Last night, a famous singer and a famous pianist performed a recital together in Carnegie Hall. They were Matthias Goerne, the German baritone, and Daniil Trifonov, the Russian pianist. Sometimes, famous pianists like to collaborate in song recitals: Yefim Bronfman does, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet does.
Goerne’s frequent partner is Christoph Eschenbach, who is both a famous pianist and a famous conductor.
Goerne and Trifonov performed an unusual program, and they performed it unusually. I will get to the “unusually” in a moment. The program ended with the Four Serious Songs of Brahms, and, in a sense, the entire program was serious songs—heavy on pain and death. Many minor keys.
Afterward, a patron remarked, “It made no sense”—and by “it,” he meant the program. “It was monochromatic.” Another patron said, “You know what they should have done for an encore? Winterreise!” (Schubert’s ultra-bleak song-cycle).
The program began with Berg’s Four Songs, Op. 2. It continued with Schumann’s Dichterliebe (in which there is much loveliness, to be sure). Then we had Wolf’s Michelangelo songs. This was followed by Shostakovich: “Dante,” “Death,” and “Night.” Finally, the Brahms.
Now for the “unusually”—for the “how.” Goerne and Trifonov performed the recital without intermission and without pauses between works. For instance, Trifonov would not let the last note of the last Berg song die before beginning Dichterliebe. I guess they were pretending connections.
In the end, the two performed for ninety minutes—which is a long recital, considering no intermission, no applause, and no exiting and entering the stage.
Regular readers may know my rap on Goerne: great, great voice—historically beautiful voice—but woefully affected singing. Precious singing. There was some of that last night, but relatively little. It was a superb recital.
How did Trifonov handle himself as “accompanist” or “collaborator”? Very well. But he was sometimes too timid, in my view, unwilling to sing out. Maybe he was concerned not to come across as the star pianist moonlighting as accompanist? But maybe Trifonov would have played with the same smallness or thinness as soloist.
In Dichterliebe, I am used to a tenor, as most of us are, I think—probably because we grew up with Fritz Wunderlich in this music. But the cycle is not bad out of Goerne’s mouth. What would be?
I loved the breathlessness of “Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne.” But maybe it was too breathless? This was a Dichterliebe of extremes, with fast fasts and slow slows (especially the latter). Still, it hung together nicely. Trifonov and Goerne took very, very little time between songs.
When Goerne sang of Cologne and its cathedral—“great and holy”—it sounded like that. The singer produced the idea, or conjured up the image, in sound. And the German language is marvelous out of his mouth—for instance in the line “mein übergrosses Weh’,” “my immense grief.”
Throughout Dichterliebe, Trifonov showed fine musical judgment, his keen intelligence.
Here is a side question, so to speak: You know how the piano sometimes twangs when the player lifts the sustain pedal? Can that be avoided?
Here is another side question: When Trifonov was playing the “postlude” of Dichterliebe’s final song, there was a cascade of page-turning in the audience. They were getting ready for the next work on the program. It sounded like a rainstorm. Can that be avoided?
Some in the audience tried to applaud, after Dichterliebe. The performers would not let them. Frankly, this was not so much intellectual or reasoned as kooky.
I will jump now to the Brahms. Why Trifonov didn’t sing out at the beginning of the first song, I don’t know. He was altogether wimpy. Also, I believe the second song was killed with slowness.
But Goerne—my goodness. Is it the most beautiful voice in all the world? It is certainly unsurpassed. Equaled by whom? Matthew Polenzani, the American tenor, maybe? Goerne’s voice is one of the most beautiful in the history of man. That does not mean he is the best singer, of course. The owner of the most beautiful swing on Tour is not necessarily the best golfer. In fact, he seldom is. What matters is the score you put on the card.
But Goerne is indeed one of our best singers, when his head is screwed on right.
He and Trifonov offered one encore. No, not Winterreise—“Bist du bei mir,” the greatest song of all time. We used to say it was by Bach. Then we took the authorship away from him. Still, it is the greatest song of all time. (Don’t hold me to it.) And, from Matthias Goerne, it was both perfectly sculpted and naturally breathed. You never heard anything more beautiful, or I haven’t.