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Brian Taylor is a musician and writer. He resides in New York City.

REVIEW: Goerne, Trifonov, and Friends at 92Y

REVIEW: Goerne, Trifonov, and Friends at 92Y

Above: Carter Brey, cello, Daniil Trifonov, piano, and Matthias Goerne, baritone. Photo by Chris Lee

MARCH 18, 2019

BY BRIAN TAYLOR

Two musicians have appeared so often in the past year on New York's classical stages that they might be called fixtures: Matthias Goerne, the German baritone who has been featured as Artist-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic, and Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov. They performed a recital together last year at Carnegie Hall, and this past Sunday, the two came together at the 92nd Street Y's Kaufman Concert Hall for a special program with string musicians from the Philharmonic. 

Goerne, renowned for his communicative interpretations of German Lieder, beams a warm, gracious rapport with both the audience and his collaborators. He seems to have curated this afternoon's unique program, tailored to employ the Philharmonic's string quartet (Frank Huang and Michelle Kim, violins, Cynthia Phelps, viola, and Carter Brey, cello) in a salon-like program of chamber music. That Trifonov, fresh off his nail-biting thriller of a solo recital in Carnegie Hall (which was broadcast on medici.tv), should join these forces elevated it to a must-see event.

Photo by Chris Lee

Photo by Chris Lee

The afternoon began without him, however. The program opened with a set of five Schubert Lieder -- originally conceived for voice and piano -- with the accompaniment arranged for string quintet by Raphaël Merlin. Goerne, in one of his performances with the Philharmonic earlier this season, sang a generous set of orchestrated German songs to mixed-to-positive results. Indeed, the string quartet works better in this context than a full orchestra. (Trumpets rarely seem at home in Schubert's delicate art song accompaniments.) While Schubert's piano parts, which on the face of it can seem sparing, are carefully calibrated depictions of the narrator's inner life, of the emotional subtext behind what is being sung. But, the piano's sound (an attack that decays) is the opposite of the voice; perhaps Goerne is interested in experiencing ways that Schubert's harmonies can sustain under him, finding an operatic quality in the melodies.

In the first Lied, "Die Götter Griechenlands" ("The Gods of Greece"), D. 677, the legato warmth of the strings enhanced the serene, yet unfulfilled search for harmonic resolution that underpins Schiller's text yearning for spring. The famous death knell "Death and the Maiden" makes sense to arrange for strings: the song later inspired a string quartet of the same name (and is incorporated into the slow movement). Goerne, who has a gentle, natural diction, sang Death's line "Ich bin nicht wild" ("I am not fierce") with a beautiful, ironic tenderness.

New York Philharmonic concertmaster Frank Huang leads in a self-deprecating way, and the strings’ finely honed organism blends luxuriously with Goerne's voice. Goerne is completely at home in this setting. His instrument has impressive dynamic range. He can float delicate pianissimos, smoothing into his upper register in dolce phrases. And he makes sparing, impactful, use of his full power. He moves freely, sometimes conducting the strings, other times as if swept away in the music's waves.

I wondered if the impetus for this program was a desire to perform the second piece, Hanns Eisler's Ernste Gesänge (Serious Songs), written for baritone solo and string orchestra. Eisler, now a largely forgotten one-time pupil of Schoenberg, fled to the US after his music was banned by the Nazis in 1933, and was then forced back to East Germany in 1948 for Un-American Activities. These songs, finished in 1962, recall the musical language of Kurt Weill, hinting at those early atonal influences, but in the end, drawn to tonal post-Romanticism. Eisler described the cycle's shape as  "consciousness ‐ reflection ‐ depression ‐ revival ‐ and again consciousness..." The eight concise settings of various texts are held together by the composer's political convictions and his hope for a "human aspect to communism." 

The string quartet was enhanced by a second violist and cellist, Cong Wu and Nathan Vickery, respectively, and a bass, Timothy Cobb. Goerne's account of these gloomy pieces, the music exploring every shade of grey on the color spectrum, can not be faulted. I wondered if a conductor would have made the work's architecture have more shape. The last movement, "Epilog," which is stylistically anachronistic (it sounds like it was written in the nineteenth century), has a particularly unconvincing ending, especially in this somewhat literal reading. 

Trifonov joined the stage as we return to Schubert, with his song for voice, horn, and piano "Auf den Strom" ("On the River"), D. 943, featuring Brey on cello (instead of horn). Trifonov, rather than entering like a superstar, shyly demurred at the keyboard, politely sliding in under the cello's melody, which lends a drawing room elegance to this moving Lied, which with the horn has a noble, wind-at-your-back stoicism, the narrator waving goodbye to a loved as one while sailing away. Brey more than held his own with Goerne and Trifonov, playing with a glimmering, warm tone.

Photo by Chris Lee

Photo by Chris Lee

The three followed that with Schumann's "Die Löwenbrau" ("The Lion's Bride"), apparently the cello part added by arranger Alexander Schmalcz. Again, Trifonov thrived in his role as second fiddle to Goerne and Brey, but brought a singular, magical quality to even the barest sequence of chords. He finds a musical line and becomes hypnotized by it. He voices each hidden line with glowing luminescence, like a theatrical lighting designer with a gauzy follow-spot. 

Cynthia Phelps replaced Brey, and Goerne, Trifonov and she gave an urgent, moving performance of Brahms's Zwei Gesänge, a set of two contrasting songs originally written for contralto, viola, and piano. The first, "Gestillte Sehnsucht" (Assuaged longing"), a love poem, is pure late Brahms, Phelps's heartfelt viola obligato weaving in and around Trifonov's meltingly tender accompaniment, and Goerne's crisply rhythmic singing belying the composer's sentimentality.  The subsequent "Geistliches Wiegenlied" ("A sacred cradle-song"), a Nativity-scene lullaby composed twenty years earlier, was exquisite.

Finally, Georne's duties complete, Huang, Brey, and Trifonov took the stage to play Brahms's beloved Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8, in its revised version. It was an extraordinary performance. Immediately in the solo piano's statement of the opening theme, Trifonov found something new, something previously unheard in the music. The singing melody emerged from a liquid texture like cream. He draws voices and colors from his fingers as if releasing the music from the piano's keybed like a sculptor chiseling away the unwanted marble. And he knows how to be a chamber musician, never upstaging the strings. In fact, Brey played like the alpha in this trio, taking up the cello's first statement of that opening theme from Trifonov with quiet assurance. Huang played brilliantly too, always technically sound, his intonation infallible, and his tone supple and versatile. 

The Scherzo leaps out of the gate with busily flickering sixteenth notes in the piano, which Trifonov plays with a featherweight foot on the pedal, every note prickling. Then, the trio's spirited melody lets go in a way Brahms rarely does, and the strings soar with abandon, joy overflowing. The magisterial Adagio finds Trifonov's voicing skills lending focus to the silky, searching chords, and Huang and Brey duet with compressed expressiveness seeming to suspend time. The finale sprung to life as one of Brahms's more suspenseful, agitated movements with a collective drive, a cohesive intake and exhalation of the air in the room.

***

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