Matthias Goerne’s reputation as perhaps the most
probing and beautifully voiced male art song interpreter on today’s
stages has generated great interest in his concerts, operatic appearance
and recordings. At age 35, the German baritone has already received four
Grammy nominations for his Decca recordings. Goerne’s first nomination was for his role in Braunfel’s delightful opera, Die Vogel
(The Birds), the second for his Schumann song recital accompanied by
Vladimir Ashkenazy, and the third for the Hollywood Songbook
of Hans Eisler. The Eisler also won the Gramophone vocal award for the
year of its issue. Goerne’s most recent Grammy was for his recording of
Bach Cantatas with Roger Norrington.
Two years ago, I had the privilege of conducting a
phone interview with Matthias Goerne. The baritone was in Brussels at
the time, gracuiysky speaking at midnight after concluding a rehearsal
of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte
and Schubert’s Schwanengesang
with pianist Alfred Brendel. That
interview, located in the archives of Secrets of Home Theater and High
Fidelity, contains much information about Goerne’s background, training,
and early career. More biographical information on the artist can be
found at http://www.deccaclassics.com/artists/goerne/biog.html
and, for German speakers, at
In March 2003, the baritone returned to San
Francisco’s Herbst Theater for a series of three Schubert recitals. San
Francisco was the only U.S. city in which Goerne performed all three of
Schubert’s major song collections plus Beethoven’s An die ferne
Geliebte in a single week. The
opportunity to hear closely spaced live performances of these four
pinnacles of German art song collections is a rarity in the 21st
century, let alone in the United States.
Equally rare was the profundity of Goerne’s
artistry, and the sheer beauty of his voice. Sponsored by San Francisco
Performances, Goerne received beautiful support from his usual
accompanist, Eric Schneider. The duo began on March 4 with Schubert’s
Die Schöne Müllerin song cycle, a
recording of which they released on Decca in the fall of 2002. On March
6, they preceded Schubert’s fourteen Schwanengesang
with Beethoven’s six An die ferne Geliebte.
The series concluded on March 8 with
Schubert’s great Winterreise
On March 4, two and a half hours before Goerne took to
the stage for his first recital, we began an animated face-to-face
interview. Below is the transcript of our extended conversation.
On April 3-5, you’re performing eight
songs from Mahler’s song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn with
the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The conductor is Ingo Metzmacher,
conductor of the Hamburg Opera and Philharmonic. Your Decca recording of
the orchestral cycle with Barbara Bonney and the Royal Concertgebouw
Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Chailly, has already been released in
Europe, and is slated for imminent release in the United States.
What does this music say to you?
In the end, the music is much more important than the text. In the
fusion with the music, the music is the winner.
The cycle has to do with the period when the music
was written. Mahler was trying to find a subject and texts to express
what he was feeling about the military situation. It was the beginning
of military build-up in Europe, when the military got bigger and bigger
and stronger and stronger.
Mahler was trying to criticize the growing
militarism, but his creation was not strong enough. It was impossible in
this period of music to make the kind of criticism in music that was
later possible for Berg, Schoenberg, Eisler, Weill and Brecht. Their
statements are much stronger, and the meaning of their texts is so
combined with the music.
For me, Des Knaben Wunderhorn
is the most fantastic piece in the entire baritone orchestral song
repertoire. But this has to do more with the music’s entertainment
value, and the emotions inside the music, than with the texts. The words
are incredible, but in the end, the climax of the harmonies is so strong
that everyone forgets what you are telling them. This is not the case
with Schubert or Schumann; it is special to Mahler’s music.
JS: Do you
find this true with all of Mahler’s lieder?
Kindertotenlieder are different. They’re more like chamber
music. And the story is so depressive and full of sadness that the music
and the text are close to each other.
about Das Lied von der Erde?
is especially true for the Lied von der Erde and the
Wayfarer Songs. For me, the text
isn’t important in the Wayfarer;
it’s just the music. You know, it’s “Tzng, tzng, tzng . . .”; it doesn’t
mean anything to me. It’s childhood memories. I could sing “La, la, la,”
and it would have the same effect for me.
