Matthias Goerne looks less like a classical musician than a blue-collar worker — although there was no collar at all on the T-shirt he wore under his suit at the Terrace Theater on Monday night. He has big, round eyes and a scruffy three-day beard and feet planted firmly on the ground, and when he sings he often bends at the waist and faces the floor before raising his torso upward, as if preparing to lift a heavy burden. Though he specializes in art songs or lieder, often seen as a somewhat arcane field, there’s nothing effete or artsy-fartsy about Goerne; he offers music as something straightforward, solid, tangible. His voice, a dark baritone, can sound rough around the edges, especially if you’re looking at him and are tempted to match the visuals to the evidence of your ears.
There should be more artists this straightforward. Because on Monday, what Goerne offered was a wonderful, subtle account of Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise.” This Winter Journey is a cycle of 24 linked songs about a bleak, cold journey through some dark and nameless landscape; it’s tempted countless recitalists into the trap of hand-wringing effusion as they try to convey the drama of it all, and one of the best things about Goerne’s performance was that he was absolutely direct while at all times avoiding the obvious.
This started from the very first song, “Gute Nacht.” Rather than milking the contrast between fond memories of past love and the bleak reality of the protagonist’s current wanderings, Goerne kept the whole thing on a low flame, singing with wistful, pillowy softness so that past love and current desolation were factors in the same emotional state. That is plenty of drama right there, but not many singers are savvy enough to hold back and exist in it.
The concert was an Event, a sold-out highlight of the Kennedy Center’s festival “The Music of Budapest, Prague and Vienna.” Goerne is one of today’s leading recitalists, and he performed on Monday with a frequent partner, Christoph Eschenbach, the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. Unexpectedly, it was Eschenbach who sounded heavy-handed — even slightly clumsy. This may have partly been a result of his efforts to match Goerne’s sometimes rustic delivery; as a conductor, Eschenbach often goes for the kind of melodrama Goerne so elegantly avoided. Certainly their collaboration seemed less a partnership and more a pairing of leader and follower; Eschenbach, in seeking to be supportive, was slightly eclipsed by Goerne’s intensity.
There were times when that intensity led the singer to the edge of bellowing; times, too, when his forceful delivery seemed to be compromising his top notes — notably in the cries of “mein herz,” my heart, that conclude each strophe of “Die Post.” And he has a couple of distracting mannerisms. He often starts phrases by leaning up into the note rather than starting on the core of the sound; and his motions, while singing, sometimes seem to indicate the kind of obvious emoting he avoids in the music.
But the overriding impression was of his phenomenal control as he emitted a stream of sound that was rough or gentle or some of both, changing colors and textures as it flowed. And the lack of melodrama, coupled with his innate understanding of the poetry — it does help to be singing in your native language — brought out aspects of the cycle that emoting can often mask. In “Das Wirtshaus,” the 21st song, the protagonist stops by a graveyard and wonders when he can find rest there, only to find himself condemned to wander on; rather than bitter resignation, the song became a funeral hymn, with Eschenbach’s gentle closing chords as a gesture of benediction.
This set the stage for the 24th and final song, “Der Leiermann,” about a beggar playing a barrel-organ by the roadside. Goerne ended the song, and the cycle, with a quiet, resigned phrase of such offhanded beauty that without breaking character he conjured up a brief vision of the Leiermann as not only a figuration of death but also a promise of musical salvation.