Most Philadelphians spent February 4, 2018, occupied with a certain sporting event. But a rarefied group of music lovers trekked 40 miles from Center City for a markedly different yet equally august occasion. Call it the Lieder Bowl: a recital of German and Russian songs performed by baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Daniil Trifonov at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey.
It doesn’t happen every day that the world’s leading exponent of song literature gives a concert in our own backyard. Even more rarely does he bring the pianist regularly touted as the greatest of his generation as accompanist.
But Trifonov — who curated the event as part of his role as Carnegie Hall’s artist-in-residence — found himself ensconced in a tradition of star instrumentalists playing second fiddle to great singers. (The program will be repeated at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday, February 6, 2018).
Hold your applause
Although Trifonov received top billing, Goerne set the tone. He sang the five lieder groups on the printed program with barely a breath separating them, eschewing traditional applause breaks between sets. When the audience showed their appreciation after the first piece, Berg’s Vier Lieder, Op. 2 — performed with astonishing textual clarity and a seemingly limitless legato line — he held out a hand to stop them, looking almost annoyed.
Goerne has always been an idiosyncratic artist. He sometimes projects a tone of painful severity that resembles his most famous operatic role, Berg’s tortured Wozzeck. At times during the Berg set and the long, discursive Dichterliebe of Robert Schumann, he wildly contorted his stolid frame; it seemed almost as if he was preparing to jump inside Trifonov’s Steinway. He clearly viewed the selections as a single narrative akin to Schubert’s Winterreise or Die schöne Müllerin, prompting his disdain toward the mood-breaking applause.
But any consistent sense of a unified arc was lost on me. Bits and pieces emerged scattershot: Goerne sang both Wolf’s and Shostakovich’s settings of sonnets by Michelangelo; these songs, along with Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge, consider the entwined relationship of religious belief and the afterlife.
The Brahms songs have been part of Goerne’s core repertoire for more than 20 years. Despite his unparalleled insight into the words, their continued presence on his programs has become something of a party trick.
The 16 Schumann lieder proved the afternoon’s highlight. They were also the most incongruous entry. Goerne’s sound has grown and darkened since the beginning of his career; he now easily commands almost bass-like depth. This served him well as the cycle progressed toward its melancholy conclusion, which chronicles the painful conclusion of a chaste affair. He summoned rage and pity for “Die alten, bösen Lieder” (“The old, angry songs”), in which the speaker demands “a great coffin” to bury his disillusioned love.
But Goerne’s vocal intensity seemed out of place among the lighter songs that open the cycle. In particular, his reading of the sprightly “Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne” (“The Rose, the Lily, the Dove, the Sun") lacked buoyancy. It was hard to believe he could shed his wellspring of anguish, if even for a moment.
Trifonov, however, shone firmly throughout the set. Schumann enjoys toying with tonality, with melodic lines left frustratingly unresolved. Here, Trifonov showed how musical ideas from one song manifest themselves elsewhere in the cycle, as when the repeated notes of “Die Rose” return with a mournful inflection in “Ich grolle nicht” (“I bear no grudge”). He used the pedal sparingly throughout the cycle, producing a pure Romantic sound.
Few contemporary artists approach the probing intelligence of this pair. Even when their sense of narrative feels more enforced than authentic, you sense that their choices are made to serve the songs. The small but appreciative Princeton audience — many decked out in Eagles apparel — floated home on a cloud of beautiful music, ready to watch their beloved team finally clasp the coveted Super Bowl ring.