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Presense and Future 

Thursday, Apr 8 2004
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Matthias Goerne, who has spent some quality time with us at Disney Hall over the past two weeks, is a transfixing musical presence. As dramatic baritones go, he is at 37 barely dry behind the ears, but he has already taken his place in a distinguished dynasty. In my time that dynasty has included such names as Friedrich Schorr, Hans Hotter and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; their musical line extends from the role of Jesus in the two Bach Passions, Mozart’s Count Almaviva and Papageno, Schubert’s song cycles, Wagner’s Wotan and, of more recent vintage, Berg’s Wozzeck: noble palaces built for noble inhabitants. Goerne came to us first in 1998, in a remarkable recital of music that he has widely championed, the biting satire mingled with personal pain of Hanns Eisler’s Hollywood Songbook, mostly to the words of Bertolt Brecht, high art carved out of monumental venom by two of our most ungrateful refugees.

On this visit Goerne came with even higher artistic goods, two days apart. First there was an hour’s worth of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonic — a glorious assemblage from Romanticism’s final sputter, a companion-in-kind to the nose-thumbing Shostakovich Ninth, which shared the program — and Schubert’s Winterreise with pianist Alfred Brendel. Those two offerings, along with the memory of the Eisler program (available on Decca at one time, although you never know anymore), make an interesting sequence: tense, human portraits, their sporadic flashes of humor nearly always defeated at reality’s doorstep. Might not the starving child of Mahler’s “Das Irdische Leben” be equally at home amid the howling dogs of Schubert’s nameless village, or abandoned in one of Eisler’s garbage-strewn alleys?

We associate Winterreise with dark voices. The tragedy in the poetry, and the resonances that fill the silences in Schubert’s harrowing music, make this an automatic reaction. Most of Schubert’s singers, however, were tenors; baritones and basses must sing his music transposed from their original keys; so much for “authenticity.” The real difference comes with piano sonority; transposed down to lower keys, the sound necessarily thickens. The special quality of Goerne’s collaboration with Brendel last Monday was the balance, the lightness of the piano, even in lower tonalities, against the outgoing drama in Goerne’s singing. Comparing his performance at Disney Hall with his 1996 recording with Graham Johnson, part of Hyperion’s encyclopedic Schubert collection — as I was inspired to do later that night — you hear pretty much what you expect to hear. That, too, is an intensely moving performance by a 30-year-old singer fully aware of the richness and beauty of his voice, not yet fully confident about using its full power, but already fully responsive to the human tragedy of poet Wilhelm Müller’s irony-beset misanthrope. The growth of Goerne’s power between that recording and his performance last week is reason enough to welcome his presence — and his future — as one of the great singing artists of our time.

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The late Pauline Kael, who, you might as well know, was my favorite critic in all the arts, coined one of the phrases that I live by, the notion that an observer might conceivably “admire but not like” a work of art. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, which the Master Chorale inflicted upon a large and apparently ecstatic audience at Disney Hall last week, heads my “admire but not like” list and, I think, always has. There are no extenuating explanations for my dislike of the work. Beethoven had not run out of steam; there are the five late string quartets to prove that, full of original and beautiful ideas, and fugues — great, hair-raising fugues that challenge the imagination even now. The Missa Solemnis, on the other foot, is full of truly dreadful fugues, stuff that even Handel wouldn’t have handled.

Aware throughout his life of the value of a fast buck, Beethoven turned out plenty of potboilers that his most fervent proponents try to stay away from in order to preserve his reputation — a piano sonata here, a violin sonata there, an overture, some variations, even a couple of big choral numbers. (Heard Das Glorreiche Augenblick lately?) But a 90-minute Solemn Mass, dating from those last prodigious years of the Ninth Symphony and all those other good works — with a media premiere in the offing and with archdukes and archbishops waiting in the wings, and with trumpets and drums at the end heralding the cause of Peace on Earth — was something the world could not ignore in those halcyon days of post-Napoleonic bliss. “From the heart to the heart” Beethoven had penned on his manuscript, and this seemed enough to obliterate notice of those limping melodic lines, those Amen choruses with textures like wet paper towels, and with fugues that, like the proverbial snake, persisted in swallowing their own tails.

Grant Gershon led his 100-member chorus and a fair-sized orchestra in a decent approximation of the music, for what it was. The vocal quartet — Elissa Johnston, Paula Rasmussen, Stanford Olsen and Ron Li-Paz — did wander off pitch in their solo section of the “Sanctus,” but that might have been out of exasperation with what had come just before. Beethoven being Beethoven, and supporting audiences for choral organizations tending toward rather churchly tastes, it’s probably inevitable that the Missa Solemnis makes its turgid way into the schedule every decade or so. If you find yourself leaving the next performance surprisingly unsatisfied for reasons you can’t quite explain, take it as a sign of growing up.

Thanks to friends in medium-high places, I have come by a video of The Tempest, Thomas Adès’ new opera produced by London’s Royal Opera and broadcast by the BBC in mid-February, and it is a work of extraordinary beauty. Meredith Oakes wrote the text, freely and imaginatively built from Shakespeare’s outlines; Adès himself conducted the marvelous performance, with Simon Keenlyside as the Prospero and an amazing coloratura soprano, Cyndia Seaden, as an Ariel who is truly a creature of light and air. The music is like nothing of Adès I have previously heard; it has a soft luster that seems at times both old and new; at moments of particular poetic elegance it moves with a gentle syncopation called hemiola that Henry Purcell also used most eloquently. A final ensemble, set in that rhythm, leaves you dizzy with delight. When may we have it here, please?

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