Feature Article - "For Me, It Is Enough: Grammy Nominee, Baritone Matthias Goerne" - May, 2001

Jason Serinus


A magical sense of stillness filled San Franciscoís Herbst Theater this past January as baritone Matthias Goerne began the second half of his all-Schubert recital with five songs to texts by poet Friedrich von Schlegel. The phrasing was exquisite, the voice incomparable in its caressing beauty. Twice, as I found myself taking deep breaths, filling myself fully with the sounds and feelings coming from this man, I had to hold back sobs. As this great artist gave life to such phrases as ďThe green earth shines ever more green/Just before the sun is gone,Ē and ďAll have sprung from the heavenly source/Is not every being one of the chorus?Ē, I asked myself how often does one experience such tenderness from a man?

There are times in our lives when we meet someone, and by their voice alone, know that it is a match. So it is with the voice and artistry of Matthias Goerne. I first heard the baritone in recital in San Francisco two years ago, when his sotto voce debut brought mixed reviews. I was seated in the balcony of the acoustically imperfect Herbst Theater, and had some difficulty focusing on his singing until I was loaned binoculars by a pianist friend from the UC Berkeley Music Department. Once Goerne was in relatively clear view, I found myself mesmerized by his subtlety and economy of presentation. His body movements, however, seemed somewhat stiff and tortured.

Then, earlier this year, the baritone returned to Herbst for a rare presentation of two lieder (song) recitals in a week: one of Schumann, the other of Schubert. This time, his stage presence seemed far more communicative and outgoing. Even more impressive was the singing. Even as signs of an oncoming cold forced Goerne to leave the stage before the end of the recital, one could feel that Goerne had touched the hearts of the majority of those in attendance.

Matthias Goerneís recordings have touched far more people than those fortunate enough to attend the concerts and song recitals which comprise the bulk of his public appearances. At age 34, the baritone has already received four Grammy nominations. His latest, which almost won him a Grammy, was for his recording of Bach Cantatas with Roger Norrington (Decca 289 466 570-2). Goerneís first Grammy nomination was for his role in Braunfelís delightful opera, Die Vogel (The Birds), the second for his Schumann disc with Vladimir Ashkenazy at the piano, and the third for the Hollywood Songbook of Hans Eisler. The Eisler also won the Gramophone vocal award for the year of its issue.

Goerneís Bach is performed with the same honeyed tone and open-hearted phrasing that distinguished his breathtaking Schubert set in Herbst. His gently understated, seamless singing of Bachís famed solo bass cantata, Ich habe genug, BWV 82 (ďFor me, it is enough. I have taken the Savior . . . into my eager arms; for me it is enough!Ē), lightly accompanied by Norrington, has created a recording to treasure. That Cecilia Bartoliís extraordinary, showier Vivaldi recording ended up winning the Grammy in no way detracts from the magnificent artistry of this cherishable disc.

After two failed attempts to interview Goerne in San Francisco, I finally caught up with him by phone in Brussels. It was midnight there, and he had just finished a rehearsal with pianist Alfred Brendel for forthcoming recitals of Beethovenís An die Ferne Geliebte and Schubertís Schwanengesang. Here is the interview, with my questions in bold italics: Below is the transcript of our conversation:

[Matthias Goerne] In the next few days I have three concerts with Alfred Brendel. We are rehearsing An die Ferne Geliebte of Beethoven and the Schwanengesang of Schubert. We rehearse on Friday and Saturday nights, and have our first concert on Sunday.

[Jason] Do you have plans to record the Schwanengesang?

Yes, in the next two years I will record both Schwanengesang and Winterreise of Schubert with Brendel. It will be my second recording of the Winterreise. The first, with Graham Johnson, was recorded a long time ago. My interpretation has moved a lot in a totally other direction since then.

You studied with both Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Theyíre very different singers than you.

Yes, but theyíre great artists. Thatís for me the important point. The interaction with each of them was totally different. I got a lot from both, but totally different kind of things.

From Dieskau I learned to concentrate myself in a short time and to dive deep into a piece in a couple of minutes, and to control everything, including my degree of communication with the audience. This is a difficult point to realize. It had nothing to do with technical things; it had more to do with personality and tricky things with the music.

