United Kingdom Schumann: Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 15.3.2014 (MB)
‘Aus den hebräischen Gesängen’,
‘Venetianisches Lieder’ I and II,
‘Aus den “Östlicken Rosen”’,
Die Löwenbraut, op.31 no.1
No surprises here in one sense: an excellent recital from start to finish. And yet, such excellence cannot but surprise at a deeper level. Christian Gerhaher has a well-nigh perfect combination of vocal beauty and verbal intelligence. His longstanding partnership with Gerold Huber is clearly a meeting of minds and sensibilities; indeed, there were times when I felt I was almost hearing a single musical voice as opposed to two partners.
Gerhaher and Huber opened their recital with seven songs from Myrten. The free-spiritedness of the opening ‘Freisinn’ was communicated from the very opening, rhythms finely sprung, the second stanza properly going deeper, but not too much so. Subtlety of shifting moods was characteristic of the set as a whole, indeed the recital as a whole, another case in point being the understated sadness in the third stanza of ‘Talismane’: ‘Mich verwittren will das Irren; doch du weißt mich zu entwirren.’ ‘Aus den hebräischen Gesängen’ was more intense, yet remained variegated, aching for consolation its overwhelming characteristic. Huber’s handling of the crucial balance, or perhaps better the dialectic, between harmony and counterpoint put me in mind of Schumann’s Arabeske, op.18. The two Thomas Moore songs (translated by Freiligrath) benefited from telling rubato, in perfect tandem with verbal stresses. Both musicians, not just Huber, created that unmistakeably German evocation of Venice in the rocking rhythm of the first – and the colours, the colours at Gerhaher’s command…! Much the same could be said of the final two songs, both by Rückert. ‘Rapt’ is doubtless an overused word, but it might have been coined to describe the performance of ‘Zum Schluß’ – and, of course, the song itself.
The op.39 Liederkreis followed, ‘In der Fremde’ offering plangent, late Schubertian tones: here we seemed to hear a response to Winterreise. How the dissonances told, again quite without exaggeration; the overriding impression was of painful beauty. Likewise in the ensuing ‘Intermezzo’, bringing quite a lump to the throat, the syncopated defiance of its second stanza judged to perfection. ‘Waldgespräch’ peered forward towards Mahler, albeit with a different, Romantic form of alienation. This was the ebullience of an intellectual who wanted the forest, but would never quite be at home there. Huber’s piano part was every bit as sharply etched in ‘Die Stille’ as Gerhaher’s vocal line; as ever, they seemed to be of one mind and voice. ‘Mondnacht’ evinced a kinship with the night of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht: one truly felt its agonising beauty. Eichendorff’s ‘sternklar’ really was the word for it. A sense of discovery, including that of things yet to come, characterised ‘Schöne Fremde’, followed by the intimate sadness of age(s) in ‘Auf einer Burg’. An intense yet fleet ‘In der Fremde’ was followed by ‘Wehmut’, the voice-leading in the piano epilogue painfully exquisite. However, all was not beauty, or not straightforwardly so: Gerhaher’s withdrawal of colour for the final line of ‘Zwielicht’ duly chilled. The hesitations of ‘Im Walde’ finally led once again to the pain of expectancy – and the expectancy of pain – in ‘Frühlingsnacht’.
Schumann makes a valiant effort with Die Löwenbraut, but I cannot account it one of his great songs. Nevertheless, the suavely prowling lion in the left-hand and the lingering coldness of the ‘letzten Kuß’ made their mark. The rest of the second half was devoted to the twelve Kerner songs of op.35. Especially notable earlier on were the Nazarene beauty of ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud’!’ and the shining moon of the piano treble in ‘Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes’, tinged with melancholy. Rock-solid rhythm ensured the resounding success of ‘Wanderung’, the piano part almost seeming generative of the poem itself, rather than vice versa. The ardent quality to the final stanza proved heart-stopping. ‘Stille Liebe’ was simply lieblich, and ‘Frage’, yes, questioned as it should. Gerhaher’s shaping of the vocal line in ‘Stille Tränen’ would have impressed deeply in a purely instrumental sense; married to his verbal acuity, it proved unforgettable. The closing ‘Alte Laute’ showed again the necessity of pain, every bar imbued with the sense of life slowly passing. ‘Und aus dem Traum, dem bangen. Weckt mich ein Engel nur.’ ‘Requiem’, op.90 no.7 offered an apt, duly moving encore.