Recital singing is a serious business with Matthias Goerne, and he insists on serious listening from his audience. At his superb recital of Robert Schumann lieder Thursday in Ravinia's Martin Theatre, he was quick to pick out patrons who dared allow their attention to wander. The songs demanded everyone's total absorption. Goerne could give them nothing less. He is a great and true lieder singer, perhaps the finest of his generation.
The young German baritone, who was marking both his Ravinia and Chicago-area concert debuts, is well known to record collectors and European connoisseurs of song singing. But he has yet to achieve household word status over here. If this were Salzburg, London or New York, the place would have been packed; as it turned out, only about half of the theater's 900 seats were filled. At least the listeners who did attend showed their appreciation vociferously throughout the evening.
Goerne and his wonderfully supportive pianist, Christoph Eschenbach, could easily have programmed a well-known song cycle; instead, they took their audience on an adventure through some of the more esoteric corners of the Schumann song catalogue. If many of the poets who furnished the texts were familiar, most of the songs were not. The recital was given over to miscellaneous songs, except for the inclusion of the Opus 89 (texts by Wilfried von der Neun) and Opus 90 (Nikolaus Lenau) lieder. Not until encore time did the audience hear any Schumann lieder they knew.
This repertory is German Romanticism at its most romantic, and it was hard not to think of Goerne a thinking man's musician, wise beyond his 34 years as a Byronic poet himself. With his brooding gaze, introspective manner and warm, soft-grained baritone, he certainly looks and sounds the part.
His timbre is rounded rather than penetrating; like that of his great former teacher, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, it takes on a harder edge when expressing anger or passion. He sings with a deep sensitivity to the way music and poetry intersect on a spiritual level. He cares about the meanings of words but never fusses over them or wrenches the vocal line apart in search of emotional "meaning."
Each song was its own self-contained world of expression, sincerely addressed to the audience and completed by the caring, deeply musical collaboration of Eschenbach at the keyboard. This is not to say everything was a miniature masterpiece. Some of the poetry verged on the trite and mawkish, and Schumann's late songs are far from his best. All this made Goerne's success that much more impressive. His supreme interpretive intelligence and vocal beauty went far towards offsetting the monotony of hearing so many melancholy, minor-key songs in succession.
Goerne nailed his listeners to the backs of their chairs with the macabre ballad "Loewenbraut," which he evoked in a great dramatic crescendo. Yet he achieved his most raptly beautiful vocalism in slow, quiet songs such as "Zum Schluss" and "Nachtlied," where his mezza voce singing exquisitely captured the mood of otherworldly stillness. Here, as elsewhere, Eschenbach's piano felt like a natural extension of the voice.
As for the familiar Schumann encores, they were "Du bist wie eine Blume" and "Widmung," both gloriously sung and a rarity, "Requiem," another of the Opus 90 lieder. Now that Goerne has conquered Ravinia, it's high time for Symphony Center to make good on the "debut" recital he was to have sung there several seasons ago.