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Study in Bitterness

May 20, 2008

As if to mirror the state of bitterness attributed to some citizens of our country in these days, baritone Matthias Goerne and his excellent accompanist Alexander Schmalcz presented a vocal recital Saturday at Herbst Theatre that was a study in bitterness. Yet there were flashes, too, of triumph over the forces of malevolence, of the redemptive power of love, of the fierce joy in the artistic act of creation.
Michelangelo — the Renaissance sculptor, painter, and poet — took center stage in settings by two composers, while the Four Serious Songs of Johannes Brahms completed the program, given under the auspices of San Francisco Performances.

Shostakovich found in the Michelangelo poems, in a free Russian version from a German translation of the original Italian, ideas that accorded with his own life's battles. Unfortunately, the programs provided the audience with only English translations. Goerne's achievements are many, but the enunciation of Russian is not among them, and comprehension suffered. Nevertheless, he and Schmalcz brought the manifold emotions contained in this harrowing piece, called Suite on Verses of Michelangelo, blazingly to life.

Songs with names like "Truth," which reveals the poet's disdain for an audience who misunderstood his works; "Creativity," in which sharp, irregular piano chords sound like a crazed hammer and chisel attacking a block of marble; and "Immortality," the almost humorous final song of the group, in which the poet gently says, "Yet I am not dead: I have changed my dwelling" and the piano trails off into nothingness, abundantly illustrate the mind, heart, and soul of a giant among artists.
Artistic Unity
Two giants, in fact, not to mention their interpreters. The 11 songs are beautifully unified, sometimes by means of similar musical and poetic motives, sometimes because poet and composer seem to speak with one voice.

The emotional power of this little-heard work almost overshadowed the Michelangelo Lieder by Hugo Wolf, even though an intermission separated the two works. Wolf, sensitive as he was to poetry, was deeply moved by the poems given him by a friend, in a German translation. He intended to set a larger group than just three, but the tertiary stage of syphilis robbed him of his mental balance, and the remainder of his life was spent in and out of asylums, ending in a tragically early death.

Goerne showed his formidable powers of control and his refined taste in the very first line of the first song, "Wohl denk' ich oft an mein vergangnes Leben" (Quite often I think of my past life), spinning out the line in a filament of pure gold. Once again, at the end of the third song, "Fühlt meine Seele das ersehnte Licht" (Is my soul feeling the longed-for light) in the phrase "Daran sind, Herrin, deine Augen Schuld" (That, mistress, is the fault of your eyes), Goerne, who at times hunched over the piano like a tortured, demented creature, sang the most beautiful legato imaginable, linking deine and Augen. At such times, the creature had an angelic presence.

The bleakness of the Wolf songs harked back to the starkness of the Shostakovich, and anticipated the next and final set, the Four Serious Songs of Brahms. The first three are to texts from Ecclesiastes, the last from Corinthians. Brahms composed the songs late in his life, when his beloved Clara Schumann had suffered an ultimately fatal stroke.

Not for the first time did I feel an unbridgeable chasm between the almost unbearable pessimism of the first songs and the muscular uplift of the final song, which promises redemption. The set begins with funereal chords, reminiscent of some of the Shostakovich songs: Man is no better than the beast, and they both go to the same place after death. The second song is darker still: Better not to have been born at all than to live to see the evil everywhere in the world.

The third addresses death itself — "O Tod, wie bittre bist du" (O death, how bitter thou art). Bitter, that is, to the rich man whom death wrenches from his precious possessions. To the poor man who has nothing, who is "vexed with all things," death comes as a welcome release, as a friend.

Goerne and Schmalcz delivered these two songs, the heart of the set, with tenderness and deep empathy, though a dry patch in the baritone's voice on the exquisitely set "wie" ("O Tod, wie wohl tust du") made the final passage a little less loving than it should have been.

The final song sounded unavoidably preachy and almost anticlimactic after the unflinching but compassionate probing of the human soul that preceded it. Singer and pianist sounded suitably vaunting at the lines about bestowing all one's goods on the poor yet not having charity, and an especially lengthy trill on the German word for "I" (Ich) was perfectly executed by Goerne.

There was, blessedly, no encore. It was enough.

Stephanie Friedman, mezzo-soprano, is retired from more than three decades of singing in opera and concerts in the U.S. and abroad.