My work with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was very different. She told me I had to decide if I wanted to be a tenor or a baritone or a bass. She worked really hard with me on technical things, especially on the timbre. Fifteen years ago, my voice sounded like a tenor on top, like a baritone in the middle, and like a bass in the lower register. She put it more and more together, and taught me to find my own timbre. She studied my taste in musical and cultural things.

Did either of them try to impose how they interpret lieder onto you?

Iím such a completely other person than the two of them. I learned more about ďoutside things,Ē about notes and pronunciation and timbre. The most important thing in interpretation is personality, and the best teacher is my own life.

How old were you when you started working them?

I began studying voice in Leipzig when I was 18. I studied four years with Prof. Hans-Juergen Beyer. After two years, I started with Fischer-Dieskau, whom I studied with from 1985 to maybe 1988, and then studied with Schwarzkopf in 1989. She and I studied together for somewhere between two and a half to three years, not more.

Are you still in contact with them?

From time to time by telephone. They are both challenging personalities. Itís not the same kind of thing as maintaining contact with my father or my mother. We know each other very well professionally, but there is no really deep, private contact.

What do you mean by ďchallengingĒ?

They are ďdifficultĒ people in a positive sense. People with strong personalities are not really simple to get know. They have their own lives. But their ďdifficult naturesĒ are also their strength.

When I listen to you sing Bachís Ich habe genug on your Bach Cantatas disc, I hear someone who is fully formed. I remember buying your first Schubert lieder recording with Andreas Haefliger, which you recorded in May 1996 (Decca 452 917-2).  I put it on and just gasped at the beauty of your voice. Did you have a sense, when you first started studying, that this quality of singing was something you could produce? Did you know it was within you?

Itís not possible to say that I knew all these things in the past. I was secure enough to think it made sense to pursue a singing career, but not more. I was really ambitious and enthusiastic in my study time.

I was not older than 9 when I had a strong wish to become a professional singer when I grew up. I told my parents then, and started singing in a childrenís choir in the theater.

I came from a cultural background. For the last ten years, my father has been a director of all the acting theaters in Dresden. Before that, he was a dramaturgist, building up the theaterís schedule and library, assisting the director, etcÖ My contact to theater and music was so natural for me.

I devoted myself 100% to my studies. After two years, I recognized that I was more talented than other people. I was totally secure with my fantasy and taste. I knew what I wanted to do, and what I didnít want to do.

When was your talent first recognized? When did you start building your career on national and international levels? When did you feel you were ready?

It has to do with my teacher. We had seven to ten one hour lessons every week. We worked every day. It was the perfect training for me. It wasnít necessary for me to exercise alone. I was always in control with him.

This is really a lot of study. Most students spend only an hour a week with their teacher. In the beginning it doesnít make sense to spend more than an hour a day with a teacher, because youíre not tough enough to control your voice for longer. But to have ten hours a week is really amazing. This is such an important way to learn all the fundamentals. Later on, I studied four or even six hours a day. But to study ten hours a week in the beginning is really unusual.

After a short time, I could decide what piece was right for me, and what was too early. Thatís really important. When I was 20, I won a competition in West Berlin. The head of the jury was composer Aribert Reimann, who had served as an accompanist for the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I asked him directly if he could connect me with Fischer-Dieskau. This was a turning point for me. The possibility to study with my idol, with the greatest name and the greatest artist I knew, was immensely important.

We donít hear much in this country about other awards. Have you won any?

Yes, Iíve won a lot. I won the Gramophone Vocal award for my recording of Hans Eislerís Hollywood Songbook, the Cannes Award, the Echo Prize Ė all the important European prizes.

What does the Grammy nomination mean to you?

It means a lot, because itís more important than the others in the United States. Iíve been nominated for a Grammy for four years in a row. I hope I will win the Grammy sometime (laughing). That would be really great.

A Grammy nomination in a Classical category is more important than the actual award. It is taken far more seriously than the award itself. Are you aware of the ridiculous politics involved?

I am. I was totally surprised.

