Christian Gerhaher & Gerold Huber at Wigmore Hall – Schubert

An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht, D614; Hoffnung, D295; Tiefes Leid (Im Jänner 1817), D876; Abschied, D475; Herbst, D945; Über Wildemann, D884; Der Wanderer, D649; Der Wanderer an den Mond, D870; Der Zwerg, D771; Abendstern, D806; Im Walde, D834; Nach einem Gewitter, D561; Der Schiffer, D694; An die Nachtigall, D196; Totengräber-Weise, D869; Frühlingsglaube, D686; Nachtviolen, D752; Abendlied fur die Entfernte, D856; Wehmut, D772; Der Strom, D565; Der Hirt, D490; Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren, D360; Nachtgesang, D314; Der Sänger am Felsen, D482

Christian Gerhaher (baritone) & Gerold Huber (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 16 November, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Christian Gerhaher. Photograph: Javier del Real“The best Lieder singer of our age”, I overheard a patron say at Wigmore Hall before this recital. That it was sold out long before the event suggests that hers is a widely-held view. She could hardly have been disappointed.The stimulating programme, devised by the two artists, has been heard at various European venues in 2012. Christian Gerhaher slipped in two performances of it (in Oslo and London) in an eight-day gap during the run of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at Frankfurt Opera. He showed no sign of vocal tiredness.

The voice is a light, liquid, high baritone. Head voice is the default timbre. One was struck throughout by the sheer consistent beauty of the sound, especially in the familiar songs. One is inclined to doubt the interpretative potential of something apparently so one-dimensional. But Gerhaher confounds such scepticism: within the parameters of such a voice interpretation may go almost unnoticed but it is definitely present, generated and directed by the singer’s imagination. Thus it was on this occasion.

It is in the nature of music-lovers and record collectors to look to the past for comparisons, Lieder overshadowed for so many years by the presence and example of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He took pupils and gave masterclasses and there was some anxiety that the outcome of his teaching activity might be the production of cloned versions of himself. The voice and style of Gerhaher are so distinctive and separate that the influence of his great predecessor amounts to admiration and not imitation. If we must classify his voice (and the German operatic establishment insists upon doing so) it has the characteristics of a baryton-martin, which is not only the preserve of French singers. The few operatic roles he has undertaken tend to confirm that he belongs in that Fach. The only doubt I have concerns his Wolfram in the Covent Garden Tannhäuser last year. Paradoxically he was the strongest voice in the cast; perhaps the sheer clarity of the sound caused that impression. However, that his immediate plans include the role of Rodrigo in Verdi’s Don Carlo has me puzzled. Can the voice be changing at the age of 42?

Gerold Huber. Photograph: www.gerold-huber.deThis much-travelled recital of Schubert songs (24, the same number as in Winterreise) have been selected from a range of poets, including Goethe and Schlegel, major and minor Romantic writers and the ubiquitous Mayrhofer. The selection has a certain thematic unity: love, travel, change and transition, death. Against a background of nature, earthbound and cosmic, alienated poets grapple with broken relationships. The predominant tone is one of melancholy, indeed there are unmistakable reminiscences of Winterreise in at least three of the settings. There are several rarities; all are high-quality Schubert.

The moon appears in several of the songs, personified, sometimes as observer, others as protector. An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht has the feel of a neglected masterpiece. It depicts the various moods upon which the moon shines down in its role as overseer at various stages of life.The setting of Tiefes Leid hardly reflects its title, with its jaunty tempo. The following Abschied is quite the opposite: the piano’s falling chords frame a setting of the solemn words which is marked langsam, wehmutig. Two of the most powerful songs have texts from Ernst Konrad Schulze’s Poetisches Tagebuch. Uber Wildemann depicts his headlong rush through an alpine landscape whose every attraction is closed to him because of his preoccupation with his lover’s rejection. Singer and pianist created the poet’s mood faithfully without exaggeration, Huber’s off-the-beat hammer-blows being particularly potent; and also igniting the powerful resources of singer and pianist was Der Zwerg, which was launched at a cracking pace that never relented. Following were slow, reflective songs. Abendstern is through-composed and maintains a perfect melodic shape. In Im Walde it was back to Schulze’s suffering. Huber evoked the poet’s on-going wretchedness in his powerful treatment of the interludes, the left-hand generating roars of anguish.

The idealistic picture of nature after a thunderstorm that started the second half lured Gerhaher into singing that was a fraction too soft and for once not all the words could be heard. It was back to normal in Der Schiffer, not the Mayrhofer setting which portrays a man revelling in the physical exhilaration of a boat lashed by wind and water but that by Schlegel where the boatman lies back and imagines a much more erotic experience. This is a musically progressive song. In Hölty’s An die Nachtigall the poet discourages the bird from singing because of the emotional disturbance it causes him. The song is composed in recitative format. Gerhaher exploited the freedom which this allows the singer to colour his tone and to adjust the tempo with imagination, while Huber made the quasi-improvisatory figures in his part seem newly invented.

Abendlied fur die Entfernte balances the general mood of pessimism, the singer’s positive assertions at the end of each verse delivered with ever greater confidence. The baritone’s vocal control was confirmed by the long, almost motionless depiction of nocturnal peace that is the penultimate song and which balanced Abschied from the opening group. In the keys in which Gerhaher sang no high notes were anything other than assured, while a very few low-lying phrases lacked substance. The singer’s enunciation of the texts was immaculate throughout. The occasional rolled “r” was noticeable but words and tone were held in exact balance.

The only rival Gerhaher has as a high baritone is Wolfgang Holzmair, who is some eighteen years older. Beyond the issue of vocal quality Gerhaher differs from Holzmair in platform manner: the latter, especially in recent times, has favoured a self-conscious code of body language to enhance the expression of words, mood and character, with grimaces, hands constantly in motion and other idiosyncrasies. Gerhaher behaves quite differently: he remains upright and generally still, underlining nothing by such extreme and pretentious means but letting his voice (and that of his admirable pianist) do the work.

It would not be surprising if other singers decided to perform the sequence of songs which Gerhaher and Huber have designed; it has many rewards.

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