“Who owns the most beautiful voice in the world?” I asked in 2005. “It’s a ridiculous question, of course, but it may have an answer: Matthias Goerne, the German baritone.” My review continued,
The first time you hear him, that voice is so shocking, you have trouble concentrating on the music. The voice has an almost unreal beauty. To be sure, Mr. Goerne has more than a beautiful voice: he is an intelligent singer, to boot.
That was an understatement. Goerne sang a recital at the Salzburg Festival last night, in the House for Mozart. There was no Mozart on his program, however—it was all-Schubert. He was accompanied by Alexander Schmalcz, another German.
Is “accompanied” a dirty word? Not in my book. It was not dirty in the days of Franz Rupp and Gerald Moore, and it ought not to be so now.
Matthias Goerne’s voice is essentially unchanged, I think. It has some “character dings,” as they say in the car business. Maybe some dents or scratches here and there. And it seemed to me especially bass-y last night. Should Goerne acquire a hyphen? Is he a bass-baritone? These distinctions are sometimes arbitrary, I think. Anyway, he can go very low—very low with substance and beauty. And when he goes up high, floating a head voice, for example—oh, my.
He and Mr. Schmalcz performed sixteen Schubert songs. “Performed” is not really the right word. It is almost an offensive word. There was not a sense of “performance” in this recital. Nothing “performative.” These were just honest expressions of sublime Schubert songs.
At any rate, there were sixteen, and they were all pretty much off the beaten track. They were not drawn from Schubert’s greatest hits.
Once, James Levine was talking about Schubert songs in a master class. He said something like this: “There are over 600 of them. How do you know which ones you should sing? Read through the poems. And sing the ones that make you go, ‘Wow.’”
If anything linked the songs on last night’s program, it was melancholy, even grief. The evening was, in a sense, a Winterreise.
Goerne and Schmalcz went through their songs without pause. They never left the stage. There was applause only before the first song and after the last song. Never in between.
Question: In America, would a recital of sixteen Schubert songs fly? Would people sit still for it? I sort of doubt it. In recent years, I have been worried about voice recitals in general—even jazzy and varied ones. There seem to be fewer and fewer, even in New York.
Last month, I did a podcast with Frederica von Stade, the great mezzo-soprano, and we discussed this issue of recitals. She sang them all across America—in practically every city, town, and hamlet. There were émigrés in those days, von Stade pointed out: people who had come from Europe, and knew the languages, and appreciated the music.
Anyway, this is a big topic, which we can perhaps return to one day.
If you can’t sing a Schubert recital in Salzburg, you can’t sing one anywhere. The festival has hosted Liederabende for generations: Lehmann, Wunderlich, Schwarzkopf, Fischer-Dieskau, Ludwig, and on and on. Goerne continues a priceless tradition. (Actually, the tickets are pretty expensive, but you know what I mean.)
He sang the songs with understanding—understanding of various kinds: intellectual, emotional, and musical. He sang purely, sincerely. He never let anything get boring. If there was a refrain, he added variations to it—interpretive variations, subtle. Perfectly Schubertian. When a little acting was called for—he did it (but only a little).
I have used the word “sublime,” with regard to Schubert. These songs are sublime, and so was the singing of them. But let me say: this recital was not like a holy ceremony. The audience was quiet as a church mouse. But the songs were human, and often intensely so.
As he sings, Goerne bends his knees and goes up onto his toes. He sings the way Joshua Bell plays the violin, and vice versa. Their bodies move with their phrasing. They sometimes appear to sculpt the music, bodily.
The pianist, Alexander Schmalcz, I did not notice. And I noticed my not noticing him at different points throughout the recital. That is, I was aware of my not noticing him. Does that mean he was a nonentity? A nothingburger? Not at all. But he was utterly natural. He did nothing that called attention to itself. The playing, the singing, the notes, the words—they were one. Schmalcz was self-effacing.
A better way to put that is: he was a servant of the music. If I did not notice him, it was because I was listening to Schubert. Which is high praise of Mr. Schmalcz.
Singer and pianist gave us one encore—Schubert, of course, and, this time, a greatest hit: “Frühlingsglaube.” Than a song recital, especially a good one, there is nothing better in music. Not to be a Gloomy Gus, but: hear them while you can . . .