SCHUBERT: Nacht und Träume; Der blinde Knabe; Hoffnung; Totengräberweise; Tiefes Lied; Greisengesang; Totengräbers Heimweh; An den Mond; Die Mainacht; An Silvia; Ständchen; Der Schiffer und der Reiter; Die Sommernacht; Erntelied; Herbstlied; Der liebliche Stern; An die Geliebte.
Matthias Goerne (baritone); Alexander Schmalcz (piano).
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902063 TT: 60:40.

Stunning. Schubert published two major song cycles during his life. However, he also wrote a ton of individual songs, roughly 600, which singers have loved to collect into coherent recitals. I've heard all-Schubert recitals and mini-recitals consisting of his Goethe songs, songs on classical Greek themes, songs about death (there was a fun evening), songs of nature, and so on. Matthias Goerne, one of today's highest-profile Lieder singers, has gathered Schubert songs under the rubric "Nacht und Träume" (night and dreams). I should point out that not every song links to the title. Some of the texts actually take place during the day and not all of them refer to dreams. At least the tag doesn't go as far as the note writer, the French opera dramaturge Christophe Christi, who in the album essay "La mort est viennoise" (death is Viennese), apparently sees death in every song -- demonstrably not true of songs like "An Silvia" and "Ständchen" ("Horch, horch, die Lerch"). Most of his observations, by the way, are typical Euro-gas, evoking grand concepts without much grounding in the objects at hand. I have no idea why Harmonia Mundi found this essay illuminating or helpful.

Generally, the songs Goerne has chosen come from relatively obscure corners of Schubert's catalogue. Indeed, I didn't know most of them before. Every single one amazed me. Christi makes one brilliant point: that Schubert discovered and mined a particularly phantasmal, grotesque vein in some of the "death" songs. We see this at the very beginning of Schubert's songwriting (when he had written only slightly over 200 songs), in "Erlkönig." Mussorgsky and Mahler followed up in works like Songs and Dances of Death and "Revelge." But the audacity, aggressiveness, and grotesquerie of those works are already present in Schubert's "Totengräbers Heimweh" (gravedigger's homesickness), where the piano conjures up savage, furious digging.

I didn't think anybody could surpass Simon Keenlyside's Brahms-Schumann recital on Sony, but I believe Goerne has done it. Just think! Two fabulous song-recital CDs in one year -- from baritones, yet. Goerne studied with Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf, among others, and he, along with Keenlyside, has graduated into their class. He has absolutely mastered legato and the subtle chiaroscuro of the singing line. He declaims poetry beautifully, with a sure feel for structure and sense. I don't know how well he'd do on an opera stage, since I can't tell the size of his voice or how well he acts in general, but he's Olivier when he sings. He can evoke a range of emotions in a single song and, unlike Fischer-Dieskau at times, does so without emphasizing the artifice of it. His voice can shout, rasp, mourn, console, dance, and just about anything other than scat.

Of course, no singer reaches such heights alone. He needs a great accompanist. Goerne gets one in Alexander Schmalcz, a name new to me. These two are so in synch that it sounds, as with a folk singer, like Goerne accompanies himself. Terrific.

(June 2011)