Christian Gerhaher & Gerold Huber at Wigmore Hall – Schubert’s Winterreise

Winterreise, D911

Christian Gerhaher (baritone) & Gerold Huber (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 22 September, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Christian Gerhaher. Photograph: Javier del RealChristian Gerhaher has emerged as the stand-out Germanic baritone in recent years. His Wolfram in Covent Garden’s production of Tannhäuser last December collected overwhelming critical and public acclaim. His career currently revolves around lyric baritone roles in opera, Lieder from Schubert to Mahler and major works of sacred music. As so often with the established and developing stars of the Lieder world, Gerhaher presented his interpretations of the three Schubert cycles at Wigmore Hall. The “Returns Only” signs had been up for weeks before this second recital in the series and the buzz of expectation amongst the knowledgeable Wigmore audience was palpable.

The baritone’s voice is a Rolls-Royce of an instrument: completely unified throughout its broad range; it moves with assurance between registers, while expressive colours can be added at will. There are ample reserves of power in full voice and therefore no need to pressurise the tone like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, while soft phrases benefit from the singer’s clarity of articulation. Gerhaher judged the scale of his performance through an acute appreciation of the size of the hall and its acoustic. The volume of his softest singing was such as to make us concentrate our hearing, not to strain it, while loud passages were kept within bounds, achieving the desired impact through contrast, avoiding any suspicion of superficial bluster.

Gerhaher introduced us to a traveller who was not already passive and demoralised by his experiences as he embarked on his journey. Wilhelm Muller’s hero in ‘Gute Nacht’ was still close enough to the events to remember what might have been and to respond emotionally. His tone brightened upon recollection of initial encouragement (“Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe”), then hardened at mention of the mother who had let him down. He was not being forced to leave but making his own independent decision. The girl would be the one to be surprised to wake up and find him gone. The weather-cock whirred noisily in the gale, provoking a bitter condemnation of the family who had betrayed him.

Repeatedly in the early songs the baritone would begin subdued and resigned only to get worked up into visceral anger at his treatment. ‘Wasserflut’ began in a virtual whisper, thus emphasising the contrast with its searing crescendos. The opening of ‘Auf dem Flusse’ was relaxed and free of pressure, the frozen stream evoking nostalgic memories of the initial meeting, only to change into the stern questioning of the last stanza. Indeed antithesis was at the heart of this interpretation.

A baritone escapes the awkwardness of the low word-setting in ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ but the traps of some isolated high notes lie in wait. Gerhaher’s wide range and even scale find him at home in tenorial territory and thus able to produce the honeyed sound with which Schubert periodically reminds us of past happiness. The opening verse of ‘Der Lindenbaum’ was delivered with the smoothly lyrical tone of a romantic tenor. He added some backbone in the second strophe, while the repeated word of the tree “Fändest” offering him peace was given with a particularly plaintive colour and distinctive accent. ‘Rückblick’ was taken at too fast a tempo for a song where every word needs to be heard, though Gerhaher did pick out the nouns “Lindenbäume” and “Mädchenaugen” which are so strongly linked in other settings with past contentment, the tree now robbed of its leaves in the song of its name and the two eyes whose loss is mentioned in ‘Die Nebensonnen’.

“Rast” was a pivotal song, where surviving hope began to slip towards realism and resignation. It is full of unhappy auguries of what fate holds in store. Huber’s rallentandos enacted the traveller’s exhaustion. Gerhaher stressed the word “doch” to emphasise the illusory nature of the rest he had thought to find in the charcoal-burner’s hut and the hope which seemed to linger in ‘Frühlingstraum’ turned out to be equally deceptive.Huber became increasingly influential as the cycle reached its climax. In ‘Einsamkeit’ the detached notes in the piano part rang out as if the ominous tolling of a bell. The promise of the posthorn in ‘Die Post’ was dashed, the disappointment of the now-broken man only dawning on him slowly. His playing of the flicking triplets in ‘Die Krähe’ showed his attention to valuable detail. In ‘Im Dorfe’ the snoring of the bourgeois villagers who lie asleep, indifferent to the traveller’s passing, were wickedly imitated by the accompanist, who also excelled in the interlude before the opening material returns.

Gerhaher’s last protest came in ‘Der Wegweiser’ (“Habe ja doch nichts begangen…”). It was the pianist who directed him towards acceptance and the final lines of that song were not cried out as so many before and the crescendo at the conclusion of ‘Das Wirtshaus’ proclaimed a fate embraced positively in a determination to press forward with his journey. The defiance of ‘Mut!’ was underplayed. A final reminiscence of the woman he has lost was registered in the slowing for the reference to the two missing suns.

How the collaborators perform ‘Der Leiermann’ is self-evidently vital. Here the tempo was fast, the piano figurations no louder than mezzo-piano and the vocal line showed no great signs of engagement but then, in his last, subjective utterances, Gerhaher’s traveller suddenly showed an animated response. Could it be that he was wondering whether the old musician could offer a way out at the eleventh hour?

A Winterreise, then, by no means painted in primary colours but an interpretation whose impact was very much the product of joint exploration of the score by its two performers. Their recording of the work dates from 2001; it is surely time for them to return to the studio to preserve their current thoughts on the cycle.

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