Music Reviews

Interview:  The Art of Baritone Matthias Goerne

March, 2003

Jason Serinus


Matthias Goerne's reputation as perhaps the most probing and beautifully voiced male art song interpreter on today's stages has generated great interest in his concerts, operatic appearance and recordings. At age 35, the German baritone has already received four Grammy nominations for his Decca recordings. Goerne's first nomination was for his role in Braunfel's delightful opera, Die Vogel (The Birds), the second for his Schumann song recital accompanied by Vladimir Ashkenazy, and the third for the Hollywood Songbook of Hans Eisler. The Eisler also won the Gramophone vocal award for the year of its issue. Goerne's most recent Grammy was for his recording of Bach Cantatas with Roger Norrington.

Two years ago, I had the privilege of conducting a phone interview with Matthias Goerne. The baritone was in Brussels at the time, gracuiysky speaking at midnight after concluding a rehearsal of Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte and Schubert's Schwanengesang with pianist Alfred Brendel. That interview, located in the archives of Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity, contains much information about Goerne's background, training, and early career. More biographical information on the artist can be found at and, for German speakers, at  

In March 2003, the baritone returned to San Francisco's Herbst Theater for a series of three Schubert recitals. San Francisco was the only U.S. city in which Goerne performed all three of Schubert's major song collections plus Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte in a single week. The opportunity to hear closely spaced live performances of these four pinnacles of German art song collections is a rarity in the 21st century, let alone in the United States.

Equally rare was the profundity of Goerne's artistry, and the sheer beauty of his voice. Sponsored by San Francisco Performances, Goerne received beautiful support from his usual accompanist, Eric Schneider. The duo began on March 4 with Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin song cycle, a recording of which they released on Decca in the fall of 2002. On March 6, they preceded Schubert's fourteen Schwanengesang with Beethoven's six An die ferne Geliebte. The series concluded on March 8 with Schubert's great Winterreise song cycle. 

On March 4, two and a half hours before Goerne took to the stage for his first recital, we began an animated face-to-face interview. Below is the transcript of our extended conversation. 

Jason Serinus: On April 3-5, you're performing eight songs from Mahler's song cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The conductor is Ingo Metzmacher, conductor of the Hamburg Opera and Philharmonic. Your Decca recording of the orchestral cycle with Barbara Bonney and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Chailly, has already been released in Europe, and is slated for imminent release in the United States.

What does this music say to you?

Matthias Goerne: In the end, the music is much more important than the text. In the fusion with the music, the music is the winner.

The cycle has to do with the period when the music was written. Mahler was trying to find a subject and texts to express what he was feeling about the military situation. It was the beginning of military build-up in Europe, when the military got bigger and bigger and stronger and stronger.

Mahler was trying to criticize the growing militarism, but his creation was not strong enough. It was impossible in this period of music to make the kind of criticism in music that was later possible for Berg, Schoenberg, Eisler, Weill and Brecht. Their statements are much stronger, and the meaning of their texts is so combined with the music.

For me, Des Knaben Wunderhorn is the most fantastic piece in the entire baritone orchestral song repertoire. But this has to do more with the music's entertainment value, and the emotions inside the music, than with the texts. The words are incredible, but in the end, the climax of the harmonies is so strong that everyone forgets what you are telling them. This is not the case with Schubert or Schumann; it is special to Mahler's music.

JS: Do you find this true with all of Mahler's lieder?

MG: The Kindertotenlieder are different. They're more like chamber music. And the story is so depressive and full of sadness that the music and the text are close to each other.

JS: What about Das Lied von der Erde? 

MG: This is especially true for the Lied von der Erde and the Wayfarer Songs. For me, the text isn't important in the Wayfarer; it's just the music. You know, it's “Tzng, tzng, tzng . . .”; it doesn't mean anything to me. It's childhood memories. I could sing “La, la, la,” and it would have the same effect for me.

The Lied von der Erde is more an aesthetic thing, an emotional expression. It's not really necessary to have a story line in order to express the kinds of things Mahler wished to say. This is very different than Berg's Wozzeck. That opera is so concrete, totally timeless. The story was written about 200 years ago, yet it's totally brand new all the time. You can do it in France or the United States, but the human conflict inside the piece is so enormous and present all over the world that it is relevant everywhere. This is the difference between music in this period, and the period in which Mahler wrote.

