Verbier Festival 2021: Matthias Goerne brings joy to Schubert and Lahav Shani’s Mozart is terrifically exciting

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Verbier Festival 2021 [1] – Schubert (arr. Schmalcz, Reger, Webern), Mozart: Matthias Goerne (baritone), Verbier Festival Orchestra / Lahav Shani (conductor). Salle des Combins, Verbier, Switzerland, 31.7.2021. (CC)

Matthias Goerne (baritone) at the Verbier Festival

Schubert – An Sylvia, D.891/4; Des Fischers Liebesglück, D.933 (both arr. A. Schmalcz); Im Abendrot, D.799 (arr. Reger); Wegweiser, D.911/20; Tränenregen, D.795/10 (both arr. Webern)

Mozart – Symphony No.41 in C, K.551, ‘Jupiter’

Coronavirus has been responsible for quite a few changes in the Verbier programme this year. The pieces originally in this concert were Schoenberg Chamber Symphony, Op.9, the Schubert arrangements, and Wagner Siegfried-Idyll. In the end, the Schoenberg went completely and the Wagner was replaced by the Mozart; and sadly (for personal, non-coronavirus reasons) Evgeny Kissin cancelled his event later that evening with Thomas Hampson, Address Unknown to a short story by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor with mise-en-scène by Marianna Arzumanova.

I was very, very impressed by Lahav Shani on the occasion of his LSO debut in February 2019 (review click here); if anything, this concert has consolidated this impression. The Mozart showed what he is capable of in the symphonic repertoire, but it was – before we even get to Matthias Goerne. – the joy he brought to the orchestral contributions to the Schubert Lieder that first beguiled our ears. Goerne has been associated with the arrangements of Schubert songs by Alexander Schmalcz but hearing Goerne in the flesh is like having liquid gold poured into one’s ears. Schmalcz’s arrangement of An Sylvia is deft, almost witty in its chucking bassoon and its occasionally spicy woodwind. A beautiful oboe solo adorned Des Fischers Liebesglück, the orchestration dark; later a simply gorgeous viola solo added to the colour. Goerne’s voice is perfect for this song; his diction, in all his chosen pieces, was superb. The way he moves between slurs is remarkable, too; almost like an oboe, one is not quite sure exactly when the seamless change takes place.

On to a Max Reger arrangement, and the pure magic of the line ‘O wie schön ist deiner Welt’ in the song Im Abendrot; almost like a prayer, the music glowed from within. The song Der Wegweiser is of course from Winterreise, a work Goerne is intimately associated with. And how that resonance shone in Goerne’s storytelling; and how the orchestra not only supported him, both harmonically and in shadowing lines and in perfect emotional accord. Goerne and Shani seem a musical match made in Heaven. In other hands, this arrangement might even seem syrupy (yes, it’s by Webern), but here it had the perfect pace and colour. Over to another great song cycle, then, for the final offering of the group: Tränenregen, the tenth song from Die schöne Müllerin, again by Webern, and beautifully gentle.

Lahav Shani conducts at the Verbier Festival

It was the bracing, unanimous attack on the very opening of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony that set the scene for a reading of the utmost energy, conducted from memory by Shani. The first movement had both breadth and style to it. But this was much more than grace and charm; it was Shani’s intelligence that brought it all together so convincingly, not least in his approach to the exposition repeat. The notes might have been the same second time around, but the effect was completely different, more nuanced in the contrastive, dominant group (the second subject group), more overtly ‘Mozart in C major triumphant mood’ towards the exposition close. Antiphonal violins added to the effectiveness, while a lower string section of four cellos and two double basses allowed the overall sound a transparency that worked perfectly, despite the extended space of the Salle des Combins. Harmonic darkenings in the development section were sensitively negotiated.

If ensemble was not quite there for the punctuating tutti chords of the opening of the Andante cantabile, the movement settled into an outpouring of charm, Although Shani conducted this mainly in three, it felt more like a subdivision of six. There were some surprisingly Romantic-facing outbursts that seemed at odds with the punchiness of the first movement perhaps, but there was also much beauty, and such discipline (horns and bassoons beautifully together towards the end). The tempo for the Allegretto Menuetto was perfect: fast but not fast enough to be a scherzo. This was a graciously phrased dance, the Trio contrasted nicely with clearly carefully thought-through wind chords in terms of balancing (and also dynamics – the most exquisite pianissimo!). A nice little decoration on the oboe at the end, too.

Again, the tempo of the finale was perfect – a proper Molto allegro, as prescribed, and not a presto, but fast enough to make Mozart’s exquisite counterpoint both exciting and newly revelatory. If those moments did not quite escalate to two live performances of this symphony that elevated it to Olympian heights that I have experienced – Kubelík and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Hallé Proms (c.1982) and Tennstedt with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms (1985) – it was still terrifically exciting.

This was a most fascinating ‘Jupiter’. I note that in my review of Shani’s LSO Pétrushka referenced above, I called his approach Janus-headed, sometimes referencing The Firebird and sometimes Le Sacre du printemps; much the same could apply here, with clear textures and lightness against moments of almost Romantic expansion and, obviously, the use of modern instruments.

This performance of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony is currently available free of charge on, although obviously microphone placement makes a difference to what we heard in the Salle des Combins itself, particularly, it would seem, a closely-miked bassoon. The actual filming is what we saw in the hall on two screens on either side of the orchestra – it is well judged except for a rather startling (and presumably unplanned) pan across the orchestra to a soloist in the slow movement. It is lovely to be able to see at close hand, too, the clear communication that goes on between the musicians in performance, not least in the Verbier Festival Orchestra’s characterful wind section.

Colin Clarke

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