This was a première. It was the very first time that baritone Matthias Goerne and fortepiano specialist Kristian Bezuidenhout had shared the stage for a public concert. Their recital of Beethoven Lieder, setting the better-known of his songs, such as An die ferne Geliebte and Adelaide in the context of some of his other output in this idiom was intensely musical and thought-provoking throughout.

Matthias Goerne © Marco Borggreve
Matthias Goerne
© Marco Borggreve

The two performers started their exploration of this world not with a bang but with a whisper. The opening song was one of the most intimate and quietest of Beethoven’s 80+ songs, and one of the last to be written, Resignation from 1817. This was clever programming. It drew in the audience's attention, by bringing us straight to a quiet place in the fascinating and different small-scale sound-world of the fortepiano.

This concert brought to the fore Bezuidenhout's instinctive and infallible sense of pacing and timing. What a blessing for a singer. The relative lack of resonance of the fortepiano – a beautiful-toned Dutch copy of an 1824 Graf instrument – means that the silence as jumping off point into the next phrase always starts earlier than with a modern grand piano. That silence then gives both performers the chance to plot the next leap, the next tempo, and the joy of this recital was the unanimity with which they made each and every step. An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved) was masterful. Bezuidenhout’s way of ending songs – the pianist almost always gets the last quiet word – was perfectly calibrated and judged without exception.

Beethoven’s songs, as Misha Donat pointed out in the programme note for last night’s concert, were mostly written “before Schubert had begun his career in the field of Lieder”. So it was always going to be fascinating to hear and to see a singer who has played opera’s obsessives and deranged murderers like Orest in Strauss’ Elektra, or Berg’s Wozzeck, would adapt to a world constrained by Biedermeier gentility. Goerne is a vastly experienced singer of Lieder, so the question was not one of whether he could, but of how he would.

Kristian Bezuidenhout © Marco Borggreve
Kristian Bezuidenhout
© Marco Borggreve

How indeed. The answer is all about musicality, about exquisite phrasing. Das Liedchen von der Ruhe was a real partnership, like a present being passed back and forth from pianist to singer. The Goethe setting Maigesang has often sounded – even with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau –  like a speedy shopping list of German romantic tropes. In Goerne’s performance it had the right cumulative effect. The dark and brooding minor hues of Vom Tode in the Gellert songs were poignant, memorable. This was one of the highlights of the evening.

Goerne’s vocal control and his evenness of tone allow him to elongate, to savour, and momentarily to pause over words such as “Du Gott der Langmut und Geduld” (God of patience and forbearance) from the last of the Gellert songs, and to reinforce their significance by the way he sings them. Another lovely example of that was that image of an angel counting his tears, repeated several times like a mantra in the song An die Hoffnung. That image certainly stays in the mind.

Goerne and Bezuidenhout sent the audience home happy with a sprightly study of being totally captivated in love, Beethoven's setting of Goethe's Neue Liebe, neues Leben, and thus with the question of whether Beethoven has ensnared them, or if another composer will be able to lure Goerne and Bezuidenhout. Schubert will clearly beckon, but perhaps also Weber and Carl Loewe. It will be fascinating  to see this new partnership develop after such a strong start.