Matthias Goerne's career took off like a skyrocket in the late 1990s fueled by his 1997 CD of Schubert lieder by Goethe. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic hailed his chocolate bass-baritone and legato with timbre most hadn't heard since Hans Hotter. Goerne's critical success continued with CDs of Wolf lieder, Mahler, opera and Bach (including the baritone cantatas) before coming back to Schubert early in this century.
While those CDs continued to do well at the cash register, the critical reaction on his new Schubert was mixed. If critics in England liked his performances, critics in America did not and vice versa. The reason for these split decisions was an emerging trend by Goerne to overinterpret the music and to sing piano sequences in a whisper and the forte crescendos in a thunder.
The same criticisms (or adulation, depending on your point of view) can be applied to this CD, a concert recording of Beethoven's song cycle "An Die Ferne Geliebte" and Schubert's "Schwanengesang". In my opinion, the Beethoven is a failed effort and the Schubert is better but still fraught with the errors of Goerne's ways he has shown in recordings most of the past 3-4 years.
Right from the onset, the Beethoven displays none of the impetuousity and passionate fervor we would expect from this composer at Op. 90. Instead, it is performed by Goerne (with sensitive accompaniment by Brendel) as if it were Op. 125. To me, it is more Mahler than Beethoven, more wayfarer songs than songs of a lost love far away.
The pair take the opening sequence, "Auf dem Hugel sitz ich", in a slow march. This barely changes until the fourth stanza, where they finally pick up the pace and the passion. By the time Goerne arrives at track six, "Diese Wolken in den Hohen", the music is so distended it is cleary more Mahler than Beethoven. It is only in the final closing moments where Goerne displays the passion and verve we expect from Beethoven, longing over a lost beloved on a hilltop.
Compared to Stephan Genz's spectacular cycle and Thomas Allen's concert recording from a few years back (unfortunately deleted in USA) Goerne's performance simply won't do. It is too slow and syrupy to be effective Beethoven. The Wigmore Hall audience understood this and gave the pair only lukewarm applause afterward.
The Schubert comes off much better although Goerne continues to display the same disturbing mannerisms in this music, which I have heard to much better effect by baritones with smaller, more lithe voices including Holzmair. Goerne gets more in the spirit of Schubert right away by displaying passion in the opening song of the cycle, "Liebesbotschaft".
Yet, throughout the cycle, he displays the same Mahleresque tendencies to elongate phrases, whisper soft text and explode into fortissimo, as if he sensed his audience was falling asleep. The opening subject of "In der ferne" is distended and operatic, although Goerne improves later on. In fairness, he can be very effective when the text calls for such a dramatic reading. Witness "Ihr bild", a sad and dreamy song where Goerne's delivery is eerily sensitive to the text.
However, Goerne returns to the one size fits all approach in the popular "Abschied", where he lacks the spontaneity and fun I've heard from singers including Holzmair. Goerne and Brendel are frankly straightforward and dull in this, one of Schubert's most ironic songs about both loss and happiness.
A great curiosity to me is the way the audience explodes into applause at the end of "Der Doppelganger" which not only creeps along like a worm on a dry sidewalk...it is not the end of the cycle! As if an encore, Goerne's closing "Die Taubenpost" is stodgy and dull compared to Holzmair, whose performance (at the beginnig of his CD) is one of the most successful parts of his cycle.
For his part, Alfrend Brendel provides world class accompaniment to these songs. He is neither competitive nor cantankerous and always shows his trademark intelliegence and sensitivity. Unfortunately, he is on board with Georne's tendency to overinterpret and helps deliver two cycles more akin to Mahler than the composers.
If your taste runs to singers with gigantic voices who have very individiualistic ideas of music -- accompanied by the most stalwart pianists -- then you may love this CD. Goerne's big voice, outstanding diction and magnificent span from mezzopiano to fortissimo is always apparent in DDD sound (a bit bottom heavy, perhaps) captured during a concert in London. This should have been aprescription for success. Instead, it is only partially successful, in my opinion.