Sometimes I wonder if it wasn't to tweak his prominent teacher-predecessors, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the late Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, that Matthias Goerne has taken such a haphazard approach to song texts. Even at his best he's been at times mealy-mouthed, and if last night's Carnegie Hall appearance showed him in reasonably good diction, it introduced a new element: bits of paper inside the piano, from which he seemed to study the words between and even during songs. (He still botched some.)
For despite putting aside their obsession with word and word-effect, despite himself fumbling with cue cards and word-memory lapses, Goerne illuminates the poems set by the great lieder composers at least as well as his forebears. Last night his uncannily beautiful instrument precisely registered every textual image and turn in mood, without giving any moment priority over the song's whole or losing the line of musical or dramatic focus. It is this latter, I think, by which he excels even Fi-Di: shorn of the odd postwar obligation to represent the institution of song, Goerne can uncompromisedly embody, e.g., the whole void with which Brahms' songs stoically cohabit. Next time, for a bigger challenge, might he start singing everything to "la la la la la" a la Rossini?
Christoph Eschenbach, ill-treated by the Philadelphia set, provided both measured and sympathetic accompaniment. The evening was a feast of collective focus, after which it seemed the crowd might call the players endlessly and happily back for ovations.