The Lied von der Erde
is more an aesthetic thing, an emotional expression. It’s not really
necessary to have a story line in order to express the kinds of things
Mahler wished to say. This is very different than Berg’s
Wozzeck. That opera is so concrete,
totally timeless. The story was written about 200 years ago, yet it’s
totally brand new all the time. You can do it in France or the United
States, but the human conflict inside the piece is so enormous and
present all over the world that it is relevant everywhere. This is the
difference between music in this period, and the period in which Mahler
there much documentation of Mahler’s anti-war stance, or is that too
strong a characterization for how he felt disturbed by the growing
MG: In the
end, Mahler had no influence. And he was definitely not strong enough as
a composer to express this combination of feeling. He’s one of the
greatest composers, and I love his music. Nobody composed more
orchestral pieces for the baritone voice than Mahler.
It is difficult to say why he was so interested in
composing these texts, to find a harmonic system and melodies for this
kind of text, because in the end it is not really strong, for me. It is
fantastic, piece by piece.
It’s also difficult to come up with a running order
for the piece. You can take one out, and you can have six pieces or
seven. You have to decide everything by yourself, and it’s quite
difficult to find the running order, to have a kind of structure step by
step, so that each piece follows from the one that precedes it. This is
always difficult for me, and it’s difficult to say what it all means in
the end. Of course, piece by piece, the meaning is quite clear. But is
an enormous group. All 14 songs for soprano, baritone and orchestra
amount to at least 70 or 75 minute of music.
don’t listen to Des Knaben Wunderhorn that often because
of the militaristic nature of some of the songs.
MG: It was
against the military. Mahler spoke with sadness of the military life of
a soldier - you have to give up your girlfriend and your family, and
you lose everything, and you’re always far away from your country and
friends. But Mahler’s criticism is always quiet and soft. The settings
are so beautiful musically that they kill the effect of the texts.
JS: As far
as I’m concerned, the beauty of Mahler’s music is enough of a draw. But
for the folks who may only read this piece because they like your
picture or something like that, what do you want to say about the eight
Des Knaben Wunderhorn baritone songs you’re performing in
MG: Go to
the concert, listen to the music. It’s much better than what you usually
hear on classical radio stations.
performing Schubert’s Schwanengesang in San Francisco. Do
you change the order of those songs as well?
is the same problem. It’s not possible to say that the Schwanengesang
mean more to me than the Wunderhorn
songs, because they’re so different.
isn’t a cycle; it’s a collection of songs left unpublished at the time
of Schubert’s death. The running order was arbitrarily determined by the
editor. I think Schubert tried to create two or three cycles, at least
two, with the fourteen songs: one with the Rellstab pieces, one with the
Heine poems. Perhaps “Die Taubenpost,” the only song by a different
composer, was meant as the start of a third cycle.
The pieces are so close to each emotionally. They
always depict some kind of sadness because the singer is missing
somebody or missing the love or missing a contact. It’s much easier to
organize these groups in a good running order.
I perform “Die Taubenpost” as an encore because it
doesn’t mix with the other songs. It’s quite difficult to start with it,
with its kind of walking rhythm, and then go on to the “Liebesbotschaft.”
So I start with the “Liebesbotschaft,” adopting the usual running order
for the Rellstab and Heine songs.
In San Francisco, I will start the evening with
Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
It’s quite a problematic piece, because it’s always hard to find the
right place for it in a mixed program of Beethoven, Schubert, and
Schumann. The piece is so strong and difficult that you usually can’t
start with it. But if you end with it, its effect is so enormous that
people forget what you did before. It works well to sing it before the
you ever heard Gerhard Hüsch’s recording of “Die Taubenpost?”
couple of weeks ago, a fan in London sent me a tape of this performance.
I had never heard it before, though I had heard a lot about Gerhard
Hüsch. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful.
my favorite performance of the song.
two days until I perform it (laughing).
reviewed your Die Schöne Müllerin for another publication,
comparing it to at least five other
recordings of the cycle. I was struck by how different your
interpretation is from others I listened to.
it’s enormous (laughing).
have critics reacted to your performance?
