A Fortepiano, Expertly Played, Illuminates Lieder by Beethoven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Matthias Goerne (baritone), Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano). Wigmore Hall, London, 27.6.2016. (MB)

Beethoven: Resignation, WoO 149; An die Hoffnung, op.32; Lied aus der Ferne, WoO 137; Mailied, op.52 no.4; Der Liebende, WoO 139; Six Gellert-Lieder, op.48; An die Hoffnung, op.94; Adelaide, op.46; Wonne der Wehmut, op.83 no.1; Das Liedchen von der Ruhe, op.52 no.3; An die Geliebte, WoO 140 (1814 revision); An die ferne Geliebte, op.98

Any regular readers I may have might find themselves a little surprised to see me writing about a Beethoven recital with fortepiano. I confess that, when I first looked at the Wigmore Hall website, I saw ‘piano’ and assumed that Kristian Bezuidenhout would be playing on a modern instrument. Players do ‘switch’, after all. Then, having arranged to go, I told myself to be open-minded. I am glad that I did, since Bezuidenhout’s playing was often a joy; indeed, in many respects, rather to my surprise, I found him better suited than Matthias Goerne to these songs. If there were times when I missed the fuller tone of a modern Steinway, or even better, a Bösendorfer, my ears adjusted to the sound of the 1824 Graf instrument, and I listened for its virtues rather than making myself cross about what was not there. (We have all had enough exercises in futility for a while!) Goerne, by contrast, whilst offering committed, intelligent performances, did not seem to me quite in his element; he needs more gloom, more tragedy.

Resignation, then, was not a bad place to start. This late song (well, relatively late: 1817) certainly sounded resigned in a subtle performance from both artists. I am not quite sure what happened with An die Hoffnung, op.32; what Goerne sang was certainly not, in the first stanza, what was written in the programme. I do not have a score to hand to check. Anyway, the variation between stanzas was well handled, Bezuidenhout arguably first among equals in that respect. I missed greater depth in the 1809 Lied aus der Ferne, at least to start with. That said, the transformation of what initially struck me as mere prettiness into something more akin to the ‘namenlose Freude’ of Fidelio, and onward to good humour, was again skilfully handled. I was a little unsure about a certain motoric quality to some of the keyboard playing in the Goethe Mailied. It was clearly an interpretative decision, since Bezuidenhout would then quickly, pleasingly yield; I am just not quite sure why. A Schubertian tinge to Der Liebende was most welcome.

The Gellert Lieder suffer from dreadful words, the harking back of their theology to the eighteenth century almost, if not quite, the least of their problems. There is musical interest, though, even if it is not maintained consistently. The goodness, ‘Güte’, of the opening ‘Bitten’ came across strongly, hearteningly, and there was a nicely declamatory quality, not just in the vocal line, to ‘Die Liebe des Nächsten’. ‘Vom Tode’ is much closer to Goerne home territory, and so it sounded, looking forward not only to Winterreise but even to Brahms’s Four Serious Songs. The next two songs are much more backward-looking; for me, they underline above all that Beethoven was much less a song-composer, or much less consistently so, than Schubert. The closing Bußlied, however, is more ‘Romantic’, even if the words constrain Beethoven; at least if we take the Missa solemnis to be what his religious thought was really concerned with. Bezuidenhout navigated with ease the tricky twists and turns, a sure and often charming guide.

Another An die Hoffnung, op.94, opened the second half. The immediate note of contrasting desolation was promising; the subsequent turn to Fidelio-land also convinced. However, the tessitura did not always seem well-suited to Goerne’s voice, and the song is not without its passages of dullness. The lovely early Adelaide was much more of a pleasure, Bezuidenhout revelling in its quiet, post-Mozartian exultancy. Innigkeit was very much the order of the day, greatly welcome, in Wonne der Wehmut and Das Liedchen von der Ruhe. An die Geliebte offered a lighter interlude prior to the moment we had all been waiting for.

An die ferne Geliebte, one of the greatest and most underrated of song-cycles, did not disappoint. ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz ich, spähend…’ it begins, and so it sounded, as if Goerne were sitting, gazing. Bezuidenhout drew attention to the differentiation of ‘accompaniment’ in each stanza. Sometimes, again, I wished for something his instrument could not do, but not that often. His handling of the transitions between songs could hardly be faulted: vivid in its own narrative quality. The lightness of the opening stanza to the third song, ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’, offered welcome contrast; so, to that, did what came thereafter. When we reached May – ‘Es kehret der Maien’ – it really sounded like it, at least in the piano part. The desolation of its final line, ‘Und Tränen sind all ihr Gewinnen’, was very much Goerne’s, though. The noble simplicity of the closing ‘Nimm sie hin den, diese Lieder’ showed both artists at their best, the return of the opening theme in the piano part as heart-stopping as it should be.

Mark Berry


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