the night, in the night; And felt myself drawn further; I left the alleys, guarded by the watchmen; And wandered through quietly, in the night, in the night; The gate with the Gothic arch.”

on heartache: “I no longer live quietly; Ah, speak, say only one word”

on the shame of psychological pain: “I creep about, sad and mute; you ask me not, why? My heart shakes with so much pain! Could I ever be too gloomy?”

— and on the unremitting power of amorous obsession: “Alas, so you would again; you hindering shackles, imprison me? . . .Out streams the longing of the soul, flowing out in clamorous songs; inhaling ethereal fragrances!”

Sol Schwarz drawing (Special to BMInt)

Sol Schwarz drawing (Special to BMInt)

To these words were attached music that glowed with passion and confusion: “in the night, in the night” with mounting tension voiced by layered, rising appoggiaturas, as Goerne rocked foot-to-foot, concluding with a desperate cadence G minor, B major, E minor; heartache signified by Goerne’s emphasizing the sadness of the repeated E minor-A minor cadences with yearning, summoning gestures with this left hand; depression with multiple C-B natural appoggiaturas, with subtle emphasis on the Cs; and romantic yearning in a huge voice over a more orchestral piano treatment, with stormy left-hand textures, roiling chords, excited arpeggios and rapid harmonic transitions from minor to major and back.

After the encore (of course without translation), one was left impressed with the vision implicit in Goerne’s and Haefliger’s combined approach to these masterpieces. Their search for meaning unapologetically probed the depths of human experience, and celebrated our shared humanity. Tonight’s was a noble effort, which ultimately surmounted its technical difficulties. Existential truths appeared to emerge from this challenging, beautiful concert: life is not about perfection, and art that accepts our imperfections can leap to, in Schumann’s words, “a more profound kind of song.”

Eli H. Newberger studied music theory and reviewed classical music for the Yale Daily News. Performing music, he wrote in “Medicine of the Tuba” in Doctors Afield (Yale University Press, 1999), helps him to care. That chapter and other writings on music and medicine may be found on his website, here.

4 Comments

  1. Eli –

    Where was the performance in Tanglewood? I recently saw/hears the Mark Morris troupe in Ozawa Hall, in two different seats, and in neither could I make out the words of the songs.

    David G.

    Comment by David Griesinger — August 1, 2010 at 12:07 pm

  2. Ooooh, this is beautiful. It takes not just perfect pitch to register (perfectly) all the tonal twists and turns of those Schubert and Brahms songs, but also a poet’s leap to hear the baritone descend to that “succulent F”! I am reading Dr. Newberger’s arrival as a music writer with utter amazement and delight. Congratulations and thanks all around. Chris Lydon

    Comment by Christopher Lydon — August 2, 2010 at 2:30 pm

  3. It was also in Ozawa Hall, David, where I also took in (and submitted my very first review on) that Mark Morris performance. Here’s how I reported watching and listening to the Beethoven, with its original English folk-song text:
    “The Muir,” though beautifully danced and sung, was an exercise in frustration. From Row N left, just 50 feet from the box where the quartet of singers and piano trio were placed, it was impossible to discern a single clear syllable of the English lyrics. This was not the fault of the soloists, all of whom sung articulately and with feeling, but rather with the problematic acoustics associated with positioning the singers in a low-ceilinged corner forward of extreme stage left. Although two and a half pages of single-spaced text were provided in the program, it was impossible to read them in the darkened hall. And who, anyway, would want to read them on one’s lap while trying to watch a dance performance?
    “The charming, vernacular lyrics were essential to both dance and song. Would it not have been appropriate to provide the singers with adequate amplification or positions on the stage, or to utilize the supertitle system announced in this very printed program to interpret the forthcoming “Beowulf” in Ozawa Hall? As it stood, this performance left an impression of vigorous and pleasant dancing, colorful ball-gowns, intensely presented Beethoven, and an inattention to detail that risked spoiling a Mark Morris world premiere.”
    Eli

    Comment by Eli Newberger — August 2, 2010 at 5:53 pm

  4. “The habit of excessive indulgence in music … has probably a relaxing effect upon the character. One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one’s self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterwards in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world — speaking genially to one’s aunt, or giving up one’s seat in a horsecar, if nothing more heroic offers — but let it not fail to take place.”

    — “Habit,” in William James, “The Principles of Psychology” (1890).

    Comment by Richard Buell — August 2, 2010 at 10:08 pm

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