Goerne's turn

Music - <strong>Patrick O'Connor</strong> on the singer who can make Schoenberg pleasurable

The autumn season at the Wigmore Hall begins on 6 September with an all-Schoenberg recital by the German baritone Matthias Goerne. Not many other singers would dare to offer this as a commercial prospect, and not many concert halls would allow for it. Goerne, a favourite with London audiences for over seven years now, is adamant that people should try to expand their knowledge of music that, after all, isn't new or avant-garde any more.

"Some of these songs are over a hundred years old. Yet people persist in thinking of Schoenberg only as that bogeyman with the 12 tones. There is so much more to him." When William Lyne, the manager of the Wigmore, first heard Goerne in the early 1990s, he was singing an all-Hanns Eisler concert. He wanted to make his London debut with that, but it was actually as one of our time's leading Schubert singers that he became famous. (His recording of Eisler's Hollywood Liederbuch eventually led to a concert at the Wigmore.)

Goerne is not a conventional singer or person. He makes few concessions to popular repertory, there are no crossover albums, no chat-show appearances, no fashion shoots. He grew up in the former East Germany and, although he now lives in Hamburg, he has retained a questioning, probing attitude to his work and to life which many put down to his experiences of growing up in Weimar and Leipzig in the 1970s and 1980s. "The audience is inclined to be so sceptical, maybe more so in Germany. They feel they've heard it all before. But I don't want to retread the ground that every singer of the past 50 years has been over. I love the Jedermann monologue of Frank Martin. I can programme that with Beethoven or Brahms. Obviously, I like to give audiences what they want to hear but, if not exactly a crusade, I want to expand the notion of what the Lieder recital should be."

For his Schoenberg concert, Goerne is accompanied by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. For his first appearance at Glyndebourne (on 7 October), in Schubert's Winterreise, Goerne will be with Eric Schneider, who has accompanied him regularly for several years. "It's very important to work with different people, not to become too relaxed. Every concert is different anyway, but I need the stimulus of different personalities." For the past three years, Goerne has been giving concerts with Alfred Brendel. A few weeks ago, at the Edinburgh Festival, they paired Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte with Schubert's Schwanengesang. Brendel has seldom shown such enthusiasm for accompanying a singer - he did so memorably in the 1980s with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, but hardly ever since. The contrast between Goerne and Fischer-Dieskau - who was one of his teachers - could hardly be greater. Whereas Fischer-Dieskau often seemed aloof, very much the elder statesman, Goerne's almost manic appearance, huge staring eyes, cropped hair, seems to dare the spectators to look away. "I can't rehearse things like the expression on my face. It's all in the moment of singing. The poem and the music must be one. You cannot separate them and say which is more important. In opera, it can be different. Don Giovanni, for instance, that's one role I'd like to sing. But singing isn't enough. Yes, there are nice things in it. But it is, above all, an acting role. Just a voice isn't going to get you through the evening."

Voices, like faces, are a matter of opinion. One person falls in love with a face that the next man or woman may find distinctly plain or ugly. It's even more extreme with voices - just read a cross-section of reviewers in any musical journal. Matthias Goerne has one of the most beautiful voices of our time. There is tenderness and strength, dark and light, but, above all, there is a powerful musical intellect. "My greatest joy is to persuade the public. It doesn't matter if they don't know the songs or the language already. The performer's task is to grasp their attention and hold it." At the end of their performance of Winterreise, there is a striking moment between Goerne and Brendel. In the final song, the poet sees an old musician, the Leiermann (organ-grinder). "Wunderlicher Alter, soll ich mit dir geh'n?" he asks ("Wonderful old fellow, shall I go with you?"). As Goerne turns to sing this line, one sees that Brendel is the Leiermann and, although the song suggests a tragic end to the winter journey, they somehow also give it a feeling of hope and renewal.

Matthias Goerne sings Schoenberg at the Wigmore Hall (020 7935 2141) in London on 6 September. Goerne and Eric Schneider are at Glyndebourne on 7 October (01273 813813)