Iíve just done a piece on Reference Recordings, a tiny label with an unprecedented nine Grammy nominations. They wonít win, no matter how good their recordings are, because nobody knows them. People know who Bach is, so you stand a very good chance.

You think so?

Absolutely. If it were Eisler, on the other hand . . .

I was totally surprised by the Eisler nomination. In my opinion, it was a fantastic success to come that far with that kind of record.

But thatís because the nominations come from experts in the field. The experts know the music. The actual votes come from the entire membership of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. These include people who are not familiar with classical music, and havenít even heard your recordings.

Oh my goodness.

Many who voted had no idea who Eisler was. Thatís why the voting and the nominations are so different. But the other nominees are also really good. Thereís Cecilia Bartoliís Vivaldi Album, Thomas Quasthoffís Brahms/Liszt lieder, Maria Bayoís Handel Arias and Cantatas, and Anna Sophie von Otterís Folksongs.

These are all gifted singers. Quasthoff may get a lot of votes because of his physical stature. People will root for the underdog. Bartoli if of course very well known, and everyone knows the name of Vivaldi because of his Four Seasons. Itís a difficult choice.

Which composer or composers is/are closest to your heart?

Thatís really difficult to say. Schubert of course is really important. This has to do with the quantity of the repertoire. Thereís really a lot for me to find. In the end, it is Schubert for the song repertoire. My feelings for his music are stronger than for, let us say, for Beethoven. If you were to ask who are the greatest composers, Iíd say Mozart and Bach. But Mozart has virtually no song repertoire for baritone.

You have been singing more opera of late. Are you still focusing mainly on song?

Orchestral concerts and song recitals are my main focus. I have 60 performances a year, but less than 20 are on stage. Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and Mahler are more important in my concert life. But in my opinion, Mozart is the greatest.

Which opera composer speaks to you the most?

In this period, Monteverdi for the early period, and Wagner for later. Itís weird. Iíve never sung Monteverdi, but Iím listening to him a lot. I think I will perform his music in the future.

In terms of lieder singers who came before Fischer-Dieskau, Iím wondering which speak to you the most.

I donít tend to listen to older singers. In my youth, when I listened with my parents, I think the oldest person we listened to was the tenor Peter Anders. Most of the records at home were of Fischer-Dieskau, Schwarzkopf, and Christa Ludwig Ė people of that generation. They are really important models for me in areas of musical meaning and taste.

I donít have idols in the older generation like Schlusnus or Lotte Lehmann. Maybe Lehmann a bit. I have a couple of records. But Iím not really a specialist in this kind of thing.

I was supposed to attend your Schumann recital in San Francisco, but I was too sick. So I stayed in bed, and attended the Schubert two nights later on lots of cough syrup. From reports of the Schumann concert, and from my own experience at the Schubert recital, you certainly did not pick from the ďTop 10,Ē or even ďTop 100Ē hits list. Is that intentional on your part?

I donít know. I think Iím not really there as a teacher for the audience. But Iím very much interested in going farther than Winterreise, farther than Dichterliebe and Schwanengesang and Die Schone Mullerin. We have so many pieces and so much fantastic, unknown repertoire Ė unknown for me as well as the audience Ė that it makes sense to offer some of it to the audience. All these singers come to the United States with the same songs. But it doesnít make sense to always do the same things again and again and again. Itís too boring for me. Itís much nicer and more interesting for me to study all this new repertoire. I hope it is your feeling as well that the repertoire of the unknown Schubert pieces is really incredible.

There were many discoveries for me at your concert. Both my friend Joey and I had to hold back tears. I was trying not to breathe deeply because I didnít want to cough, but there were two times when I took deep breaths and found the tears welling up. I found myself asking myself how often I had the opportunity to hear and feel such tenderness from a man. It was a remarkable experience for me.

I have listened to 100 years of vocal recordings. I have them here, including a lot of old 78ís. I know how difficult it is for someone to walk onstage, take control of the space, be totally relaxed, and go into that inward place from which great art arises. Itís clearly something that Fischer-Dieskau must have helped you with. It really touched me deeply, which is why I so wanted to do this interview. I think this is what art is about.

