Matthias Goerne has a special affinity for Mahler. Though he’s rarely recorded the composer’s work, he has such penetrating insight into the music that there are many treasured bootlegs in circulation. A friend, a Mahler specialist from the 1950’s, listened a lot to a Goerne version of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen. It gave her strength and inspiration. It was played at her funeral.
On 4 Feb Goerne was singing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder at the Royal Festival Hall. It’s a grim song cycle that challenges interpretation. There’s nothing autobiographical in it per se, except for the fact that Mahler, like many others in his era, had known many people around him die. Death was to the 19th century what sex was to the 20thth, a popular topic, a source of endless fascination.
Goerne’s singing was superb, capturing the sense of elegiac dignity. This matters, for the songs are more than just another group of Lieder: as a cycle, Kindertotenlieder is a prototype symphony, written so it works as a unified whole. Mahler chose poems which contrast images of light and shade, which recur repeatedly throughout his entire oeuvre, from the Second Symphony to the Tenth.
The texts are interesting, because they're psychologically so perceptive. The horror of what has happened numbs the poet so much that he cannot face it head on. “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn” he says, “als sei kein Unglück die Nacht gesehen”. The sun rises, as always, as if the tragedy of the night had never come to pass. No need for histrionics on the singer’s part. He’s in denial, trying to relate the collapse of his inner world to the landscape around him.
The second song, too, is oblique. The vocal writing is soft, almost too high for a bass baritone to negotiate but that’s the whole point. Goerne delivers these ostensibly gentle lines with a sense of wonder, for already the protagonist is seeking somehow to make sense of what’s going on. The poet juxtaposes the intimate with the universal. Memories of shining eyes will become like stars, which shine on in eternity.
The third song is like a central movement in a symphony. For a moment, the poet faces the fact that the children are never coming back. This song wells up magnificently, giving Goerne a chance to unleash that powerful voice at last, before the cycle returns to the minor of numb denial. Are the children really just off on a long walk? Will they come back and bring things back to normal? Goerne brings out the intense pain of maddened hope. But even more impressively, h has this knack of cradling the words, as if by enclosing phrases he might be holding them in an embrace.He doesn’t let the words fly past but seems to hold them fast, treasuring them like the poet treasures his memories. This protagonist is strong, powerfully masculine, so the tenderness and vulnerability Goerne expresses is all the more moving.
Notice how oblique the images are. The poet sees the space above the ground by the mother's skirt, where the children would have been, but they aren't there any more. It's the emptiness that's haunting. So the singer shouldn't flaff about pulling heartstrings. Goerne makes you hear the loss, obliquely. The last thing this father is thinking of is himself and the image he's making on the listener. We should be drawn inwards, into his grief. We're not simply observers.
For a moment, we’re thrown back into the storm. “In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus” repeats the poet. How could the children be sent out in such weather ? “Ich durfte nichts dazu sagen”. Nothing could have changed fate. Mahler writes turbulent circular figures, evoking extremes of wind, rain and anguish.Yet with Mahler, there’s always a search for resolution. Where the children have now gone transcends death. No longer will they fear the storm for they are forever von Gottes Hand bedecket. Goerne’s protective, gentle phrasing has been pointing the way all along.
After Fischer-Dieskau retired there was a lot of fuss about other singers who didn’t follow DFD’s mould. But any singer with integrity has to perform in his or her own way. Now we have more videos of singers in the past, we can see how they (and even DFD) intuitively expressed themselves through their whole physique as well as voice. Singers like Goerne communicate so much that all else falls by the way. Pity, then, that the orchestra under Neeme Jarvi wasn't on message in quite the same way.
Please read my other posts on Mahler songs and on Kindertotenlieder in particular. The key to understanding performances is to understand the music and its place in the wider scheme of Mahler's music. The final song, In diesem Wetter is crucial, because the storm here is NOT a pictorial representation of a storm. It's a cosmic shattering. The father has just lost two kids in the same night and in the morning he's gutted. So the music starts to clear, rising ever higher and purer til the man visualizes the kids in heaven, as if in "their mother's house". Nearly everything Mahler wrotes is about finding resolution, tansfiguaration, redemption in light and clarity. So beware anyone who thinks the song to be "exciting" or wild and noisy. They don't know their Mahler at all. Read the Proms review HERE.