Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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The Bitter End

May 02, 2012

Matthias Goerne Photo: Marco Borggreve
After his appearances two weeks ago with Christoph Eschenbach and the Los Angeles Philhamronic, my hopes were quite high for Matthias Goerne’s continued tour of America, which ended up at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday. I was particularly interested to hear Goerne again so soon because he was working this time both with a different collaborator, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, and with different material. Gone was Schubert’s brand of lush, melancholic Romanticism in favor of something even darker yet. The program on Tuesday was rather ambitious overall combining a mixture of songs from Gustav Mahler with those from the very latest part of the career of Dmitri Shostakovich. And while these are not names that always travel side-by-side, Goerne and Andsnes made the parallels clear. The pair hand picked songs from many sources including Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Rückert-Lieder, and Kindertotenlieder and integrated them with thematically parallel songs from the 20th-century Russian giant's late songs, all setting of the poems of Michelangelo Buonarroti. The songs were arranged by theme with Mahler and Shostakovich trading off one song to the next as opposed to more traditional blocks for each composer.

Of course this set up an alternate meta-narrative for the evening that went from somber to downright wrist-slittingly morbid. Death was in the air for these songs. But what started out in a similar vein to that Schubert melancholy with works like Mahler’s “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” and Shostakovich’s “Separation”, turned slowly but surely to some of each composer’s most brutal and even angry works that minced no words about the bleak brutality of death from Shostakovich’s “Death” to Mahler’s “Revelge” and “Der Tamboursg’sell,” two late additions to his Das Knaben Wunderhorn. These rhythmic, militaristic sounding songs about dying soldiers and a drummer boy on his way to the gallows provided a different challenge for Goerne and Andsnes that was more about drama and less about beautiful finesse.

Certainly the intensity of all this was quite high. Goerne is a master Lieder performer and all the beautiful tone and superb phrasing and breath control on display before was there again. Granted, the Shostakovich selections, although well sung, paled in comparison to Goerne’s mastery of the German Lieder. And Andsnes had no trouble accessing the sardonic jocularity of the Russian works. But the Shostakovich pieces seemed more deliberate and planned in contrast. And given that they traded off with the Mahler songs sometimes the line of the show could be lost. Of course, the performers seemed to have some notion of the tough ending of this program and offered Beethoven's “An die Hoffnung” as a hopeful postscript in the encore. It was a nice gesture from Andsnes and Goerne following a recital that left no question about their artistry or ability to put together an interesting and thoughtful program. Even if, thematically, it could be a little tough going and wasn’t the feel good hit of the season.

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