Almost every June from 1989 to 1999, I visited the charming town of Feldkirch, in the Vorarlberg region of Western Austria, for the annual Schubertiade, originally founded in 1976 by the great German baritone Hermann Prey. The music, of course predominantly Schubert’s, was performed by an endless array of famous, even legendary singers such as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Schreier, Christa Ludwig, and Brigitte Fassbänder and equally extraordinary instrumentalists.

Matthias Goerne, Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic © Chris Lee
Matthias Goerne, Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

Meanwhile, the newer generation abounded, especially singers, among them baritones Bo Skovhus and Matthias Goerne. After several vocal ensemble concerts captured my attention, Goerne impressed me enormously in a 1996 Schubert recital with Graham Johnson and in a profound 1999 Winterreise with Alfred Brendel. The range and rich timbre of his voice, his choice of two groups each of Lieder to texts by Goethe and Mayrhofer and his interpretations of those and of the formidable cycle made me vow to follow his career.

Fortunately, I have been able to do that, experiencing Goerne in recital, orchestral concerts, and opera. I could not miss this concert of symphonic versions of five songs by Schubert and six by Strauss with Jaap van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, of which Goerne is the 2018-19 Artist-in-Residence. They have performed this program with several other orchestras since 2006; hence the easy collaboration in the intricate balance of voice, solo instruments and ensemble. The program’s alternating sequence of the two composers made for intriguing contrasts, yet also for subtle connections in subject, poetry, original music and orchestration.

Strauss’ Lieder in his own orchestrations are standard fare, and these were heard here except for Traum durch die Dämmerung and Allerseelen, both orchestrated by conductor Robert Heger. The music, sometimes almost Wagnerian, lends itself to symphonic treatment, the colors even more vivid, brilliantly conveyed by van Zweden and the Philharmonic. Goerne’s strong voice, with its variety of shadings, is ideal for Strauss, both in the long-breathed phrases and in the meaningful emphasis on single words. Traum durch die Dämmerung was wistful, while the growing rapture in Das Rosenband culminated in “Elysium” that truly sounded like it. Goerne projected a peaceful aura in Freundliche Vision and captured the sought-for comfort with every repetition of the words “Ruhe, meine Seele”. One could hear the nostalgia of Allerseelen in the tenderness of “süssen Blicken” and then the full strength of the phrase “Komm an mein Herz…” Morgen matched Goerne’s gentle side with the delicate violin solo of concertmaster Frank Huang: the intertwining voice and violin portray the lovers reuniting; his final words “des Glückes stummes Schweigen” were breathtaking.

Schubert wrote 600+ Lieder for voice and piano, an unavoidable temptation for other composers to replace keyboard with orchestra, quite wonderfully in these five cases. Pianist Alexander Schmalcz orchestrated An Silvia and Des Fischers Liebesglück – the first moving smoothly in voice and orchestra from warm-hearted to exuberant, the second offering enough vocal, interpretive and instrumental variety to make up for the number of verses. Brahms made Greisengesang sound, well, like Brahms, adding depth to its sad old man who is yet “still here” and Goerne knew just how to express both sides. Im Abendrot, even with piano, exudes a lush quality, so Max Reger’s arrangement made it even more so, and Goerne used his warmest tone for it. Tränenregen became spare in Anton Webern’s hands, and sweet in Goerne’s voice.

With orchestrations the main focus of the program, how fitting that the opening work was the Fuga from J.S. Bach’s 1747 Musikalisches Opfer orchestrated by Webern in 1934-35. Famously intellectual in his approach to music – both his own and others’ – and ever ready to dissect a rich-textured composition, Webern revealed details while never distorting Bach’s structure. Despite full components, including timpani and harp, the orchestra under van Zweden was so transparent that individual instruments seemed to be playing even when it was an entire section. Dynamics increased gradually, subtly, almost imperceptibly till the full sound of the closing chords, a masterful collaboration of maestro, musicians – and two genius composers.

As this was my first experience of the New York Philharmonic under its new Music Director, I was very curious about van Zweden’s approach to such a favorite as Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor. He opted for brisker tempi than usual, even for the Andante, which seemed almost Allegretto: true, it is Andante, not Adagio, but I prefer Mozart’s slow movements in much greater contrast to the faster tempi. The springy, lightweight opening Molto allegro and closing Allegro assai were Allegro indeed, yet clear and crisp, including the rapid scale sequences; the Menuetto would have been hard to dance but was charming. Throughout, the occasional near-dissonant aspects that foreshadow the “Jupiter” emerged with particular clarity.

*****