Songs, we’re told, are on a different scale from opera. Songs are intimate. Songs require restraint. Monday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, the baritone Matthias Goerne didn’t so much refute those ideas as pulverize them.
It would be hard to imagine a more dramatic or committed performance than Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach, the Kennedy Center’s music director, gave of Schubert’s song cycle “Die Schoene Muellerin” (as part of the Fortas Chamber Music series). Restraint, yes: At times, Goerne sang with the light sweetness of a lyric tenor. At other times, though, he let forth a bass-like roar almost overwhelming in volume, as when crowing, manically and probably delusionally, that the object of his affections was his, his, his! (“Mein!,” song 11).
While “Winterreise” — another famous Schubert cycle, which Goerne and Eschenbach performed here memorably in 2012 — is a fine expression of postmodern anomie, describing a bleak journey to nowhere, “Schoene Muellerin” usually seems more dated. The 20 songs trace a young man’s Romantic passion: he arrives at a picturesque mill; falls hard for the miller’s beautiful daughter; despairs at the appearance of a rival, “Der Jaeger” (“The Hunter,” song 14); and, finally, drowns himself while the brook sings him to sleep, “Des Baches Wiegenlied” (“The Brook’s Lullaby,” song 20).
An opera director might update the cycle. Goerne, instead, sang with such searing intensity that the question of topicality was irrelevant; the performance was riveting from beginning to end.
Goerne does plenty of things onstage that sound mannered and hard to take. He bends at the waist; he roams back and forth along the piano’s dark flank; he gets up on tiptoe or moves his hand as if physically pulling the line of the song out of the air. Slightly bug-eyed, with a scruffy three-day beard and a jacket stretching at the single button keeping it shut over his belly, he makes singing look hard but sound easy.
There’s no hint of physical effort in the voice, which flows in a current so smooth and strong that it sometimes blurs his words, now in a narrower channel of the high notes, now thundering through rapids in the lower register of his voice, now revealing a slight burr in the voice in the final song, like the sound of swallowed tears. The reason the physical mannerisms aren’t more distracting is that there isn’t any artifice in the singing. It’s thought out, certainly, and amazingly nuanced. It’s also sincere; none of it is done for effect or phoned in. On Monday, Goerne unself-consciously, simply, gave his all, with an openness few performers dare to risk, and even the best ones can’t always achieve.
That he felt able to go so far out on a limb is attributable in part to the support he got from Eschenbach. Eschenbach was a brilliant solo pianist long before he became a conductor, and as a musician, he is particularly attuned to emotional expression. There may have been a couple of passages that were slightly less than clean (and the piano seemed to have an annoying twang on one note that cropped up a couple of times), but the level of expressive playing was as high as Goerne’s.
The result was a breathtaking evening that felt more like a monodrama than a collection of songs, as the protagonist went through a manic-depressive swing from exultation to, without a pause, his panicky reaction to the appearance of the Hunter. At this point, the character, so worked up that he could hardly draw breath, raced from one song to another until he got to “Die Liebe Farbe” (“The Favorite Color,” song 16), when he put on the brakes, was hit by the reality of what was happening and moved to a reflective tone that became a cry of pure pain on the phrase “Mein Schatz hat’s Gruen so gern” (“My beloved likes green”), and then ebbed into a funereal despair. At the end of the song, he stood frozen in immobile horror, as if even physical movement had become too overwhelming to contemplate.
The flip side of the desperate emotion of the words is the sheer beauty of the music. Nowhere was this clearer than in the sixth song, “Der Neugierige” (“The Curious Man”), when Goerne, in a soft, wondering voice, asked the brook whether the young woman loves him, and the brook answered in kind with some ravishing playing by Eschenbach. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard on a stage, and that song alone would have made a memorable evening.
Matthias Goerne will sing with the National Symphony Orchestra, under Christoph Eschenbach, in Hindemith’s “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” Thursday through Saturday nights.