The odds of finding on the San Diego Arts calendar a recital devoted to German art song, also known as a Liederabend, are indeed minuscule. For those who appreciate this once popular niche of the classical music scene, the La Jolla Music Society came to the rescue Thursday pairing the seasoned German baritone Matthias Goerne with the young Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho in a transcendent German art song recital at The Conrad.
The reward of this recital proved much more than experiencing Goerne’s impassioned yet deft lieder interpretations and Cho’s formidable keyboard finesse. Their repertory choices illuminated lesser known riches of the lied: eight songs by Hans Pfitzner, Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck cycle. They topped off the evening with a set of Richard Strauss songs.
Pfitzner’s music is infrequently played outside of German-speaking countries, and his style is difficult to characterize. Although his early works are indebted to Wagnerian harmony, in the early years of the 20th century he grew into his own kind of modernist—a modernist who had a predilection for counterpoint. After all, Pfitzner’s most successful opera, Palestrina, first produced in Munich 1917, was a biography of the composer who saw himself as the champion of Renaissance polyphony.
From the songs we heard on Thursday, it is clear that Pfitzner is a crafty melodist, fitting poetry to themes that inspire or console as the text requires. However, the complexity of his piano accompaniments, realized with such strength and clarity by Cho, can overpower the song, unlike, say, the piano writing of his contemporary lieder composers Gustav Mahler and Hugo Wolff, whose accompaniments tend to support the singer with more open and lithe textures.
In “Sehnsucht” (“Yearning”), Goerne drew his listeners in with his intimate understatement of Pfitzner’s delicate phrases, while Cho supported with opalescent roulades. Yet the baritone had no qualms unleashing wild, despairing cries in “Wasserfahrt” (“Sea Journey”), poet Heinrich Heine’s lament of the lover departing his homeland and the one who rejected him. Goerne’s fervent declamation captured the poet’s world weary grief in “Abendrot” (“Sunset”), where the setting sun suggests freedom from the earthly constraints depicted in the piano’s dense harmonies.
Had Richard Wagner not had an affair with the young Mathilde Wesendonck and set five of her poems into a song cycle, it is unlikely that history would remember her literary contributions. In many decades of reviewing, I have never heard all five lieder of this cycle performed on a single recital, and Goerne’s sympathetic account of the Wesendonck Lieder made a persuasive case for the cycle. Like Goerne’s interpretation of Pfitzner’s “Sehnsucht,” his tender exposition of “Der Engel” (“The Angel”) floated through the hall casting a spell of naïve wonder. Two of the cycle’s songs are actually studies for Tristan und Isolde, the opera Wagner was composing when he set Wesendonck’s poems. “Traüme” (“Dreams”) has the drive of a compelling opera aria, and Wagner did turn it into a duet for his ill-fated lovers in Act 2 of Tristan und Isolde. I savored Cho’s enchanting account of the extended instrumental postlude to “Traüme.”
Fortunately, Goerne, who has sung several baritone and bass-baritone roles in Wagner’s operas, clearly knows the difference between the vocal approach needed for a song cycle as opposed to The Ring Cycle, and his vocal colors and exquisitely shaded dynamic range proved unfailingly well chosen for this cycle.
Goerne’s set of four Richard Strauss lieder, notably “Morgen!” (“Morning”) and “Ruhe, mine Seele!” (“Rest, my soul”) from his Opus 27, hearkened back to the simpler, more direct story telling of the lied in Schubert’s time. To close his Liederabend, Goerne chose Strauss’s valedictory lied, “Im Abendrot” from “The Four Last Songs.” Goerne imbued this final sunset with the exalted resignation Strauss first enshrined in the persona of the Marschallin from his most acclaimed opera Der Rosenkavalier.”
For their encore, the duo chose another song of confident resignation, J. S. Bach’s “Bist du bei mir”.
Before the recital began, the management communicated the artists’ request that all applause be saved for the completion of the program. Wonder of wonders–the La Jolla audience actually followed this request, and the level of concentration and deep emotional focus this gave the recital proved invaluable. I have observed on other occasions that the addiction to applause by contemporary audiences is a blight on music performances. It is impossible to enjoy, say, the complete performance of a concerto without half of the audience erupting in clamorous applause after the opening movement. I do not know if this stems from impatience on the part of certain audience members or a childish sense of entitlement. In any case, this richly rewarding recital made an eloquent case for less applause and more respectful listening.
This recital was presented by the La Jolla Music Society on Thursday, April 7, 2022, in the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in downtown La Jolla.