It is an extraordinary feat to take on Schubert’s Winterreise, Die Schöne Müllerin and Schwanengesang in three concerts over only five days, and performing them in Vienna’s Musikverein certainly does nothing to relieve the pressure. Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach took on this challenge over the past week to great public acclaim and brought this veritable marathon of Schubert to a close Saturday night with Schwanengesang and the late B flat major Piano Sonata.

Matthias Goerne © Marco Borggreve
Matthias Goerne
© Marco Borggreve

It is also always a challenge to figure out how to deal with Schwanengesang, which is, unlike Winterreise or Müllerin, truly a “collection” of songs, with texts by three different poets, and in no way a cycle. Not only do the first seven Rellstab songs have a completely different feel poetically to the six Heinrich Heine settings which follow, but the final song, “Die Taubenpost”, the sole Johann Seidl setting, is dramaturgically anticlimactic after the haunting “Der Doppelgänger” which precedes it. Goerne and Eschenbach dealt with this beautifully, marking two distinct sets in the program. The first included the seven Rellstab settings in their printed order, plus another Rellstab setting, “Herbst” D.945, inserted between “Aufenthalt” and “In der Ferne”. The second set included the six Heine settings, ending the first half of the concert with the dramatic “Der Doppelgänger”. “Die Taubenpost”, unlisted in the program, was then presented as the encore to the first half, where it fit nicely.

On the whole, the concert was a success. Goerne was in good voice for Schwanengesang and capitalized on his ability to control the golden, heady, pianissimo sound that is his trademark to great effect, particularly in “Ihr Bild” and “Am Meer”. In forte his voice was less appealing, with the upper register occasionally sounding pressed and the lower gravelly, but he exploited every inch of his capacity and was rewarded with ovations by the audience. Eschenbach did much more than “accompany” Goerne, providing a remarkable sense of intimacy through his ability to find tiny gradations in his sound in terms of dynamics, texture and articulation in even the quietest moments. He constantly explored color and mood whether in his role as the rippling stream in “Liebesbotschaft” or slinking through the eerie modulations of “Der Doppelgänger”. It was evident that both men are consummate artists intellectually, with every musical element consciously considered. While one could certainly split hairs about tempo choices (Goerne occasionally breathed in the middle of words, most markedly in “Der Doppelgänger” in the climactic “vor Schmerzens... gewalt”, an indication that perhaps the “sehr langsam” marking was taken a bit too literally) there was little doubt that these decisions were made intentionally and with the utmost respect for the composer’s wishes.

The Grosser Saal of the Musikverein is not without its drawbacks as a location for song recital, and unfortunately Saturday night the text of Schwanengesang paid a heavy price. Without the printed text or previous knowledge of the poetry, the audience would have been at a loss to understand the language of the songs, as Goerne’s articulation was not enough to compensate for the acoustic challenge of the hall. Exceptions did apply – for example, the parlando style used in “Kriegers Ahnung” to exclaim “Herz, mein Herz...” cut through perfectly – but too often the consonants were swallowed leaving the audience with beautiful sounds, but little text.

After the interval the audience was treated to a very thoughtful rendition of Schubert’s late Piano Sonata in B flat. Again, Eschenbach’s ability to insist that the public lean in by exploring all the possibilities presented in quiet, introspective playing was exceptional. The return to the primary theme in the recapitulation of the first movement was absolutely sublime in terms of sound. Throughout the sonata the absolute clarity of intention behind every decision made in terms of voicing, sound, rubato and articulation was striking. Although Eschenbach’s rendering sometimes lacked the ease, flow, simplicity and sparkle that I would have preferred (the tempo of the first movement was just a bit too pedantic to truly sustain the long singing line in the melody, and the playful scherzo was occasionally overburdened by the accompaniment figure), it was profound and deeply thought-provoking. There were also stunning moments, in particular during the wonderfully constructed second movement, as the melancholy theme in the right hand steadily builds while repetitive accompaniment figures hauntingly move from the low to the high end of the keyboard. The final movement, Allegro ma non troppo, is a sublime piece of writing, with the opening motive posing a repetitive musical question that is answered differently every time. Dramatic interludes impose themselves periodically, evaporating almost as soon as they appear until the entire piano erupts in a final flourish of virtuosity, as if to say “that’s all, folks! Goodnight”.

***11