Richard Strauss’s evocation of sunset in his Four Last Songs must be one of the most sublime musical pictures ever written, having left an indelible impression on the imagination of countless listeners since its appearance in 1949. Having witnessed the physical and psychological destruction of much that he held dear, Strauss gave the distinct impression that the sun had also set on the lied, that distinctive but intimate emblem of Germanic musical culture.

Matthias Goerne

Strauss would be relieved to know that the Lied has many fine interpreters today; not least the persuasive baritone Matthias Goerne, who has arguably inherited the mantle of his former teacher Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Goerne has chosen to explore the sunset of the Lied in a thoughtful, thought-provoking program reaching back to Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, and then pitting Strauss against his cranky contemporary, Hans Pfitzner. 

Although originally conceived for female voice, male singers going back to Lauritz Melchior have sung excerpts from the Wesendonck Lieder, and Australian tenor Stuart Skelton is amongst those men to have recorded the entire cycle. Wagner’s settings of poetry by his patron’s wife and inamorata are the intense embodiment of a dissolute sensuality. 

Goerne resists the temptation to overplay these emotional aspects, always allowing the projection of the text to be his primary objective. That said, every song is perfectly pitched; a sense of subtle wonder pervading Der Engel (The Angel) and effective contrasts making their point in Stehe Still (Stay Still). Goerne brings a steamy world weariness to Im Treibhaus (In the Hothouse) that contrasts with the almost masochistic sentiments of Schmerzen (Torment), only to be overtaken by the hopeful yearning of Träume (Dreams) with its echoes of Tristan und Isolde

Pfitzner saw himself as something of a defender of the German musical tradition and died in 1949, the same year as Strauss. Although Pfitzner’s Lieder are effective and striking settings (often of fine poets such as Heine and Eichendorff), they have a certain cleverness and intellectual rigour that puts them in stark contrast to the harmonic and dramatic genius of Strauss. 

That said, Goerne infuses them with magnificently multi-hued vocal colour. Es Glänzt So Schön Die Sinkende Sonne (How Beautiful is the Setting Sun) is wonderfully atmospheric evocation of the album’s theme, as is the brooding yet majestic Abendrot (Sunset). Nachts (At Night) is a particularly fine example of Goerne’s ability to harness his hushed tone to set a mood, but then to rise to a climax and back again. 

In all of this, Goerne is empathetically partnered by 27-year-old South Korean pianist, Seong-Jin Cho, winner of several international competitions, who demonstrates a remarkable sensitivity that belies his age. In the manic piano part of Stimme der Sehnsucht (Voice of Longing) he doesn’t raise a sweat.

Cho and Goerne make a formidable partnership in the closing bracket of five Strauss songs, each of which is an exquisite musical miniature. There is heart-stopping poetry in Morgen! where the music is given plenty of room to make its point. Finally, the grand valedictory scene of Im Abendrot (At Sunset) from the Four Last Songs weaves its inimitable and inevitable spell over the listener. Once again, the presence of a male voice presents no cause for alarm. Goerne’s honeyed tone presents a perfect marriage of textual clarity and profound emotion that takes one to the heart of Strauss’s extraordinary vision. Cho ensures the two larks hover gently over the scene as the sun sets.

Goerne’s inspired detour off the beaten track of Lieder recitals is absolutely a detour worth taking. Don’t miss this superbly talented singer at the height of his powers. 

Listen on Apple Music.

Composers: Pfitzner, Strauss and Wagner
Works: Selected Songs
Performers: Matthias Goerne b-bar, Seong-Jin Cho p
Label: DG 4860274