JS: Is there much documentation of Mahler's anti-war stance, or is that too strong a characterization for how he felt disturbed by the growing militarism?

MG: In the end, Mahler had no influence. And he was definitely not strong enough as a composer to express this combination of feeling. He's one of the greatest composers, and I love his music. Nobody composed more orchestral pieces for the baritone voice than Mahler.

It is difficult to say why he was so interested in composing these texts, to find a harmonic system and melodies for this kind of text, because in the end it is not really strong, for me. It is fantastic, piece by piece.

It's also difficult to come up with a running order for the piece. You can take one out, and you can have six pieces or seven. You have to decide everything by yourself, and it's quite difficult to find the running order, to have a kind of structure step by step, so that each piece follows from the one that precedes it. This is always difficult for me, and it's difficult to say what it all means in the end. Of course, piece by piece, the meaning is quite clear. But is an enormous group. All 14 songs for soprano, baritone and orchestra amount to at least 70 or 75 minute of music.

JS: I don't listen to Des Knaben Wunderhorn that often because of the militaristic nature of some of the songs.

MG: It was against the military. Mahler spoke with sadness of the military life of a soldier - you have to give up your girlfriend and your family, and you lose everything, and you're always far away from your country and friends. But Mahler's criticism is always quiet and soft. The settings are so beautiful musically that they kill the effect of the texts. 

JS: As far as I'm concerned, the beauty of Mahler's music is enough of a draw. But for the folks who may only read this piece because they like your picture or something like that, what do you want to say about the eight Des Knaben Wunderhorn baritone songs you're performing in Boston?

MG: Go to the concert, listen to the music. It's much better than what you usually hear on classical radio stations.

JS: You're performing Schubert's Schwanengesang in San Francisco. Do you change the order of those songs as well?

MG: This is the same problem. It's not possible to say that the Schwanengesang mean more to me than the Wunderhorn songs, because they're so different.

Schwanengesang isn't a cycle; it's a collection of songs left unpublished at the time of Schubert's death. The running order was arbitrarily determined by the editor. I think Schubert tried to create two or three cycles, at least two, with the fourteen songs: one with the Rellstab pieces, one with the Heine poems. Perhaps “Die Taubenpost,” the only song by a different composer, was meant as the start of a third cycle.

The pieces are so close to each emotionally. They always depict some kind of sadness because the singer is missing somebody or missing the love or missing a contact. It's much easier to organize these groups in a good running order.

I perform “Die Taubenpost” as an encore because it doesn't mix with the other songs. It's quite difficult to start with it, with its kind of walking rhythm, and then go on to the “Liebesbotschaft.” So I start with the “Liebesbotschaft,” adopting the usual running order for the Rellstab and Heine songs.

In San Francisco, I will start the evening with Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte. It's quite a problematic piece, because it's always hard to find the right place for it in a mixed program of Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann. The piece is so strong and difficult that you usually can't start with it. But if you end with it, its effect is so enormous that people forget what you did before. It works well to sing it before the Schwanengesang.

JS: Have you ever heard Gerhard Hüsch's recording of “Die Taubenpost?”

MG: A couple of weeks ago, a fan in London sent me a tape of this performance. I had never heard it before, though I had heard a lot about Gerhard Hüsch. It's beautiful. It's beautiful.

JS: It's my favorite performance of the song.

MG: Wait two days until I perform it (laughing).

JS: I've reviewed your Die Schöne Müllerin for another publication, comparing it to at least five other recordings of the cycle. I was struck by how different your interpretation is from others I listened to.

MG: Yes, it's enormous (laughing).

JS: How have critics reacted to your performance?

MG: Especially in a concert situation, journalists are totally polarized. A couple of them say, “Oh this is really shit, and he's doing the wrong thing with the piece.” On the other hand, some say “This is absolutely marvelous” and “He's breaking the tradition, and he's found a new way to project the piece.” Especially with the Müllerin, the extreme reactions are enormously far from each other.