Especially in a concert situation, journalists are totally polarized. A
couple of them say, “Oh this is really shit, and he’s doing the wrong
thing with the piece.” On the other hand, some say “This is absolutely
marvelous” and “He’s breaking the tradition, and he’s found a new way to
project the piece.” Especially with the Müllerin, the
extreme reactions are enormously far from each other.
partner is a tenor who sings the cycle. He listened to your recording,
especially to the songs you perform very slowly…
There are a couple of them (chuckling) . . . .
me about it. He went, “Oh, it’s too slow.” Then, after I played “Der
Neugerige” on KALW-FM, I played them again for him, and said, “Do you
realize the sense of ease that is necessary to pull this off? Do you
realize how few people can do this? If you just slow down and listen,
you’ll realize what this man is doing. This is marvelous.” But a lot of
people can’t do that, especially in 2003.
MG: When I
was a student many years ago, I started Winterreise and
touched the Schwanengesang, but
I never touched the Müllerin
because it was always uncomfortable. I was wondering why, because it was
also Schubert. It was so problematic. When I touched it, I got
enormously bored in a short while. After five pieces, everything was
blocked and I lost interest.
Then I got so many offers from presenters that I
returned to it and listened to many recordings. I think the key for me
was when I was singing and studying it a bit while at the same time
listening in my ear to what has stayed with me from the time that my
parents had played me recordings of the work. I realized my mind wasn’t
free enough to discover how beautiful the cycle was.
I found that for me,
especially because my teacher Fischer-Dieskau performed and recorded it,
the music was fixed in my mind in the wrong way. This picture of a naïve
walking boy in the forest who sings “Das wandern . . ." (singing)
- I heard such happiness, sung so lively - it was not
possible for me to reconcile such an interpretation with my own sense of
the text and of the music.
My memories of prior
interpretations were much stronger than my own sense of the piece until
I gave everything up and found my own way. It was necessary to say, this
cycle is not Winterreise. This person is not as strong. He’s much
younger, and there’s much more wildness inside.
texts are more associated with the Sturm und Drang
period in German literature, as opposed to the Winterreise,
which is far more Romantic in its organization and atmosphere. The
Winterreise has a lot to
do with the Glaube, Liebe, Hoffnung - to believe, to love, and to hope - as well as with
Einsamkeit. Verzweiflung, and Todessehnsucht
- loneliness, desperation, and a desire of death; it is the same in the
Brahms Four Serious Songs.
There is no hope in Die
Schöne Müllerin; he has
to die. The cycle goes enormously up, then you have one song, “Pause,”
and then it goes down. The proportion is exactly the same. And this is
listened to a number of tenor recordings, the voice it was written for.
Some of them are lovely, but I couldn’t imagine this sweet-voiced person
working in a mill or picking up a piece of wood. Then I hear you, and I
can see this guy working in a mill, impressing the miller maid with his
MG: I know
exactly what you mean. With the tenor voice it is quite difficult. They
have to do it in an absolutely different way.
JS: To me,
you came across as a lusty lad with a heart. First we saw your robust,
extroverted side and then we saw that other part of you. You were all
there. To me it was a revelation.
is good to know. It’s exactly what I want to express and to project.
SF Chronicle’s teaser for your three Schubert recitals said
something to the effect that Goerne doesn’t know that the art of lieder
don’t think this is true. The truth is, it was never created for a big
audience. It is very difficult to sell out big halls. There is just a
handful worldwide where this is possible: Carnegie Hall is possible, for
example, because New York is an exciting place, and when you are quite
famous, and have a step into the door. Also it is possible when you have
a good accompanist, or a good program, or a good combination with a solo
pianist. But generally, it has to do with the size of the hall. This is
problematic in America, because it is difficult to find smaller rooms.
And when you do find a small room, like the French Embassy in
Washington, DC where I recently performed, it was like a cinema from the
‘70s; it was a horrible atmosphere. The size was good, but in the end,
the atmosphere was so horrible that the music didn’t work.
This problem is worldwide, even in Europe. When you
don’t have the right size, you never have the right sound. It has to do,
not with the Piano Pianissimo,
but the next step up, between the Piano Pianissimo
and the Mezzo Piano. This
place is so necessary to create an intimate atmosphere, to have the
possibility to whisper a word on a note. This is impossible to do in a
big hall, where the voice gets lost unless you really sing out. And the
other hand, it’s quite risky for the presenters. Because they don’t have
really small halls, you have to earn at least $10,000 in a place like
Carnegie Hall to cover expenses.
been seeing more and more empty seats because of the economy.
