Matthias Goerne and Daniil Trifonov selected songs of death and sleep by five different composers – Berg, Schumann, Wolf, Shostakovich and Brahms – for their latest Liederabend at the Konzerthaus.

Daniil Trifonov © Dario Acosta | Deutsche Grammophon
Daniil Trifonov
© Dario Acosta | Deutsche Grammophon

Berg’s Vier Lieder, Op.2 opens with a dark lullaby, Schlafen, Schlafen, nichts als Schlafen (Sleep, sleep, nothing but sleep), and the entire set circles around the renunciation of the world and a futile search for peace, ending with the words “Stirb! Der Eine stirbt, daneben der Andere lebt: Das macht die Welt so tiefschön”. Goerne, who was in excellent voice throughout, coloured moments like “keinen Traum” (no dreams) with languorous warmth. Trifonov, an exceptional pianist, depicted the nightingale in the final song of the set, Warm die Lüfte, with clarity and finesse. They made the admirable decision to maintain the tension within the set, allowing each song to flow without hesitation into the next.

Dichterliebe, also following attacca on the heels of the Berg, was the least death-centric of the evening’s selections, with its persistent sad desperation and tears masked – a bit – by flowers and birds and song, until the narrator calls for all his love, song and pain to be buried in an enormous coffin. Trifonov and Goerne took some very provocative approaches to this set of songs so central to the Lieder canon. Some were interesting: the opening two songs, Im wunderschönen Monat Mai and Aus meinen Tränen sprieβen were both kept in unhurried pianissimo and Goerne sang Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne almost like a farce, with a vocal rolling of the eyes. Goerne also matched his vocal quality to the lighter texture, producing more lightly honeyed tones. After the first few songs, however, I became increasingly less enamored by the interpretation. Every single song following on the heels of its predecessor without hesitation becomes tiresome, and Trifonov’s sensitivity to issues of vocal tessitura was clearly limited; in Die alten bösen Lieder he was simply too loud. In addition, his sound was direct, nearly mechanical in the postlude of the delicate Hör’ ich ein Liedchen klingen or Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen, and he did not react to Goerne’s clear tempo requests in Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen or Aus alten Märchen winkt es. More than once, one had the feeling that Goerne was adjusting to Trifonov instead of presenting a unified, worked-through interpretation which served both of them well.

Foregoing an intermission or any chance for applause between sets, the last three groups of songs followed in very much the same fashion. Wolf’s dark Michelangelo songs raced into a set of Russian songs by Shostakovich: Dante, Tod and Nacht, which proceeded without hesitation into the Brahms Vier ernste Gesänge. Here too, conventions were snubbed, largely unsuccessfully. The third of the Brahms, O Tod, was performed quietly and retrospectively, not just in the third iteration, but from its beginning. This is not only in contradiction to the composer’s markings, but also robs the poem and song of the meaning it gains through contrast.

The affinity that Goerne has for performing Liederabende with solo pianists – something he has cultivated over the years – is something that may well have value. It is always fascinating to hear a new, well-conceived interpretation of known fare through fresh eyes and nimble fingers. What often, however, goes missing is a trained vocal accompanist’s ability to support from within the particular parameters of the singer, serving not just the dynamic markings as given, but consistently responding to changes in tessitura, timbre, breath and diction. Lied is much more about deeply exploring text than any other genre, and requires a closer reading and understanding of the score than it may have been granted by Trifonov.

Additionally, a Liederabend is about communication with the audience, not an abstract exercise in personal musical exploration. Despite some fascinating, impressive and often beautiful moments, the consistent refusal to give the audience time to applaud, pause and digest what they had just heard turned the evening into a wash of death songs. This, coupled with the comparatively limited timbre possibilities of voice/piano and the thematic homogeny of the programme, did not make for a particularly enjoyable evening of communication through song.