JS: My partner is a tenor who sings the cycle. He listened to your recording, especially to the songs you perform very slowly…

MG: There are a couple of them (chuckling) . . . .

JS: Tell me about it. He went, “Oh, it's too slow.” Then, after I played “Der Neugerige” on KALW-FM, I played them again for him, and said, “Do you realize the sense of ease that is necessary to pull this off? Do you realize how few people can do this? If you just slow down and listen, you'll realize what this man is doing. This is marvelous.” But a lot of people can't do that, especially in 2003.

MG: When I was a student many years ago, I started Winterreise and touched the Schwanengesang, but I never touched the Müllerin because it was always uncomfortable. I was wondering why, because it was also Schubert. It was so problematic. When I touched it, I got enormously bored in a short while. After five pieces, everything was blocked and I lost interest.

Then I got so many offers from presenters that I returned to it and listened to many recordings. I think the key for me was when I was singing and studying it a bit while at the same time listening in my ear to what has stayed with me from the time that my parents had played me recordings of the work. I realized my mind wasn't free enough to discover how beautiful the cycle was.

I found that for me, especially because my teacher Fischer-Dieskau performed and recorded it, the music was fixed in my mind in the wrong way. This picture of a naïve walking boy in the forest who sings “Das wandern . . ." (singing) - I heard such happiness, sung so lively - it was not possible for me to reconcile such an interpretation with my own sense of the text and of the music. 

My memories of prior interpretations were much stronger than my own sense of the piece until I gave everything up and found my own way. It was necessary to say, this cycle is not Winterreise. This person is not as strong. He's much younger, and there's much more wildness inside. 

The Müllerin texts are more associated with the Sturm und Drang period in German literature, as opposed to the Winterreise, which is far more Romantic in its organization and atmosphere. The Winterreise has a lot to do with the Glaube, Liebe, Hoffnung - to believe, to love, and to hope - as well as with Einsamkeit. Verzweiflung, and Todessehnsucht  - loneliness, desperation, and a desire of death; it is the same in the Brahms Four Serious Songs. There is no hope in Die Schöne Müllerin; he has to die. The cycle goes enormously up, then you have one song, “Pause,” and then it goes down. The proportion is exactly the same. And this is quite strange.

JS: I listened to a number of tenor recordings, the voice it was written for. Some of them are lovely, but I couldn't imagine this sweet-voiced person working in a mill or picking up a piece of wood. Then I hear you, and I can see this guy working in a mill, impressing the miller maid with his physical prowess.

MG: I know exactly what you mean. With the tenor voice it is quite difficult. They have to do it in an absolutely different way.

JS: To me, you came across as a lusty lad with a heart. First we saw your robust, extroverted side and then we saw that other part of you. You were all there. To me it was a revelation.

MG: This is good to know. It's exactly what I want to express and to project.

JS: The SF Chronicle's teaser for your three Schubert recitals said something to the effect that Goerne doesn't know that the art of lieder is dying.

MG: I don't think this is true. The truth is, it was never created for a big audience. It is very difficult to sell out big halls. There is just a handful worldwide where this is possible: Carnegie Hall is possible, for example, because New York is an exciting place, and when you are quite famous, and have a step into the door. Also it is possible when you have a good accompanist, or a good program, or a good combination with a solo pianist. But generally, it has to do with the size of the hall. This is problematic in America, because it is difficult to find smaller rooms. And when you do find a small room, like the French Embassy in Washington, DC where I recently performed, it was like a cinema from the ‘70s; it was a horrible atmosphere. The size was good, but in the end, the atmosphere was so horrible that the music didn't work.

This problem is worldwide, even in Europe. When you don't have the right size, you never have the right sound. It has to do, not with the Piano Pianissimo, but the next step up, between the Piano Pianissimo and the Mezzo Piano. This place is so necessary to create an intimate atmosphere, to have the possibility to whisper a word on a note. This is impossible to do in a big hall, where the voice gets lost unless you really sing out. And the other hand, it's quite risky for the presenters. Because they don't have really small halls, you have to earn at least $10,000 in a place like Carnegie Hall to cover expenses.

JS: I've been seeing more and more empty seats because of the economy.