Exactly. It also has to do with the global situation, the conflict with
the terrorists, and the war that is hopefully not coming.
JS: I know
of only two radio shows in the entire Bay Area that might play your
music and educate people in the process. One is on Sunday mornings from
5-9 AM, the other on Sunday nights on KALW-FM, especially if I’m the
substitute DJ, which I’ve been four times in the past year. The one
remaining Bay Area classical station plays no vocal music, and only
programs “pleasant” classics.
know. They play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the like. I was
listening while I am here, and I was really surprised at the selection
Mahler write any songs for an intimate setting?
MG: Only a
few songs in his youth, and they are not so fantastic.
is it like for you to go from Wozzeck to an intimate
MG: In the
end, everything is the same.
JS: Do you
have to take a break?
To come to the role of Wozzeck and move on takes awhile. Were I to
receive a phone call tomorrow asking me to step in in one week’s time,
it would be quite difficult to get into the proper condition, which
requires a voice more rough and aggressive in sound. It requires a kind
of training that means that you need at least 10 days off without
singing at all in order to let the voice relax. Then you have to return
with vocal exercises to get in shape for Schubert.
performing Wozzeck have any long-term effect on your Piano
MG: No. Of
course the voice gets bigger and a bit heavier, but this kind of
heaviness is really necessary for many pieces in the Schubert
repertoire. When I first performed Wozzeck three or four
years ago in Zurich, I got increased offers for song recitals. It was
the same when I performed it again in Zurich two years later and
recently in London. I have more performance in the end.
Of course, I have to think about how to find my
musical way back in the other direction, but I don’t have to cancel the
other things. It’s a question of balance; you have to balance it every
is your schedule like in the US?
these three Schubert concerts, I return to Europe for a couple of
concerts, then fly back here for the Boston Des Knaben Wunderhorn
performance and two recitals of Schubert and Wolf in Ann Arbor and New
York on April 10 and 12. Then I have ten days off for a holiday in
either Florida or Germany. Then I return for Des Knaben Wunderhorn
with the Toronto Symphony on April
23, 24, and 26. Manfred Honeck will conduct.
I’m performing Wolf and Schubert together because
this is the Wolf Centenary Celebration year. The two composers share a
common fate. Both Schubert and Wolf died of syphilis. Schubert died when
he was 31. Wolf was 46 or 47; he spent the last two years of his life in
35, still a baby.
or less (chuckling).
JS: Do you
have a family?
separated from my wife. But I have two children, and I spend 12 days a
month with them, which is not bad in this business. My daughter is 3,
and my son is 14. He’s terrible now that he’s 14. He hates classical
music at the moment, and is into rock and skateboarding. But he’s
usually interested in theater and acting; I know it has to do with his
My little daughter is really interested. Because
she watches TV, and it’s not good for the children to watch too much TV,
I will instead put on a video from the Salzburg Festival production of
The Magic Flute, and she notices
her daddy singing Papageno and is really excited. She knows everything
about The Magic Flute.
when I played three notes of Gerhard Hüsch’s “Die Taubenpost” to a
friend, he immediately exclaimed, “Oh my god, that’s a Papageno voice!
and he also sang Wozzeck.
you be recording Schubert with pianist Alfred Brendel?
October and November, live in Wigmore Hall, we’ll record the
Winterreise, Schwanengesang, and An die ferne Geliebte
new roles on the horizon?
Salzburg this August, Henze has composed a new opera for me. Then in
Dresden in December I perform Wolfram from Tannhauser, and
then Wozzeck with Seiji Ozawa. And I have a couple of ideas…
JS: Of all
the music you sing, what speaks to you the most?
is impossible to say. When I decide to sing a piece, it has to have
similarities to the rest of my repertoire; otherwise, I can do nothing
with it. If it’s touching, it’s touching. For me, in the end there’s no
difference between Schubert and Schoenberg. When I have no link to the
music from the mind and the heart, it does not interest me.