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The heart has its seasons too

March 25, 2004|David Mermelstein | Special to The Times

IT's probably the rare person who looks at Matthias Goerne -- stocky, bug-eyed and buzz-cut -- and thinks: art songs. A more likely reaction would be: punk rock. But Goerne, a German baritone, is, in fact, among the era's great lieder singers, bringing sensitive, mellifluous and ardent vocalism to music by Schumann, Beethoven, Mahler and, especially, Schubert. So much for appearances.

Tonight through Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Goerne will join Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in excerpts from "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (The Youth's Magic Horn), a series of songs by Mahler based on German folk texts. Then on Monday, accompanied by pianist Alfred Brendel, he will focus his energies on "Winterreise" (Winter's Journey), Schubert's setting of 24 acid-etched poems by Wilhelm Muller, also at Disney Hall.

Juxtaposing works as disparate as "Knaben Wunderhorn" and "Winterreise" allows Goerne, who turns 37 next week, to reveal contrasting strengths. But the feat does not come without risks. "When you have to sing Mahler three times in three days, you need a day of rest," he says in good but heavily accented English. "I have to tune my voice to a different range and type of singing. In a song recital, you can go from one composer to the other effortlessly. In fact, it's essential. What's problematic is the next recital after a big opera or an orchestral concert."

And the stakes could hardly be higher here. The "Winterreise" performance with Brendel is widely considered a highlight of Disney Hall's inaugural season. Acclaimed soloists of Brendel's stature rarely serve as "mere" accompanists. Brendel has assumed this role before, but only for the late Hermann Prey and the legendary Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Given that Goerne was still in diapers when Brendel, now 73, was forging an international career, he might have found collaborating with the pianist intimidating. Not so, says Goerne, who first performed "Winterreise" with Brendel at the 1998 Edinburgh Festival.

"I've never felt like I was his student," Goerne says. "It's really a partnership. We trust each other, and we always have a fantastic time together. He's not pretentious, and I don't have to be careful around him. That's what I like. And even when we have different opinions, we always find a solution. It's a question also of respect. He's a strong personality but not stiff in his opinions."

Brendel also doesn't regard their association as unequal. "Matthias is a singer who does not need an accompanist," the pianist says. "He needs a partner who will balance him out and give him new inspiration in performance. I figured he probably could take me, and I probably could take him."

The pianist has high praise for Goerne's singing. "It's not so far the biggest voice, but in a small hall, it has great intensity," says Brendel. "He has an unusual ability to immerse himself completely in what he's doing, and he's very sure of himself, which may account for his mesmerizing security on stage. He also has fascinating eyes. They are like spotlights when he stands there, and they seem to hypnotize the audience."

Graham Johnson, the esteemed accompanist and art-song authority, also admires Goerne, whom he accompanied on an acclaimed 1996 Hyperion recording of "Winterreise."

"The quality which separates him from most other singers is his mastery of rhythm," says Johnson. "Many a fine vocalist sings more or less in time, with a haphazard amount of rubato. Goerne's innate gift is to be able to mold the music with an almost uncanny feel for the inflections of pacing you would only find in a great conductor. With Goerne, rhythm is not the prison it is to so many singers. It is a force he uses to liberate the expressivity of the vocal line."

Last October, Goerne and Brendel performed "Winterreise" in a London recital that Decca taped and has just released on CD. For Goerne, the new recording doesn't supersede the one with Johnson so much as celebrate his special partnership with Brendel.

"I compared them at home," Goerne says of the two albums. "The difference is not so enormous for me. I'm suspicious of artists who do things one way and then 20 years later completely reverse their interpretations. I think the piece is the piece. Of course, my voice has changed somewhat -- the voice gets older and hopefully richer -- and I've more experience, but the interpretation should not be subject to radical change."

There are limits to interpreting "Winterreise" -- a monument to rejection and resignation whose emotional range extends from charcoal gray to jet black -- yet generations of singers have made the work their own.

"The piece is timeless," says Goerne. "It was right when composed in 1827 and will still be right 100 years from now. It's connected with the most central things in life: love, death, sadness, joy. It's true that such music often appeals to more mature audiences, but what's wrong with that? At 60, you're still a human being, after all."

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