You wouldn’t think that the main stage at Carnegie Hall would be particularly suited to Lieder. Most of the time, you would be right. The Stern Auditorium seats nearly three thousand people, and those perched near the top could be excused a little vertigo. When all those people flick through their translations, or cough in a break, the din is disruptive. The great triumph of this recital from Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach lay in doing something not even Jonas Kaufmann could manage in his concert here two weeks ago: making this hall feel and sound no larger than a living room.

Matthias Goerne © Marco Borggreve
Matthias Goerne
© Marco Borggreve

It is four years since Goerne and Eschenbach recorded Die schöne Müllerin. Since then, Goerne’s voice has become appreciably huskier, darker in some places and more confident in the light. He is not a singer who inflects individual words with great strength, like Gerald Finley or Florian Boesch, although that is hardly to say that he does not pay attention to text. Rather, he draws attention to lines as wholes, deploying the full range of his voice to striking effect, from the tip of his head to the barrel of his chest. With Eschenbach, an underrated accompanist, at the Steinway, this Müllerin was full of risks, risks that grew ever more dangerous without ever seeming so.

These risks mostly concerned tempo. Scarcely can a singer have stretched out Schubert’s slowest songs quite like this. In “Der Neugierige,” a song in which the miller lad asks his companion, the brook, whether the miller’s daughter loves him, Goerne and Eschenbach elongated time to turn the cantilena of “O Bächlein meiner Liebe” into a heart-rending prayer, as if the miller were pulling in all the magic of the forest and the water to aid in his quest.

Just as impressive was the way that Goerne kept blurred the lines between monodrama and psychodrama, without falling into the trap of either. Unlike Winterreise, Die schöne Müllerin works best when played straight, a fairly universal cycle of love and loss rather than an investigation of a single mind, a young person's work rather than something more developed. Perhaps Eschenbach’s work at the piano helped here, for his playing eschewed irony and bitterness, sometimes even minimising the wrenching quality of Schubert’s slips between major and minor. Instead, much of this sounded rather close to Schumann. But it was Goerne who kept the distinction present, as much through his acting as his voice. He set up the river and its spirits with his hands in “Wohin?”, sketched the mechanism of the mill itself in “Halt!”, and sang into the piano in “Danksagung an den Bach”, asking the brook that will eventually drown him whether he has understood its purposes in bringing him to his love. (Does the brook exist, or is it just a function of the songs the miller sings to himself?)

In the songs that require the miller to live up to old conceptions of what it means to be a man, like the hunter who wins the damsel’s heart, Goerne brought such heft that you knew the poetic lad would never be able to keep the charade up for long. He tried for a while, with the fantasies of her blue eyes in “Morgengruß”, until everything came apart, audibly and textually, at the end of “Tränenregen”. For all his subtlety, Goerne does anger just as well as yearning, as his destructive fury in “Die böse Farbe” showed. As impending death became obvious, Eschenbach came into his own, whether in the tocsin of “Die liebe Farbe”, or the hope in death of “Trockne Blumen”, or the crushing descent of the bass line in “Der Müller und der Bach” as the miller sings “Ach, Bächlein, aber weißt du / Wie Liebe tut?” – “Little brook, do you know / what love can do?”. Goerne, here, did a superb job of implying that the brook had been frighteningly deranged all along, in one of his nods to psychology. In the final song, “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” the lullaby enveloped the miller, the brook and its music dragging him in ineluctably, each verse slowing gently, getting quieter, until time entirely dissolved at the mention of the eternal heavens above. It had seduced once, and it entranced one last time.

It was bewitchingly gentle, coaxed to a duration half as long again as any other version of this song I have heard. The paradox was that Goerne and Eschenbach wove the spell so beautifully that, as the beat slackened, one’s heart raced, ever more loudly, eventually hanging on as all that was left.