Matthias Goerne: The Wagner Project
When does an album become a project? Perhaps when it is spread over two CDs, as Matthias Goerne and Daniel Harding’s collaboration is, or when it is devoted to a sole composer, in this case Wagner, whose work you cannot really dip into track by track but have to fall into head first.
Collections of Wagnerian extracts used to be called ‘bleeding chunks’ and it isn’t just Goerne’s wounded Amfortas from Parsifal who is dripping here. There isn’t a wholly satisfactory way to explore the characters of Wotan, Sachs, Amfortas et al with corresponding orchestral interludes – just as you’re building up the existential agony, it’s time for another opera – but this selection is particularly disjointed and the labels given to the album’s two parts, ‘Of Gods and Men’ and ‘Redemption’, are so vague as to be more or less irrelevant.
And the jump-cuts really chafe. The Tristan Prelude and Liebestod are the strange sandwich wrapping to King Mark’s monologue. The Valhalla monologue from Rheingold ends before Wotan can actually join his family on the Rainbow Bridge, and there’s no coda to Wolfram’s Evening Star from Tannhäuser, just a cliff-edge. As for sending us out on a high, Goerne’s final contribution is Amfortas’s Act 3 lament over the corpse of his father Titurel. Redemption is left to the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra for the Good Friday Music which marks Project Wagner’s finale.
Still, Goerne does misery masterfully. The brief taster from Parsifal makes one long for a complete Amfortas, so completely does Goerne soak up the character’s misery. His Dutchman, too, queasy with self-loathing, is a frightening portrait of a broken mind. Mark’s monologue, though it lies low for an essentially baritonal voice, is lacking in kingly fury but high on wounded melancholy, with Goerne’s partner in woe the SRSO’s bass clarinettist, lowing alongside.
The flip side to Goerne’s magisterial introspection is that sometimes the characters deserve bigger personalities. His lyrical phrasing and Lieder-like unspooling of Hans Sachs’s ‘Was duftet doch der Flieder’ from Die Meistersinger is impeccable but missing is Sachs’s geniality and warmth. As Goerne’s Wotan kisses Brünnhilde to sleep, the moment is so intimate that (depending on your speakers) you might even feel a peck on the cheek. Yet this isn’t a god to terrify or awe you.
Once heard, however, Goerne’s Wagner is hard to shift from your mind: he has something new to bring to this repertory and his next steps with it onstage should be fascinating if he can find the right partners. Here, Harding offers him space and breadth and draws clean, bright textures from his players. In orchestral passages recorded by all the greats, that isn’t always enough: the strings lack some depth and colour, and tempos, particularly in the extracts from Parsifal, tend to the slack. Orchestra and conductor are at their most imaginative in a shimmering, almost playful Liebestod.