Goerne & Eschenbach

Baritone Matthias Goerne visited our fair city last week for one of the most anticipated appearances of the season and apparently I'm the only one who wasn't impressed. In a pair of programs which took place at Davies Symphony Hall (the first for three nights with the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Christoph Eschenbach, followed by a Great Performers series recital accompanied by Eschenbach on the piano) Goerne took up a lot of space and did precious little with it.

The Symphony program began with two Wagner excerpts- Die Frist ist um from The Flying Dutchman, followed by Wotan's Farewell scene and the Magic Fire Music from Die Walkure. In the Dutchman segment the orchestra was flat, at least the strings were- especially to anyone who heard this same orchestra bring this same score to thrilling life a few years ago under MTT, but even with the flat tone of the strings Goerne struggled to be heard, left little impression of the character, and gave no hint as to why he wanted to sing it in the first place. As Wotan he wasn't any better, and though the much enlarged orchestra made it clear just how far the composer had grown in his musical language in the fifteen year span separating the two works, Goerne sounded spent at the conclusion of the segment, making me wonder how he could ever hope to make it through an entire performance of the opera. Though he has a large, warm tone, his voice sounded ragged at the edges and the words which could be clearly heard were few and far between, despite the fact that he's a native singer.

The second half of the concert featured Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, From the New World, the fondness of which is something else I don't have in common with most of the planet, but in passages, some of which were played at pleasingly loud volume, I could easily see what does draw people to this work. It's just something that's always left me cold. I feel the same about Bach passions, for what it's worth.

A couple of nights later I returned for the recital, and it seemed like everyone was there. They weren't of course, but when one turns around and finds Chip Grant seated behind you, it feels indeed like everyone is there. The program this time was Schubert's Winterreise- twenty four dark, lonely and despairing poems by Willhelm Muller set to music that creates a narrative arc of alienation, loss, anxiety, fear, and finally defeat. It's a heady 70 or 80 minutes, and definitely not everyone's cup of tea in the same way that Handel or Wagner may not be for everyone, but there's no denying the genius of the work and it's the kind of melodramatic Romanticism for which I'm a complete sucker.

Eschenbach's accompaniment lacked a light touch when it was most needed, his foot sometimes never left the pedal, and he played too loudly in key moments, reaching over Goerne's volume. In short, there was an absence of grace in the playing which would have been of benefit to the whole as the problems I had with Goerne's appearance on Thursday were still evident on Sunday- a woolly wound, rough at the edges, mushy diction, and a lack of dramatic involvement or appreciation for nuance (Erstarrung and Ruckblick were taken very fast, and the latter became messy), and a tendency to bluster through certain segments (Fruhlingstraum, Einsamkeit, Die Post). They had their moments, notably during Im Dorfe and Der Wegweiser, but in a program of this scale that's simply not enough. A recital should have at least one revelation moment, when one instinctively knows, or hears something, that justifies the fact that a crowd has gathered to hear one lone voice deliver something unique to it. Something truly beautiful- or powerful, frightening, or joyful. Something, but not just anything. Goerne never delivered that moment.

But don't believe me- because everyone else seems to have loved every minute of it, except me, and those who straggled out of the hall, choosing to get lost during the journey. And one last note- a sartorial one- choose a shirt with a good, strong, well-made collar.

Top photo: Cristoph Eschenbach and Matthias Goerne.