MG: Exactly. It also has to do with the global situation, the conflict with the terrorists, and the war that is hopefully not coming.

JS: I know of only two radio shows in the entire Bay Area that might play your music and educate people in the process. One is on Sunday mornings from 5-9 AM, the other on Sunday nights on KALW-FM, especially if I'm the substitute DJ, which I've been four times in the past year. The one remaining Bay Area classical station plays no vocal music, and only programs “pleasant” classics.

MG: I know. They play Vivaldi's Four Seasons and the like. I was listening while I am here, and I was really surprised at the selection of music.

JS: Did Mahler write any songs for an intimate setting?

MG: Only a few songs in his youth, and they are not so fantastic.

JS: What is it like for you to go from Wozzeck to an intimate Schubert lied?

MG: In the end, everything is the same.

JS: Do you have to take a break?

MG: Yes. To come to the role of Wozzeck and move on takes awhile. Were I to receive a phone call tomorrow asking me to step in in one week's time, it would be quite difficult to get into the proper condition, which requires a voice more rough and aggressive in sound. It requires a kind of training that means that you need at least 10 days off without singing at all in order to let the voice relax. Then you have to return with vocal exercises to get in shape for Schubert.

JS: Does performing Wozzeck have any long-term effect on your Piano sweet tone?

MG: No. Of course the voice gets bigger and a bit heavier, but this kind of heaviness is really necessary for many pieces in the Schubert repertoire. When I first performed Wozzeck three or four years ago in Zurich, I got increased offers for song recitals. It was the same when I performed it again in Zurich two years later and recently in London. I have more performance in the end.

Of course, I have to think about how to find my musical way back in the other direction, but I don't have to cancel the other things. It's a question of balance; you have to balance it every day.

JS: What is your schedule like in the US?

MG: After these three Schubert concerts, I return to Europe for a couple of concerts, then fly back here for the Boston Des Knaben Wunderhorn performance and two recitals of Schubert and Wolf in Ann Arbor and New York on April 10 and 12. Then I have ten days off for a holiday in either Florida or Germany. Then I return for Des Knaben Wunderhorn with the Toronto Symphony on April 23, 24, and 26. Manfred Honeck will conduct.

I'm performing Wolf and Schubert together because this is the Wolf Centenary Celebration year. The two composers share a common fate. Both Schubert and Wolf died of syphilis. Schubert died when he was 31. Wolf was 46 or 47; he spent the last two years of his life in a madhouse.

JS: You're 35, still a baby.

MG: More or less (chuckling).

JS: Do you have a family?

MG: I'm separated from my wife. But I have two children, and I spend 12 days a month with them, which is not bad in this business. My daughter is 3, and my son is 14. He's terrible now that he's 14. He hates classical music at the moment, and is into rock and skateboarding. But he's usually interested in theater and acting; I know it has to do with his age.

My little daughter is really interested. Because she watches TV, and it's not good for the children to watch too much TV, I will instead put on a video from the Salzburg Festival production of The Magic Flute, and she notices her daddy singing Papageno and is really excited. She knows everything about The Magic Flute.

JS: Once, when I played three notes of Gerhard Hüsch's “Die Taubenpost” to a friend, he immediately exclaimed, “Oh my god, that's a Papageno voice!

MG: Yes, and he also sang Wozzeck.

JS: Will you be recording Schubert with pianist Alfred Brendel?

MG: In October and November, live in Wigmore Hall, we'll record the Winterreise, Schwanengesang, and An die ferne Geliebte for Decca. 

JS: Any new roles on the horizon?

MG: For Salzburg this August, Henze has composed a new opera for me. Then in Dresden in December I perform Wolfram from Tannhauser, and then Wozzeck with Seiji Ozawa. And I have a couple of ideas…

JS: Of all the music you sing, what speaks to you the most?

MG: This is impossible to say. When I decide to sing a piece, it has to have similarities to the rest of my repertoire; otherwise, I can do nothing with it. If it's touching, it's touching. For me, in the end there's no difference between Schubert and Schoenberg. When I have no link to the music from the mind and the heart, it does not interest me.


- Jason Serinus -

© Copyright 2003 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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