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REVIEW: Review: Baritone Matthias Goerne captivates sold-out audience at Baker-Baum Concert Hall

San Diego Union-Tribune

Christian Hertzog
April 8, 2022

 

In the last act of Richard Wagner’s influential opera “Tristan und Isolde,” the mortally wounded Tristan perishes in his lover Isolde’s arms. It ends with Isolde so ecstatically consumed by love that she passes away in what Wagner called “Liebestod” — love-death.

German vocalist Matthias Goerne’s sold-out recital on Thursday evening in Baker-Baum Concert Hall invoked “Liebestod.” His program of “Lieder” by Wagner, Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner repeatedly touched on love and death, although never directly quoting “Tristan und Isolde.”

The content of his debut concert for La Jolla Music Society was, with slight reordering, identical to his 2021 album, “Im Abendrot” (“At sunset”).

The most beloved sunset in classical music may well be “Im Abendrot” by Strauss, which concluded Goerne’s recital. In it, a mysterious “we” watches a sunset and two larks (i.e. morning birds). “How tired we are of traveling,” the singer muses, “is this perchance death?”

The 84-year-old composer answered the question with a quotation from his own “Death and Transfiguration” and the larks, represented by a double trill, disappear into a warm haze.

In Wagner’s “Schmerzen” (“Torment”) and in Pfitzner’s “Abendrot,” a sunset is likewise equated with death. In Pfitzner’s “The sinking sun shines so beautifully,” sunset signifies separation from his lover and heartbreak.

Two of Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder “(1857-1858) were “studies” for “Tristan,” eventually transformed into the love duet in Act 2 and the forlorn Act 3 prelude. Traditionally the exclusive province of female singers, Goerne demonstrated that men can sing all of the “Wesendonck Lieder” with equal credibility.

The spirit of “Tristan‘s” Act 1 prelude, with its restless modulations, hangs over Pfitzner’s “Abendrot.” Pfitzner’s song implies a minor key, but there is no strong cadence to pin down the tonality until the final bars, where the suggested minor tonic becomes a major chord on the word “Himmelsstadt” (heavenly city). Unfortunately, the piano sounds that final harmony 17 times, 14 more than necessary.

Pfitzner was a contemporary of Strauss. The musical language of his other seven songs, a sampling from his entire output, was so reactionary that they could have been composed before Wagner’s or Strauss’ “Lieder.”

No matter your feelings towards Pfitzner’s talent, the care with which Goerne and his accompanist Seong-Jin Cho lavished on the songs was evident.

Goerne’s voice was incredibly polished and flexible. He filled the house or dwindled down to near silence, his tone always secure. The emotions of each song were well defined, from the anger and sorrow of Pfitzner’s “Wasserfahrt” to the yearning of Wagner’s “Lieder” and the serenity of Strauss’s “Abendrot.”

Cho is a star pianist who was tasked with finding the music in Pfitzner’s and Wagner’s unimaginative accompaniments. The technique and expression he lavished on these parts was extraordinary. It was only when he got to Strauss’ songs that he was given some piano music with flair, and he made the most of that opportunity. His trills at the end of “Im Abendrot” were so quiet, they seemed to have no attack, like distant flutes.

After three curtain calls, Goerne and Cho performed J.S. Bach’s arrangement of “Bist du bei mir.” At the time, it seemed charming, but I later looked up the lyrics: “If you are with me, then I will gladly go to death and my rest. How pleasing my end would be if your dear hands then shut my faithful eyes.”

One last time, death and love.

Hertzog is a freelance writer.