It is one of those strange – but ultimately fortuitous – ironies of history that a set of poems intended to be a satire of the gloomy, luckless romances that burst forth from Europe in the wake of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther should itself become the heartbroken romance par excellence. Such is the case with Franz Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin, a work surpassed in melancholy introspection only by his final song cycle, Winterreise. Taking as inspiration some nearly two dozen poems by Wilhelm Müller, which poked fun at the lachrymose inclinations of his literary contemporaries, Schubert instead took the poems at their word, shearing from them any remotely ironic nuance, and welded together one of his most personal utterances: one that in the hands of skilled musicians can prove to be nothing short of crushing in its impact.

Matthias Goerne © Marco Borggreve
Matthias Goerne
© Marco Borggreve

Schubert was in good hands on Monday night at Disney Hall. Occupying the stage were Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach, both of them among the finest interpreters of Schubert’s lieder alive today.

It wasn’t merely the individual qualities they possess in abundance that made this recital one that will linger in memory. That Goerne’s intelligent singing and word painting, or Eschenbach’s eloquent pianism should be so deeply satisfying is no shock. But it was their careful interplay, where piano and voice seemed to blend and emerge from each other, and their ability to act as a single instrument on behalf of Schubert that truly was remarkable.

Goerne’s voice had just a hint of gravel to it, giving his interpretation an air of haunting, perhaps even hallucinatory retrospective that was deeply compelling. This was Die schöne Müllerin not as the play-by-play commentary of the young man’s love for the fickle miller’s daughter. Rather, it seemed to be the painful recollection of a man aged; his life colored by the pain and defeat of that spurned love.

This was felt especially keenly in the song Mein! where Goerne’s young man didn’t crow wildly over his love. Instead his seeming victory already tastes of its future loss. His handling of the famous Wohin?, too, already intimated knowledge of what destiny that brook would lead him to. When that end was finally reached some seventy minutes later in the cycle‘s final song, Des Baches Wiegenlied, the realization – with Goerne singing in rapt pianissimos over the gentle, but unyielding undulation of Eschenbach’s piano – that destiny should trample forth so implacably was devastating.

It was a traversal that left the audience feeling spent – just as Schubert surely intended.