San Francisco 2022 performance review: Matthias Goerne and Seong-Jin Cho in recital

On Saturday, April 9, 2022, San Francisco Performances presented acclaimed German baritone Matthias Goerne and remarkable young, award-winning Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho in an extraordinary concert.

The performance was like being in a mountain retreat on a distant planet, drinking distilled ambrosia while listening to rare melodies in an exotic language. Applauding seemed almost out of place; how to applaud a source of such profound beauty, a new planetary vision and a distinctive life force, of which we only suspected the existence? And, how do we come out of it then, aware that to maintain such a dimension of meaning, we must expand our own capacity? The evening was like learning to breathe again.

Pfitzner’s Romanticism

Goerne began with six songs by German Romantic composer Hans Pfitzner, one of many composers who enjoyed minimal recognition due to Hitler’s musical authoritarianism. From “Sehnsucht (Desire)” to “Nachts (Nights)”, Goerne sang with the wonderful resonance for which he is famous. Each crescendo filled the room, and each articulation of tone was rich and ample texture. Cho, who proved to be an accomplished accompanist from the start, followed with a powerful chord progression that backed the sound, adding what seemed like the basis of a remarkable house. The tonal palette remains lyrical, yet full of meaning, with line after line intensifying the power of the themes of love, beauty and loss that followed it. Goerne sang with perfect conviction throughout, his whole body curving as he reached for the depths and illustrated them.

The climax of Pfitzner’s six plays, “An die Mark (To the mark),” aptly embodies the romantic heartfelt cry, “Daß alles nur ein Traum and schmerzlich sei… Dies Land ist meine Heimat und ich bin sein Kind ( Everything is dreamy and full of pain, and I must die… This land is my home and I am its child). The musical line was firm with conviction, and I never lost track of what he was singing.

“Wasserfahrt (Cascade), followed, bass arpeggios establishing their dramatic ground before thinning out into delicate pianissimi. With Heine’s poem, “Es glanzt so schon die sinkende Sonne (The setting sun shines so beautifully)”, Pfitzner intensified the conflict: “Bald fließet zwischen meinem Herzen, und deinen Augen die weite See (Soon flows between my heart and your eyes the great sea) Cho and Goerne presented a perfect union of words and music that were so completely in tune with each other that they seemed to be two and, at the same time, one.

The final lieder, “Nachts (Nights),” followed suit, and I continued to feel like I was hearing an openly shared intimate conversation, a position characteristic of much romantic music and poetry. Cho played her luxurious overture as if she were inside the piano keys themselves, delivering the chromatic chords with exquisite finesse, while Goerne sang from deep within her body, her arms rising and falling and her body also folding. The forte chords rise and fall with perfect control, the legato as meticulous as the lyrical upper register. The singer and pianist completed their lines at their own pace, but completely in unison.

Wagner’s “Wesendonck”

Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder” followed, offering the fragrant beauty of music and text that distilled Pfitzner’s dense textures. Goerne and Cho detailed Wesendonck and Wagner’s masterpiece with both weight and translucent film. It was as if the sublime moments were happening on the spot and for the first time. ‘Der Engel (Angel)’ lifted the curtain on the angel in the room, while a later selection, ‘Träume’, showered us with the beauty of the dream. Both showed how finesse can come from power and sublimity from depth.

The climax of the cycle was “Im Treibhaus (in the hothouse)”. The fragrant atmosphere of the jungle was dense and thick. Goerne’s tones were lush as he offered the down-to-earth aspect of the speaker’s question: “Saget mir, warum ihr klagt?” (Tell me, why are you lamenting?) Goerne showed more vocal sensuality as he went on; the elision of spaces between words contributes to the power of vowels sliding into each other, creating a smooth flow, while maintaining distinction. The powerful and heightened highlight of “Glanze (Shine)”, culminated this process, drawing even more beauty and richness from the sleepy state. The finale sent the audience back to the opening melodic line, heightening the poignancy of the whole scene, and was velvety and languorous.

The artists’ parallel process reminded me of how human beings can transcend their own limitations if they pay attention. This idea reappeared in “Schmerzen (Agonies)”, with its fortissimo phrases and powerful octaves. The song’s conclusion, with its quiet decrescendo, created a moving suspension throughout the room.

The finale: Strauss

The last third of the performance featured music by Richard Strauss, with the luxury of his accented and easily accessible lied. “Traum durch die Dämmerung”, lyrical in its chromatic ascent and descent but with an almost folkloric melody, set the scene. The song text was both human and divine; “I don’t walk fast, I don’t hurry, a soft velvet ribbon pulls me in…” Once again, Goerne’s lyrical caress of every word and Cho’s soft keyboard created a seamless dream.

“Ruhe, meine Seele!” (Rest my soul!),” a classic Strauss lied, was a beautiful poem that heralded the connection between nature and the human soul, with storms and rages now tied to the possibility of peace and calm. “Deine Stürme gingen wild, hast getobt und hast gezittert, wie die Brandung, wenn sie schwillt! (Your storms were wild, you raged and trembled, like the breakers, when they break!)” But as the poet urged rest “… und vergiß, was dich bedroht! (…and forget what threatens you)”, the musicians played to a perfectly harmonized lento rhythm. The text remained a calm, restrained warning that moved from purely lyrical to an acknowledgment of how one can live consciously.

Strauss’ “Im Abentrot (At Sunset)” concluded with this same view. The texture of the piano, the lush trills, the declarative chords, the dispensation of truths, and the plaintive “Wie sind wir wandermüde—ist dies etwa der Tod?… (As we are weary of travelling—is this perhaps death? ) a bit too slow at times, wrapped a spell around the audience, one that wasn’t easily forgotten.

After a friend asked me to ensure that the memorial of his eventual death featured this beautiful Strauss lied, I realized that what I had savored of the song up to that point gave me an appreciation deeper in the room. Strauss’ captivating lie echoed as I left the room. Dark, haunting and eloquent, standing tall as a tribute to life, its rapture and pain. Surrounded by serious beauty, the rapture of the evening transcended even its more understated aspects. Indeed, exquisite musical art helps to deepen all that we appreciate.

About Dwaine Pinson

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