The first of three recitals celebrating the German baritone Matthias Goerne took place at Wigmore Hall this past Wednesday. Goerne is a favorite of the Hall, having received the Wigmore Hall medal in 2011. The music of Schubert, and all of the concert was comprised of Schubert art songs, has been a long-time project of Goerne’s: he is in the midst of an eleven-CD recording project for Harmonia Mundi.

Matthias Goerne © Marco Borggreve
Matthias Goerne
© Marco Borggreve

What was particularly interesting about this concert was that the singer was accompanied by harp rather than piano. The harp is not merely a horizontal piano without the wooden case. Its sound is that of a plucked instrument, which means that it not only takes longer to pull a certain string, but that the decay of the note is variable: the harp’s natural sound is a sustained note. And it’s a softer sound than that of the piano, which uses felted hammers to hit the stings. We expect harp music to be full of gorgeous glissandos, building a torrent of sound as the harpist circles the hands over the instrument’s formidable array of strings and the strings’ sounds decay into each other. This wasn’t the case with Schubert accompaniment provided by Sarah Christ on Wednesday night.

Christ has played with the Berlin Philharmonic, among a host of orchestras, and is a regular invitee to Claudio Abbado’s Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The use of the harp with the Schubert songs seemed an almost straight-across translation from one instrument to the other. The music and Christ’s playing were clean, precise, and undecorated. Only the instrument’s “slowness” and “softness” impacted the presentation.

But those qualities suited what Goerne seemed to be creating aesthetically in this recital, which was a soft, somewhat monochromatic sound field, slightly covered and dark in its projection. Very few of the songs were sung dynamically above piano, here and there he would, somewhat shockingly, break out into a fortissimo phrase. At times the songs seemed conversational in quality, such as the long Des Fischers Liebesglück (“The Fisherman’s Luck in Love”). This is not to say that the sound Goerne produced wasn’t sung, that it was spoken – only that the dynamic range gave the listener the sense of being closer to intimate speech.

I found this subdued and darkened sound appropriate to the song selection, which was hopelessly Romantic, including songs of lost love – Heiß mich nicht reded (“Bid Me Not Speak”), Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (“Only Those Who Know Longing”), Im Früling (In Spring), Blondel zu Marien (“Blondel to Mary”) – and prayer-like celebrations of the natural world – Im Abendrot (“Sunset Glow”), Abendstern (“Evening Star”). Others addressed the divine: Pilgerweise (“Pilgrim’s Song”), Der Kreuzzug (“The Crusade”). The beauty of the sound lulled one into another space radically different from the one we live in.

The most controversial part of the recital, though, was how the instrumental and vocal choices created a Schubert very different from the familiar. At this point we move into a debate that continues in any art form that uses compositions from the past but which strives to uphold the aesthetic obligations of the artist to be true to individual expression. Are artists obligated to perform what we imagine is the composer’s vision? Is the goal of art to be true to the audience’s expectations based on experience, or even more so – taste? Or are aesthetic decisions solely the performing artists' playground?

I have no answers for that. The answers are for you to provide, based on what moves you as a listener and lover of music. I will, however, leave you with Goerne’s explanation of what he is doing as a singer. (I have edited this selection for length and sense: the translation is rather awkward). The original is found at Goerne’s website here:

I once received a crazy review. The critic... had found fault with a technical matter: soft consonants and slightly shaded end vowels. This minor shading, in my case, is based on a vocal conviction: It enables me to sing a soft legato. For me, the legato is a means of transport, which has no alternative. I am very discreet, compared to others, when it comes to setting contrasts. My musical sound ideal is different from that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He was an external consonant contrast setter... I must express myself by saying that I do not need to recite anything... What, then, is the aim of a musical evening? One would like to reach out to the people and confront them with feelings that are rare and which belong less and less to day-to-day life.

And in this, Goerne and Christ certainly succeeded.