A Liederabend Like No Other

Schumann, Mahler: Liederabend, Matthias Goerne (baritone), Alexander Schmalcz (piano), Zürich Opernhaus, Zurich, 23.6.14 (RP)

Mahler, “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft”
Schumann, “Dichters Genesung,” Op. 36, No. 5
“Liebesbotschaft,” Op. 36, No. 6
Mahler,“Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” from Des Knaben underhorn
Schumann,“Mein schöner Stern,” Op. 101, No. 4
“Der Einsiedler,” Op. 83, No. 3
Mahler, “Urlicht” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Schumann, “Nachtlied,” Op. 96,  No. 1
Mahler, “Das irdische Leben” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
“Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen” from Kindertotenlieder
“Wenn dein Mütterlein” from Kindertotenlieder
Schumann, “Der schwere Abend,” Op. 90, No. 6
Mahler, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”
Schumann, “Zum Schluss,” Op. 25, No. 26
“Der Soldat,” Op. 40, No. 3
Mahler,  “Revelge” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Schumann, “Die beiden Grenadiere,” Op. 49, No. 1
Mahler, “Der Tamboursg’sell” from Des Knaben Wunderhorn


On Saturday afternoon, I sat with a friend beneath a linden tree in Zurich, and we breathed its sweet, pungent scent. Two days later, I was in the Zurich opera house listening to Matthias Goerne sing Mahler’s “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” (“I breathe the scent of the linden tree”). This most atmospheric of songs requires total control of the voice in soft, spinning phrases. It makes similar demands on the pianist, in this instance the excellent Alexander Schmalcz. Mahler and the musicians cast their spell. The audience was enveloped in the scent of the linden without a tree to be seen.

No sooner had the final note sounded, than Goerne launched into a full-voiced rendition of Schumann’s “Dichters Genesung” (“Poet’s Song”) in which the full dynamic range of his voice was displayed in all of its glory. What followed was an intense exploration of some of the most emotionally challenging songs in the canon of German Lieder. In a typical recital, any one of these songs, or two at most, would serve as the emotional and dramatic core of the program. Following one upon the other in a ninety-minute recital with only the briefest of pauses between songs, the impact was overwhelming.

Shattered dreams, heartbreak, war and death were themes that ran through the songs. The soldier’s fate was explored in Schumann and Mahler’s songs depicting a soldier’s resignation in the face of military hierarchy and the vagaries of war. Goerne depicted the grim horror of Mahler’s wrenching “Das irdische Leben” (“Earthly Life”), singing the dying child’s pleas in full voice to terrifying effect. Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”) has ended many a set of Mahler songs or even recitals. Positioned in the middle of the program as it was here, it became a brief moment of repose, albeit one of resignation. This was not a recital for the faint of heart.

In some ways Goerne is not the perfect embodiment of a song recitalist. He does not inhabit the song, depicting the text through his face and body, as well as his voice. To the contrary, the song inhabits him. He sings at times as a man possessed with his head alternately downcast, looking towards heaven or at times even staring into the piano. He can strike an effective pose, but with him it is all about the voice, and an amazing instrument it is. It is a classic Germanic baritone of which he has near total command. I can think of no male singer of this era who can sing such beautiful, soft passages fully supported and with such line and phrasing. A few bars later, he is singing full voiced, but with the same musicality and sensitivity. Schmalcz was just as effective, an equal partner in every sense of the word.

The program ended with Mahler’s “Der Tamboursg’sell,” the last and perhaps bleakest of his Wunderhorn songs. It is basically a funeral march that tells the tale of a drummer boy sentenced to die on the gallows at daybreak, and it ends with the words “Gute Nacht! Gute Nacht!” The evening did not end however on this tragic note.

After receiving huge bouquets of white flowers and a rousing ovation from the audience, Goerne and Schmalcz offered one encore, Schumann’s “Du bist wie eine Blume” (“You are like a flower”), one of his most charming melodies. They had brought us full circle, back to one of nature’s loveliest scents, that of a flower in bloom. The song ends with a prayer that loosely translates “may God keep you always, so lovely, pure and fair.”  A fate not certain to anyone, as Schumann and Mahler knew not only through poetry and music, but also their lives. I doubt if I will ever hear such a song recital again.

Rick Perdian

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