Saturday, April 28, 2012

On A Gander

I never heard Elisabeth Schwarzkopf or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in recital, but persons who attended Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau recitals have told me that both artists maintained restrained stage presences, communicating with their voices and their eyes.

(My parents missed Schwarzkopf, but they once heard Fischer-Dieskau in recital; my parents say they did not catch the great singer on a good night.)

The issue of stage deportment in recital is an important one, because faulty stage presentation can undercut—and sometimes even destroy—the songs presented.

German baritone Matthias Goerne presented a recital in Saint Paul on Wednesday night, and my parents and Joshua and I attended the recital.

Goerne paced about the stage of The Ordway all evening, like a singer trying to hit his marks on the opera stage. When not on a gander around the stage, Goerne buried his head in his scores or glared at his pianist, Leif Ove Andsnes, for minutes at a time. Goerne, a student of Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau, apparently did not learn much about stage deportment from the two most respected recitalists of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

Goerne, an estimable singer, basically lost me because of his onstage antics. It is my suspicion that Goerne was trying to “heighten” the recital experience by providing visual cues for the expressions of torment in the songs on the program. Alas, Goerne would have been far better off to allow his voice and eyes, alone, to represent the expressions of torment in the songs (and Goerne indeed has very expressive eyes)—and to leave “acting” during vocal recitals to the British.

Goerne further lost me by using scores. Recitalists must always memorize their song selections—this is one of the ironclad rules of the recital platform—because the covenant between singer and audience is that the songs on offer have been internalized by the singer to such an extent that the songs are part of the singer’s being. If a singer has not memorized particular songs, the songs should not appear on programs; if a singer has memorization problems, he should not embark upon a career as recitalist.

Goerne possesses a beautiful and distinctive voice, but he is undeniably somewhat of an oddball—The Wall Street Journal reports that Goerne, when dining out, sends food back to the kitchen without first tasting it—and it was Goerne’s oddball behavior that provided the essence of his Wednesday night recital. It proved impossible to get beyond the loopy manner in which Goerne presented both himself and the music.

The program—which was not the program originally announced when tickets had gone on sale last year—was as odd as Goerne’s presentation: a constant back-and-forth switching between songs of Mahler and Shostakovich. Goerne sang six random excerpts from Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn, two random excerpts from Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and two random excerpts from Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, all interspersed with six random excerpts from Shostakovich’s Suite On Verses From Michelangelo Buonarroti—all performed out of sequence. It was as if Goerne had assembled his recital program by playing a Mahler/Shostakovich compact disc in shuffle mode—and, having loved the bizarre results, had wanted to replicate the experience in performance.

There were two insurmountable problems with such a boneheaded concept: the songs of Shostakovich are so inferior to the songs of Mahler that the Shostakovich songs simply evaporated when sung, isolated, amongst Mahler songs; and Mahler’s Rückert songs are so superior to the Kindertotenlieder songs, which in turn are so superior to the Wunderhorn songs, that Mahler songs MUST be sung by order of date of composition if they are to have any effect.

Wednesday evening was, in consequence, a grotesque evening in the recital hall, the kind of evening that looks gruesome on paper and proves to be even worse in execution. I am surprised that Andsnes, who did not look happy, went along with such a deviant program.

I believe that vocal recitals are becoming a lost art. Other than Wolfgang Holzmair and Angelika Kirschlager (both Austrian), is there a competent recitalist today?

Current audiences are faced with a conundrum: they want to hear today’s leading singers—but they do not necessarily want to experience evenings “organized and presented by an uneducated airhead with behavioral problems and pseudo-intellectual pretensions”, which is how my father described Goerne.

There was a sizable crowd in Saint Paul on Wednesday evening, and the audience was entirely attentive and well-behaved—if justifiably muted in its response.

Ourselves, we might have been better off returning this particular dish to the kitchen, untasted.

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