San Francisco Performances 2022 Review: Matthias Goerne & Seong-Jin Cho in Recital

A Wealth of Beauty & Meaning in German Romantic Lieder

By Lois Silverstein

On Saturday, April 9, 2022, San Francisco Performances presented renowned German baritone Matthias Goerne and notable prize-winning young Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho in an extraordinary concert.

The performance was like being at a mountain retreat on a distant planet, drinking distilled ambrosia while hearing rare melodies in an exotic language. Clapping nearly seemed irrelevant; how do we applaud such a spring of profound beauty, a new planetary view, and distinctive lifeblood, that we only suspected existed? And, how do we then walk out, aware that to sustain such dimension of meaning we need to enlarge our own capacity? The evening was like learning to breathe again.

Pfitzner’s Romanticism

Goerne began with six lieder by German Romantic composer Hans Pfitzner, one of many composers who experienced minimal recognition because of Hitler’s musical authoritarianism. From “Sehnsucht (Longing),” to “Nachts (Nights)” Goerne sang with the marvelous resonance for which he is celebrated. Each crescendo filled the hall, and each articulation of tone was rich and amply textured. Cho, who showed himself a consummate accompanist from the get-go, followed with a progression of powerful chords that supported the sound, adding what seemed like the foundation of a remarkable house. The palette of tones remained lyric, yet full of meaning, with one line after another intensifying the power of the themes of love, beauty and the loss that followed it. Goerne sang with perfect conviction throughout, his whole body arcing as he reached into the depths and exemplified them.

The highlight of the six Pfitzner pieces, “An die Mark (To the mark),” aptly embodies the Romantic cri de coeur, “Daß alles nur ein Traum and schmerzlich sei…Dies Land ist meine Heimat und ich bin sein Kind (All is dream and full of pain, and I must die… This land is my home and I am its child).” The musical line was firm with conviction, and I never lost track of what he sang.

“Wasserfahrt (Waterfall),” followed, the bass arpeggios establishing their dramatic ground before thinning out to delicate pianissimi. With Heine’s poem, “Es glanzt so schon die sinkende Sonne (The sinking sun shines so beautifully),” Pfitzner heightened the conflict: “Bald fließet zwischen meinem Herzen, und deinen Augen die weite See (Soon flows between my heart, and your eyes the wide sea).” Cho and Goerne presented a perfect union of words and music that were so completely in tune with each other they seemed to be two and, at the same time, one.

The final lieder, “Nachts (Nights),” followed suit, and I continued to feel as if I were overhearing an intimate conversation shared openly, a stance characteristic of much Romantic music and poetry. Cho played its luxurious opening as if inside the piano keys themselves, delivering the chromatic chords with exquisite finesse, while Goerne sang from deep within his body, his arms lifting and falling and his body bending as well. The forte chords rose and fell with complete mastery, with the legato as meticulous as the lyric upper register. Vocalist and pianist completed their lines in their own time, yet completely in unison.

Wagner’s “Wesendonck”

Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder” followed, offering the perfumed beauty of the music and text that distilled Pfitzner’s dense textures. Goerne and Cho detailed Wesendonck and Wagner’s masterpiece with both weight and a translucent film. It was as if the sublime moments were occurring then and there and for the first time. “Der Engel (Angel)” lifted the curtain to the angel in the room, while a later selection, “Träume,” showered us with the beauty of the dream. Both showed how much finesse could come from power and sublimity from depth.

The highlight of the cycle was “Im Treibhaus (In the Hothouse).” The redolent jungle atmosphere was dense and thick. Goerne’s tones were luxuriant while he proffered the down-to-earth aspect of the question the speaker asks, “Saget mir, warum ihr klagt? (Tell me, why do you lament?)” Goerne evinced more vocal sensuousness as he proceeded; the elision of spaces between the words contributing to the power of vowels gliding into each other, creating a flowing stream, while maintaining distinctness. The powerful and heightened forte on “Glanze (Shine),” climaxed that process, pulling even more beauty and richness out of the somnolent state of being. The finale returned the audience to the opening melodic line, increasing the poignancy of the whole scene, and was velvety and languorous.

The artists’ parallel process reminded me of how human beings can transcend their own limits if they pay attention. This idea reappeared in “Schmerzen (Agonies),” with its fortissimo phrases and powerful octaves. The song’s conclusion, with its quiet decrescendo, created a moving suspension throughout the hall.

The Finale: Strauss

The final third of the performance featured music by Richard Strauss, with the luxuriousness of his lied emphasized and easily accessible. “Traum durch die Dämmerung,” lyrical in its chromatic ascent and descent but with an almost folk-like melody, set the stage. The song’s text was at once human yet divine; “I do not walk quickly, I do not hurry, a soft, velvet ribbon draws me…” Once again, the lyrical caress of Goerne’s every word and Cho’s gentle touch at the keyboard created a seamless dream.

“Ruhe, meine Seele! (Rest my soul!),” a classic Strauss lied, was a gorgeous poem that announced the connection of nature to the human soul, with the storms and the rages now connected to the possibility of peace and calm. “Deine Stürme gingen wild, hast getobt und hast gezittert, wie die Brandung, wenn sie schwillt! (Your storms were wild, you raged, and you quivered, like the breakers, when they surge!)” But as the poet urged rest “… und vergiß, was dich bedroht! (… and forget what threatens you),” the musicians performed at a perfectly harmonized lento pace. The text remained a quiet and restrained admonition that moved from the purely lyrical into an acknowledgment of how one might consciously live.

Strauss’s “Im Abentrot (At Sunset)” concluded with that same view. The texture of the piano, lush trills, declarative chords, dispensation of truths, and Goerne’s plaintive “Wie sind wir wandermüde—ist dies etwa der Tod?… (How tired we are of traveling—is this perchance death?),” if a bit too slow at moments, wrapped a spell around the audience, one which was not easily forgotten.

After a friend asked me to ensure the memorial for his eventual death featured this beautiful lied of Strauss’, I realized that what I had savored of the song until then gave me a deeper appreciation of the piece. Strauss’ captivating lied resonated as I left the hall. Somber, haunting, and eloquent, standing as a tribute to life, its rapture, and its pain. Surrounded by serious beauty, the rapture of the evening transcended even its more sober aspects. Indeed, exquisite musical art helps deepen all we value.


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