Long ago, in the days of poverty, the poorest families in the Bregenzerwald were forced to send one or more children away, to Swabia. In its rich cereal farming valleys, they would find work and bread, and a new set of clothing and pair of shoes as proof of their travels. An exhibition in the little museum of Schwarzenberg relates their stories and adventures. Doesn’t the eternal longing in Schubert’s music express their homesickness, their yearning for warmth and shelter during their wanderings through mountains, cold and snow? I doubt that Werner Güra saw the exhibition and maybe that’s just as well. Thinking of the lives and tales of those families might well have affected the subtle emotional balance of his recital. Werner Güra is not a safe singer. Accompanied by his long-time piano partner, he always goes the whole way. His are not the interpretations that consist of sweet sounds alone. Sweet, warm and comforting tenor voice not withstanding, he understands the meaning of each and every word and he means whatever he says and sings (which makes him one of the most credible evangelists around, needless to say). The sobriety of his singing makes the textual and musical contents all the more poignant. The all Schubert recital that Christoph Berner and Werner Güra present this year is built along a human life’s timeline. They begin with the bittersweet “Heidenröslein”. Werner Güra has this trick of singing on tiptoe as it were, the better to emphasize certain words, again in a very subtle way. Thus, every key word strikes really home: we feel the rose’s stalk break as the young man says “ ich breche dich”, and we feel the sting of it’s thorn when it replies” ich steche dich” and we feel all the regret in the world over the outcome in the last verse. From here, the artists take us through a whole complex of emotions having to do with childhood, in “Schlummerlied” and “Wiegenlied”. There is tenderness for the sleep of the innocent, and a bit of regret for the times of innocence gone by. Personally, I always regret the absence of “Bei meiner Wiege” at this place.
However, another kind of tenderness takes over with “Geheimes”. Now we are in the realms of young love: in “Geheimes”, a young lover whispers his joy about the next rendezvous with his beloved. The ardour gets deeper with “Ganymed”, and the lovely galloping “Auf der Bruck”. In Goethe’s “Der Fischer”, a fisher gets seduced by a mermaid’s song. If Goethe had been able to hear the gracefully rippling water Christoph Berner paints, and the cool depths Werner Güra describes, maybe he would have been more accepting of Schubert’s compositions. In Rückert’s “Dass sie hier gewesen”, the echo of a breath of a notion expresses regret and dying love and unutterable Sehnsucht. Simplicity, a breath, a sound, it’s over… And so it goes. Love and welcomes and farewells, and the macho joy of a shipman riding a storm – in fact, this is a man’s life that is painted here, but who cares, it’s painted so vividly by poets, composers and interpreters. After the intermission, we get to the later years in life, and now Werner Güra comes into his Schubert’s own, heartrending pianissimos, breathtaking legato lines, and none of this is reaching out for effect, it all serves a purpose. In the deliciously ironic “Der Einsame” we get to hear the silence in the lonely one’s home and the crickets chirping on his hearth. Christoph Berner brings them to life, just as he lets snowflakes fall on the “Winterabend”, one of my personal Schubert favourites, where a man reflects in the sole company of the moon upon his life and past love. There is not much left to say after this. The sweet little romance from “Rosamunde”, about impossible love in life and union in death is almost too much, and when finally in “Nachtstück” death has bent to the old man for the last time, it takes a long moment of stunned silence for the public to finally break out in almost exhausted applause. Like exhausted children after a long evening of story-telling we beg for more however, and the artists oblige first with “Wanderers Nachtlied II” (Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh) – and why is this not on the CD? – and then with “An den Mond”. A perfect choice to send the emotionally exhausted public home after this evening. A concert with Werner Güra, definitely, is not just a moment of beauty and entertainment; it is an experience in its own right. The time is gone, the concert’s over, but the thought of little boys leaving home keeps haunting me. Farmhands and shepherds, certainly, but didn’t also Schubert himself leave his home as a child, and also Werner Güra, for that matter? Oh yes, there is definitely something of Schubert’s Sehnsucht around the thought of those little wanderers.