Brendel & Gorne

Belfast Festival at Queen's

This year's three-week long Belfast Festival at Queen's challenges in a way that deserves recognition. Literature, theatre and visual arts are all tellingly represented, while the music programming mixes daring and confidence, fielding, among much else, Cage's Ocean with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (27-29 Nov) and, last Tuesday, a debut partnership between Alfred Brendel and the celebrated young baritone, Matthias Gorne; all worth celebrating with a bang.

Gorne's performance of Winterreise could well emerge as one of the great readings of Schubert's cycle. His stage presence won't appeal to everyone - at times he seems like one of Eisenstein's Russian boyars recounting a terrible vision. But if his repertoire of physical gestures is limited, the voice and the intelligence behind it offer as much as two fine singers: a fundamental and astonishingly dependable richness of tone is overlaid by a breathtaking range of colour and an amazing capacity for communicating loss and terror.

Gorne's is a powerfully involved reading that never stands back from the developing drama. The imagery appals rather than comforts: the "Linden Tree" is less a memory of happiness than a place to hide; the "False Suns" a vision seen from the brink of madness, but transformed, thanks to Gorne's magical ability to draw the listener in, into a proposition that seemed almost sane.

And then there was Brendel: his reading of the piano part, so full of exquisite detail, transcended mere accompaniment. His delicate underpinning of the symbolism in the text and command of instrumental sound, at times as if an orchestra was playing, turned this performance into a textbook for anyone wanting to gaze into the dark heart of Schubert's terrifying work. My only worry came at the end: as Gorne strode out into the ice and chill of the final song, Brendel, out of character with the rest of the reading, warmed up the final turns of that old hurdy-gurdy.

Festival continues to 30 Nov. Booking: 01232 665577

Jan Smaczny