Who are the great songwriters? Or if that’s too broad a question, who are the great composers of German art songs? Most people would say Schubert, Wolf, and Mahler, without argument. I think Schumann ranks with the best. I’ve always thought he is underrated, as a songwriter.

An evening devoted to Schumann songs makes me think it all the more.

Last night in the House for Mozart at the Salzburg Festival—this house is for more than Mozart!—Matthias Goerne and Markus Hinterhäuser gave an all-Schumann recital. On the program were about thirty songs. There was no intermission. The two performed Schumann songs for an hour and a half straight.

On Goerne’s part, this was a feat of stamina, among other things.

He is in the cast of The Magic Flute here at the festival, singing Sarastro. This is a bass role, though Goerne is a baritone. As for Hinterhäuser, he is an eminent music administrator, as well as a pianist. Indeed, he is the artistic director of the Salzburg Festival. This is one of the most important jobs in all of music.

Partnering Goerne is an important job, too. In the past, such eminences as Christoph Eschenbach have held that job.

There have been equally beautiful voices in the long history of man; I doubt there has been a more beautiful one, ever.

Every time I hear Goerne in recital, I am shocked—shocked for the first few songs. I forget how beautiful that voice is. I know it, theoretically, but to come face to face with it, or voice to ear with it, is something else. I have been listening to Goerne for, what, fifteen years now? And the voice is still shocking, at the beginning of a recital.

There have been equally beautiful voices in the long history of man; I doubt there has been a more beautiful one, ever.

It is tenorial at the top and bassy at the bottom. The beauty is consistent throughout. Has Goerne’s voice changed over the years? I don’t think so. There may be less of it now—I’m not sure about this—but the quality is unchanged.

Also unchanged are his stage mannerisms, or habits, or tics. I find them endearing. He goes up on his toes, and he looks around, wonderingly.

He sings a beautiful—a beautiful and clear—German. He hugs the line, i.e., the musical line. He is capable of taking long, long breaths. Last night, I thought of something that Renée Fleming once said about Dmitri Hvorostovsky: “We all think he has a third lung.” Goerne has the gift of singing piano, even pianissimo—very soft. When he does this, the voice loses no beauty or body. This is practically unheard of.

Over the years, I have knocked him for fussing with songs, or being precious in them. He did very little of this last night. I thought that “Mondnacht” was a little fussed with. Normally, I prefer this song straighter. But if I had a voice like that, and if I hugged the line like that, and if I breathed like that—maybe I would sing “Mondnacht” like that too!

In pretty much every song, Goerne achieved a right marriage between words and notes. The singing sounded like the poetry. One song, “Auf einer Burg”—one of Schumann’s very best—was spellbinding.

And our pianist, Mr. Hinterhäuser? An intelligent and feeling collaborator. He was dignified in everything he did. He respects the composer, not trying to re-compose him. The composer has done the work already, and well. Hinterhäuser serves him (and the singer).

“Waldesgespräch,” he made swing a little. That was exactly right, and a treat to the ear. In “Schöne Fremde,” the poet (Eichendorff) has treetops “rustle and shudder.” You heard that in the piano.

I now pose a question: Is there enough variety in Schumann for an hour and a half of him? Does the evening get monotonous? Not really, although there is a risk. An hour and a half of Schumann—thirty songs—was very satisfying. More would have tempted fate . . .

There was no encore. I thought maybe “Widmung” or “Der Nussbaum”—these are Schumann’s most popular songs, probably, and they had not yet been sung—but no. The final song was “Gebet,” or “Prayer.” That was a good one to go out on.

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