Pianist-conductor Christoph Eschenbach and German baritone Matthias… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
"Sublime Schubert" is what the Los Angeles Philharmonic is calling this week of Schubert and nothing but. The festival began at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Monday night with a performance of the most beloved song cycle, "Die Schöne Müllerin," by possibly history's most beloved composer.
And, yes, the scorching performance from baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Christoph Eschenbach was sublime, but not in the sense of a heavenly destination occasionally reached by way of the ridiculous. In chemistry, "sublime" forms a verb describing the process of converting a solid to a gas without an intermediate liquid stage.
That is what happened to Goerne. He simply vanished. He changed, before our eyes and ears, from beefy baritone to a ghost. He sang the cycle's 20 songs not to beguile us with Schubert's incomparable lyricism, but to unnerve us with their poetic sentiment. After nearly 80 minutes, he left the audience in a moment of stunned silence.
When Goerne finally allowed applause, he got it, and deserved it. But it was an almost dazed applause. Something in the air had changed. People left the hall far more quietly than is customary. This was not so much sublime as subliminal Schubert.
Goerne and Eschenbach are the guest artists of the festival, which includes chamber music, the song cycle "Winterriese" on Wednesday and weekend L.A. Phil performances of orchestral songs and the Ninth Symphony, conducted by Eschenbach.
This is a good time for a Schubert week. It is easy to see Schubert all around us. During the last week of March, the BBC loaded its classical radio station with Schubert's music and programs about the composer. Philip Glass, so prominent having turned 75 on Jan. 31, told The Times last summer that Schubert is his favorite composer (and they share that birthday!).
Samuel Beckett, so hard to please, was pleased by Schubert more than by any other composer. "Beckett Schubert" is a fruitful Google search, coming up with more than 1 million results.
And given the unprecedented Beckettian intensity Goerne brought to "Schöne Müllerin" on Monday, it is unfortunate that the L.A. Phil and Center Theatre Group, which is currently staging "Waiting for Godot" across the street, didn't somehow make a Music Center meal of Beckett and Schubert.
Indeed, what a magnificent "Godot" pair Goerne and Eschenbach are. Goerne, like Estragon, struggles to articulate something deep inside him. At the piano, Eschenbach is the seemingly, on the surface, more collected Vladimir. But a force we don't quite understand is clearly at play.
The texts of the 20 songs concern a miller's apprentice and his infatuation with a beautiful miller's daughter (the schöne müllerin). She falls for a hunter. The romantic young apprentice drowns himself. The stream that powers the mill is the indisputable force of nature.
An existential baritone, Goerne seemed, from the first song, a goner. He waited for love as fruitlessly as Estragon waits for Godot. He sang from inside. His arms didn't always look connected to the rest of his body. In the piano postludes and between songs, he looked as though he might crawl inside the piano.
But Goerne is also a powerful singer and presence. The dramatic songs were operatic in their force and crushing in their impact. The introspective songs might have been sung from the grave.
Although best known as a conductor, Eschenbach began his career as a pianist who had a special feeling for Schubert. His 1970s recordings of the piano sonatas (long, alas, out of print) displayed a hypnotic rhythmic animation that connected the 19th century to modern music. He is also perhaps the finest pianist today that any singer could work with. There is full evidence of that in a profound new Harmonia Mundi recording from Goerne and Eschenbach of Schubert's late song cycle, "Schwanengesang" that adds, as a bonus, Eschenbach's otherworldly performance of Schubert's B-Flat Piano Sonata.
At Disney, Eschenbach's crystalline tone set the scene for Goerne to embody the sunken spirit of Schubert. It was an absolutely terrifying performance. And a terrifyingly great one.