Shostakovich Songs Pale Beside Mahler’s

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler and Shostakovich: Matthias Goerne (baritone), Leif Ove Andsnes (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 7.1.2014 (MB)

MahlerIch atmet’ einen linden Duft
MahlerWo die schönen Trompeten blasen
Shostakovich Separation
Mahler Es sungen drei Engel einen süßen Gesang
Das irdische Leben
Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen
Wenn dein Mütterlein
Mahler Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
ShostakovichImmortality; Dante
Shostakovich Death
MahlerDer Tambourg’sell


This was in almost all respects a distinguished recital, at least as much for Leif Ove Andsnes’s playing as for Matthias Goerne’s singing; indeed, had I to choose, I should say that Andsnes was on even better form than Goerne, quite rightly seeming to have lavished just as much consideration on the recital as he would, had it been a solo performance. My sole cavil lay with the Shostakovich songs themselves. Perhaps an all-Mahler recital might have been a little too much, perhaps not; however, there would surely have been songs of a similar stature to have programmed with Mahler. It was an interesting idea, and in that respect, should be commended, to intersperse six songs from Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarotti, op.145, but the level of musical invention, as so often with this composer, was not high, leaving the songs, however well performed, to offer a degree of filling, even relief, rather than fully to complement Mahler.

The concert opened with a rare moment of relative optimism: the Rückert Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft. Andsnes’s introduction offered magical touch and an almost Boulezian clarity: it is, as with many of these songs, difficult not to think of the orchestra, but it is a tribute to Andsnes how fully he matched both pianistic and orchestral expectations. Both artists imparted, even in this first song, a strong impression of wonder; there was no sense of warming up. Dissonance really bit upon the ‘Hand’ of ‘von lieber Hand’. Telling, true rubato – in the sense of robbed time rather than tempo modification – heightened the shaping of phrases. Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen benefited from a piano part so detailed, so evocative in performance that again, the orchestra was not missed at all; it almost seemed to be present, yet with an intimacy of scale that was the duo’s – and the Wigmore Hall’s – own. Goerne offered a variety of ‘voices’, whilst maintaining continuity. And a true spareness of writing emerged. In between those two Mahler songs came Shostakovich’s Morning: spare or merely empty? It sounded rather like Russian Britten (the note-spinning of a work such as Death in Venice). Goerne brought an apt parlando style of delivery to the recitative-like writing. The performance of Separation did its very best to rescue the song from generalised gloom.

It was striking to hear the Wunderhorn song, Es sungen drei Engel einen süßen Gesang as a song rather than as a movement of the Third Symphony – though it is well-nigh impossible to rid oneself of the memory not only of the orchestra but also of the boys’ choir. There was, though, a fine sense of dramatic narrative to the performance. Das irdische Leben was febrile, with an understated yet undeniably present fury, a terror emerging of which Shostakovich could at best only dream. Liszt and Wagner seemed very much influences upon the following two Rückert songs, Andsnes clearly relishing that Romantic harmonic background. He proved equally distinguished at laying bare Mahler’s musical processes, having Wenn die Mütterlein chill one’s bones all the more. It is no easy task to impart unity to the piano version of Urlicht, but Andsnes and Goerne experienced no problems whatsoever.

Andsnes evidently took as much care with the musical line of Shostakovich’s Night as he would have done with a solo work. He brought out the all-too-obvious ‘quirkiness’ of Immortality, and there could be no faulting strength or starkness in the performance from either artists of Death. It was always a relief, though, to return to Mahler. The musical line of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen sounded as perfectly formed as that of a Beethoven slow movement, whilst rhythm and harmonic rhythm proved properly generative in Revelge. Goerne’s dark, furious vocal delivery stayed just (about) the right side of hectoring here. This seemed a far better response, albeit avant la lettre, to Michael Gove’s recent militaristic idiocy, than any I have yet heard. Der Tambourg’sell sounded especially arresting with piano, the drumrolls having more than a hint of Bartók (perhaps not coincidentally, an Andsnes speciality) to them. The bleakness of onward trudge and sepulchral close hung over the aspiring Hoffnung of the Beethovenian encore. As in the recital as a whole, there were no easy answers, perhaps no answers at all.

Mark Berry