By Janelle Gelfand
Cincinnati Enquirer, 11/5/05
If there was a moment that stood still in Friday night's Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra concert, it was when baritone Matthias Goerne sang Mahler's "Urlicht," a deeply moving hymn that transported Mahler's "Wunderhorn Songs" into the realm of the magical.
Barely a week since the orchestra returned from its first tour of China -- as the Cincinnati Pops - the musicians were back in Music Hall for a stunning symphonic program under Paavo Järvi that included Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 and Mahler's radiant "Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn" (Songs from The Youth's Magic Horn).
Making his Cincinnati debut in Mahler's orchestral songs, 38-year-old German baritone Goerne proved a formidable talent, whose communicative power throughout 11 songs (plus an encore), sung without a score, was an extraordinary feat. It was an evening not only for those who love German song, but also for lovers of the symphonic Mahler, for Järvi's orchestra seamlessly captured all the drama, mystery and power of these songs alongside the soloist.
Mahler found much of his early inspiration in the collection of 19th-century German folk poetry known as "Des Knaben Wunderhorn," dealing with everyday rural life. Three of his symphonies have vocal movements on "Wunderhorn" texts; "Urlicht" is better known as the fourth movement of Symphony No. 2.
As in his symphonies, the songs are a universe of military fanfares and death marches, of humor and sweetness.
From the first note of "The Sentinel's Night Song" -- in which a soldier is killed while dreaming of his sweetheart - one was struck by the dark color of Goerne's voice, as well as by the depth of his expression. He was a masterful storyteller, who drew the listener in as he sang with lighthearted swagger in "Rhine Legend," a charming fairy tale. That was a stark contrast with the deep sense of tragedy in "The Drummer Boy," a chilling dirge of a boy on his way to the gallows.
The winds and brass helped create atmosphere in songs such as "Where the Fine Trumpets Sound," where muted trumpets tell of a dead soldier's ghost, or the equally haunting "Reveille." There was the beautiful oboe solo (Liang Wang) that enhanced "Urlicht" (Primordial Light), as Goerne communicated its text with warmth and beauty of line, seamless in every range.
Lighter moments included the flirtaceous "Wasted Effort" and "St. Anthony of Padua preaches to the fish," a futile sermon to fish with minds of their own. "In Praise of High Intelligence" was full of blustery humor.
As the audience rose to its feet, the baritone treated with an encore: a jaunty "Trost im Ungluck" (Consolation in Misfortune) from the "Wunderhorn" songs.
Järvi opened with a scintillating performance of Beethoven's First. If the orchestra took a few bars to warm up, they soon made up for it with a glowing sound, crisp articulation and rhythmic energy. Järvi's tempos were unhurried, and his slow introduction to the finale had a theatrical touch that launched the vivacious finale wonderfully.