January 8, 2014 5:54 pm

Matthias Goerne and Leif Ove Andsnes, Wigmore Hall, London – review

Alternating songs by Mahler and Shostakovich, this thoughtful recital took death as its theme

Most recitalists treat programme-making as a secondary art: a bit of light and dark, fast and slow, to point up contrasts, modulate a theme and display a variety of skills. Matthias Goerne and Leif Ove Andsnes are made of sterner stuff. For their collaboration on Tuesday they chose a monothematic programme on the subject of death, comprising music by just two composers.

Morbid? No, exquisite. The choice of songs by Mahler and Shostakovich had been so thoughtfully worked out and delicately balanced, with ultra-sensitive performances to match, that the evening seemed to hover on an otherworldly precipice – teetering between the ecstatic here-and-now of poetic fantasy and the nihilistic hopelessness of the grave.


IN Music

Even within the context of Shostakovich’s well-documented Mahlerian sympathies, it was daring to alternate these two composers, song by song – but the risk paid off, for their visions of death were shown to be distinct yet complementary. The Austrian composer’s idiom, represented by selections from Kindertotenlieder and Des Knaben Wunderhorn, expresses world-weariness with an eye to the beyond, while his Russian counterpart’s Michelangelo Suite – we heard six of the 11 songs – looks back on life and forward to death with unalloyed cynicism.

Goerne needed a score for the Russian texts, but the wraparound warmth of his bass-baritone – still in pristine condition, especially when floating a note at the top of the voice – conquered all. He seemed incapable of an ugly sound, or of anything less than a seamless line: Shostakovich’s “Separation” drew us into the poet’s innermost thoughts, while Mahler’s “Es singen drei Engel einen süssen Gesang” bathed the hall in glorious sound.

Andsnes’s matter-of-fact pianism anchored the mood, gave it context and prevented it sounding excessively smooth. He could not stop Goerne’s treatment of the “dialogue” songs from sounding homogenised: Mahler’s Das irdische Leben could have done with clearer profiling of the “Erlkönig”-like roles of Death and the Child. “Urlicht” was a touch prosaic. “Morning” needed a hint of playfulness. But from start to finish this recital had a bittersweet beauty that wrapped the chill hand of death in a heavenly glow.


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