Verdi and Wagner are the two great opera composers that suffer especially grievously in our current performance climate. All opera labors, but the mightiest the most. The insidious combination of spavined vocalities, openly or underhandedly adversarial production practices, and musical renderings that with rare exceptions emerge as “lightened,” “clarified,” and/or mechanical, serve to reduce these two most regularly to the status of pitiful giants. In my Traviata and Forza del destino posts I have had some occasion to deal with Verdi. Trovatore and Luisa Miller will receive attention soon. Wagner, though, has simply not presented himself in our New York season to date. Even now, he’s just edging in, with a Met revival of Parsifal and single acts (the most surefire ones, and the cheapest to present) of Die Walküre and, in April, Tristan und Isolde, in concert format.
In a faint echo of the commercial symbiosis that once took place between record releases and live events, the conductor and Sieglinde of the Walküre Act I (Jaap van Zweden and Heidi Melton) are also those of the complete Ring underway from Naxos (the Siegfried has just been issued), while the Siegfried of that cycle is our Siegmund. Further, the Wotan of the Naxos Ring, Matthias Goerne, has just appeared at Carnegie Hall in the role that has earned him his greatest prominence—that of champion of the profundities of the German art song— and has been announced as the New York Philharmonic’s artist-in-residence for next season, when Mr. Van Zweden takes over the orchestra. Goerne being first to stand in the docket, I’ll begin with him and elements of the Naxos recording.
My earlier experience of Goerne was limited to a single Papageno, back in 1998. It wasn’t quite at the level of the best I’ve seen (Hermann Prey or, in an Americanized context, Theodor Uppman) or heard (Prey again, Fischer-Dieskau, Gerhard Hüsch), but it was nice (and no, Papageno is not a slam-dunk). I did mark a peculiarity in his rendering of the spoken dialogue. For that, he adopted a high-set adjustment—higher in pitch, in fact, than most of his sung notes—shallow and mouthy in timbre. It reminded me somewhat of Peter Lorre’s default speech mode, or more specifically of a tone taken by the eminent actor and director Gustaf Gründgens in some of his snakily seductive speeches as Goethe’s Mephistopheles, and so produced an effect oddly creepy for the character. I wondered if there were some culture-code signal in this usage that I was missing, or if Goerne simply thought that this unnaturally high placement would carry well in the big house. In any case, it did lodge in the memory. I’ve had no further occasion to see Goerne in opera, noting only at a distance and with some surprise the roles he has more recently undertaken, and have been remiss in catching up with him in recital till the evening of February 6.
I have heard and seen grumblings about an over-seriousness in Goerne’s recital programming and presentation. These get no support from me. One reason I find myself at the recital hall with reduced frequency is that the programming (when one can find out about it in advance in any detail) seems designed to avoid a dreaded “heaviness,” and the presentational mode is one of casual friending, often of a patent insincerity. The world of the Lied is richer and deeper than that, and if you’re not going to go there, neither am I. On this occasion, Goerne was offering the four songs of Berg’s Opus 2, the complete Schumann Dichterliebe, Wolf’s three Michelangelo settings and three of Shostakovich’s as well, and finally the Vier ernste Gesänge of Brahms. From beginning to end, substantial nourishment for heart and mind. What less could you want? And let me stipulate: Goerne has a sturdy, reliable voice. He’s entirely in command of his material. His intonation is excellent, and at least in this material, the tone is never spread or tremulous. He’s clearly dedicated and sincere. His collaborator on this occasion was the acclaimed young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, this recital being one of the events he is “curating” as Carnegie Hall’s artist-in-residence. All these good things notwithstanding, I found Goerne a strange performer, and this a strange evening. In such cases, I think it can be informative to search for technical causes. It’s part of my ongoing attempt to pin down what’s gone on with classical singing over the past half-century, a search that’s best conducted among the most gifted and successful, since their talent always consists in part of compensating for whatever weaknesses may be present. But before that, a note on self-presentation, which actually creates the first impression.