It is nice to hear this.

Who are the important people in your life?

My family. My wife, my children, my parents, and my sister. I have just two or three friends. Theyíre really important to me. I have a lot of really good colleagues, and Iím really close to them, but in most cases, not more than close.

Youíve worked with many great pianists and conductors. Do you have favorites with whom youíre really simpatico, with whom you see eye to eye?

It is absolutely easy to work with Eric Schneider, my main accompanist. Of all the conductors, itís Riccardo Chailly and Christoph von Dohnanyi. With both these men, I am so secure. It is so easy to work with them. There is no problem; it is unnecessary to talk about the music. They have the scores, and I have the scores, and we do a concert. Itís really a blind date.

How much say do you have in what you record? Did you want to do the Bach aria recording?

Oh yes, yes. I am really my own boss and my own chief. I do what I want to do and what I have to do. It was my idea to record the Bach and the Eisler. In the beginning, they were unhappy with the idea of recording the Eisler, but we did it, and it was a big success in the United States and especially here in Europe. It was really an important record, and it helped forward my career.

What recordings do we have to look forward to from you?

The new opera aria recording is just out. Last summer, I recorded Mahlerís Der Knaben Wunderhorn with the Concertgebouw and Chailly, and it will be released later this year. Itís a special version for four singers, and features me along withaBonney, Fulguri, and Wagenfuehrer. Barbara Bonney and I sing most of the songs.

Iíll be recording Die Schone Mullerin with Eric Schneider in May. We performed it over 20 times last season, and heís really the perfect accompanist for me. In the next two years, Iíll also record Winterreise and Schwanengesang with Brendel. Iím thinking of a new opera or orchestral project, but itís not secure enough to talk about.

What is your feeling about the downturn in classical record sales and concert attendance?

The important thing is for someone to find their right repertoire and perform it in the best way possible. All the crossover performances are so stupid and totally wrong. Iím absolutely sure about this Ė maybe not for the next five years, but for ten or fifteen years, Iím absolutely right.

So you feel that there will be a resurgence of interest in classical music. Do many young people come to your concerts?

Yes, especially in Europe. Not so much in the United States, where itís really difficult to find places with a good audience. In San Francisco you have a special situation. Itís so fantastic. All the people are really interested. And the promoter, Ruth Felt of San Francisco Performances, is really one of the best in the world. Sheís smart, and sheís really interested. She is also tough enough to take the risk to have two recitals with the same artist in the same week. This is really rare.

Europe is a completely different situation. Itís much easier for promoters to handle the financial aspects of song recitals. And the audience is much younger.

Do you have favorite colleagues with whom youíve sung?

A fantastic moment was singing a concert version of Wagnerís Tannhauser twice with Deborah Voigt. James Conlon was the conductor. She sang Elisabeth, and I sang Wolfram. It was really beautiful. Deborah Voigt was so great. It was four years ago, and the first time we sang our respective roles.

Is a recording available?

It was only recorded privately for the artists.

Also important was when I started the partnership with Alfred Brendel. Heís really a genius, a great artist and a great man.

Has your voice changed much in the last ten years?

Yes, of course. It changes a little bit from year to year. The repertoire can now be a bit heavier. Why not Amfortas and Kurvenal at times?

Where do you see yourself heading?

My main repertoire and special area will remain the concert repertoire, and all the beautiful songs. This is what I prefer. All my love is connected with this kind of repertoire.

If someone doesnít know the song repertoire, what would you like to say to interest them?

To get them to a concert, to get his heart, is not easy. I think the important moment for people who donít know about song recitals is the first moment. Itís absolutely important to have a good concert. If your first experience is a terrible concert with a horrible singer with terrible taste, then itís your first and last time. It has to do with the first contact. If itís good, then you will maybe grow into a fan who loves this repertoire.

If you wanted to offer one of your recordings to introduce people to both classical vocal music and your voice, which would you pick?

Iíd pick the Schumann with Eric Schneider: the Kerner and Eichendorff lieder, and the Eisler. These two are the best.


- Jason Serinus -


© Copyright 2001 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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