Late in life, the conductor Bruno Walter would often recall the moment Gustav Mahler first showed him the manuscript to the as yet unperformed Das Lied von der Erde. The work, with its poignancy and profound world-weariness, seemed even to take its composer aback. “But don’t you think it’ll make people want to do away with themselves?,” he said of the work. Much the same could be said of Franz Schubert’s final song cycle, Winterreise. Less a group of songs and more a kind of extended operatic monologue, Winterreise is Schubert at his most tragic. Ranging from moods of bitter resignation and regret to madness borne of loss, the work makes strenuous demands of musicians and audience, asking each to plumb the depths. From the opening trudge of “Gute Nacht”, the listener is immediately made aware that this journey will be fraught with great pain.

Christoph Eschenbach © Eric Brissaud
Christoph Eschenbach
© Eric Brissaud

Matthias Goerne, one of the most eminent interpreters of German Lieder today, and Christoph Eschenbach, who is renowned equally as both pianist and conductor, took the stage at Disney Hall last week to perform this great masterwork of Schubert’s last year, who would die but a few months after the work was published.

What left me struggling to find the right words to acclaim this performance was the intense concentration of both Goerne and Eschenbach, their eloquent musicianship, and their ability to wring out a wide spectrum of emotions from the morose palate of grays that Schubert paints his work with.

Subtle details such as Eschenbach’s precise ear for shading or Goerne’s careful use of the full range of his voice allowed the work to unfurl with all its pointed details in high relief. In fact, with Schubert’s writing for the piano that matches the poetry and beauty of the vocal line, Eschenbach was as much the star here as Goerne. His ability at changing the coloring with each entry in strophic songs such as “Gute Nacht” allowed the music to breathe with life; imbuing the repeat of each stanza with a freshness that never dulled the ear. His way of voicing arpeggios, too, was superb. The way he rolled the arpeggio that closes the song “Frühlingstraum”, doing it with a brutish bluntness that caused the chord to smear as if to give indication of the bleary and hallucinatory quality of the song, was unforgettable. His superb sense of pedaling was also key here, not to mention the array of dynamics he was able to procure from his fingertips, even while playing very softly.

Still, Winterreise is nothing without the singer, and here Goerne not only did not disappoint, but he triumphed as very few singers can today. He has at his disposal a breathtakingly beautiful legato as well as superb diction, which pays dividends with his unerring sense of word-painting. His was a Winterreise of near-expressionist power; Schubert as precursor to Schoenberg’s Erwartung. The desolation of “Der Lindenbaum”, where the protagonist finds comfort and solace in thoughts that intimate suicide, and the quiet oblivion of “Der Leiermann” were voiced with gripping power by Goerne, never once calling attention to itself. His singing of “Der Post”, often treated as a bright interlude, was laden with angst; treating the song as if it were a delirious dream that could not dispel the tears that preceded it.

Fortunate indeed were those who had attended this recital, which was easily the high-point of Disney Hall’s “Sublime Schubert” series. It’s a rare thing to be witness to such an intense account of this powerful work, on or off records. When the music finally came to a close and faded away, the hush that met the song cycle over a full minute after its close was testimony to Goerne’s and Eschenbach’s genius for bringing to life this masterwork. To applaud so soon after the close seemed cruel; insensitive. But such was the intensity of their vision of Winterreise that one was left in a daze, groping as well as one could for the exits.

Winterreise is the sort of work that even in mediocre hands can’t help but make an effect on its listeners. But in the hands of masters like Goerne and Eschenbach, the effect is nothing less than devastating; utterly crushing.

*****