Matthias Goerne and Menahem Pressler: Mastery in Schumann

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schumann: Matthias Goerne (baritone), Menahem Pressler (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 2.7.2015 (MB)

Dichterliebe, op.48
Variations on an original theme in E-flat major, WoO 24, ‘Ghost Variations’
Songs from the Six Songs, op.89, and from Six Poems of Nikolaus Lenau, op.90


London audiences have grown used to making difficult choices, and expect little sympathy from those in less musically-favoured cities. In most circumstances, I suspect I should have opted to hear Krystian Zimerman play Brahms with the LSO, but the prospect of Matthias Goerne and Menahem Pressler won out on this occasion. Not unreasonably so, either on paper in practice: Goerne is of course one of the very greatest Lieder-singers of our time, whilst Pressler’s career is without parallel. Never having heard the latter in concert – alas, I never heard the Beaux Arts Trio – the choice was actually not so very difficult.

A good deal of thought had clearly gone into the programming, for a last minute change had been made to its ordering (and, in one case, to its composition). Originally, Dichterliebe was to have come last, a fitting climax, no doubt, with the op.89 and op.90 songs and the ‘Geister Variations’ to have been heard in the first half. ‘Requiem’, the final number of op.90 disappeared, as did the interval, and Dichterliebe moved to the front of the queue. It was a brave move, fully vindicated, and in practice, I think a wise move, for the strange works of Schumann’s tormented final years probably fared better for being put into context by such an unquestioned masterpiece. One would not expect Pressler’s pianism necessarily to be technically flawless at this stage, nor was it; but here, any momentary slips were of little import (whether for me, or, so it seemed, the rest of the audience). The opening bars of ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ said it all really, pregnant with expectation, but already equally careful and expressive of Schumann’s intricate balance – or dialectic – between quasi-autonomous musical structures, Bachian lessons fully learned and developed, and response to Heine’s verse. (It is noteworthy how, in most cases, Schumann’s greatest songs are his settings of the very greatest in German verse, something that certainly differentiates him from Schubert.) Voicing often made one hear the music afresh: an inner line brought out, a striking move towards abstraction or, conversely, towards dissolution or expansion of poetry in music. ‘Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen’ peered forward towards Das klagende Lied, not the only occasion on which Mahler sprang to mind, an impression conveyed by both artists, whether consciously or otherwise.

Goerne, of course, does ‘serious’ like almost no other vocal artist. Born to sing Wozzeck, born to remind us of the true sadness of Papageno, he was, if anything, still more born for Lieder. His legato remains a thing of wonder, fully the equal of, yet utterly different from, that of, say, Christian Gerhaher. But Goerne arguably makes more of the words, or at least offers a more verbal portrayal, Fischer-Dieskau hovering in the background without the slightest sense of imitation. And so, we heard so much of human experience: joy, sadness, immediacy, recollection, strident insistence, fear… Heine, as much as Schumann, came once again to life before our very ears.  ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’ told its sombre tale as if already hinting at the troubles of Schumann’s later years, and yet also signalling a control, an ability to cope and indeed to transfigure, that would increasingly elude the composer later on. But Pressler had the last word, or rather did so in tandem with Schumann: that infinitely touching piano epilogue held us spellbound. One never wants it to end, yet feels that it captures something of the eternal. So, at any rate, I felt again here.

The piano variations stand as testament to a tortured soul, yet also to the composer’s ability, even in 1854, to make something of that torture. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, simply to hear them ‘as music’, but Pressler, despite a good few uncertainties, conveyed their almost Beethovenian nobility as compositional inspiration came and went. The op.89 and op.90 songs are less problematical, although we do not hear them so very often. Flashes of former inspiration were very much present, but so too was a sense of struggle towards something almost close to sobriety. Goerne knew not to make too great demands of them, but there was, by the same token, not the slightest hint of condescension. The bleakness of the Lenau songs comes readily to him, of course, but that is not to gainsay the subtlety with which he portrayed the very particular bleakness that remains founded upon hope. Neither in life nor in work did Schumann tend towards nihilism; Goerne and Pressler too offered hope, both as performers and in performance. The quiet close of the final song left us uncertain, just as it should have done.

Mark Berry

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