Much to Admire from Christian Gerhaher’s Schubert but Were Expectations Fully Met?

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 31.3.2016 (MB)

An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht, D 614; Hoffnung, D 295; Tiefes Leid, D 876; Abschied, D 475; Herbst, D 945; Über Wildemann, D 884; Der Wanderer, D 649; Der Wanderer an den Mond, D 870; Der Zwerg, D 771; Abendstern, D 806; Im Walde, D 834; Nach einem Gewitter, D 561; Der Schiffer, D 694; An die Nachtigall, D 196; Totengräberweise, D 869; Frühlingsglaube, D 686; Nachtviolen, D 752; Abendlied für die Entfernte, D 856; Wehmut, D 772; Der Strom, D 565; Der Hirt, D 490; Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren, D 360; Nachtgesang, D 314; Der Sänger am Felsen, D 482

There was a great deal to admire in this recital. However, with a few exceptions, I found myself strangely unmoved by Christian Gerhaher’s singing. Perhaps that was my fault or, at any rate, my problem; however, I shall attempt to explain what it was, for me at least, that seemed to be missing. Gerold Huber’s playing of the piano parts I found constantly illuminating: full of colour, incident, strength, subtlety, and a fine sense of form too. One thing for which I can certainly not fault Gerhaher is his programming, not just here, but elsewhere too, including a November recital in Vienna, in which I found his performance far more engrossing. Here, in London, the balance of Schubert songs, mostly but not all familiar, varied in mood, was well judged indeed.

Opening with an early quasi-scena, An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht, neither entirely characteristic nor entirely uncharacteristic, we heard sweetness, delicacy, and, when the verse turned nasty (‘Wenn ein schrecklicher Geier an der Seele nagt’), nastiness in the voice too. That, however, was something of which we heard perhaps too little later on; one does not expect Gerhaher to sound like, say, Matthias Goerne, for they are very different artists, but that was a comparison coming to mind more than once for me. A brief, welcome contrast in the Goethe setting, Hoffnung, was followed by what I thought of as very much the ‘real thing’ in Schubert: the despair of Tiefes Leid. There was sorrow, but was there despair? It felt observed: perhaps a valid choice, but one that did not entirely convince me on this occasion. The second stanza offered more, but was it enough? In Abschied, the long lines played to Gerhaher’s strength of sustaining. Here, we could feel the beauty as well as the pain of resignation: perhaps a little like Mahler, albeit less mediated.

In Herbst, there was less vocal defiance than one will often hear, but there was musical weariness, especially in the piano: the continuity of its chill was striking. Über Wildemann offered immediate intensification, first in the piano, and then next, yes, in the voice: considerably closer to Fischer-Dieskau than one might have expected. Uneasy repose in Der Wanderer led to an unmistakeable sense of portrayal of a wanderer in Der Wanderer an den Mond, both in the piano tread and in the softly restless vocal delivery. Abendstern perhaps inevitably brought to mind Gerhaher’s starlit Wolfram, but I found the vocal part in Im Walde a little too understated. There was no doubting, however, the dark nobility heard in the piano part, decidedly ‘late’.

Following the interval, Nach einem Gewitter presented a post-Mozartian mood in piano and voice, poignant concerning implicit loss: we might want to return to Mozart, but we cannot. It was in the piano part that the drama of Der Schiffer really seemed to lie: pictorial and form-creating. The second stanza brought butterflies to the stomach, but I am not sure that Gerhaher did. Likewise, in Totengräberweise, I heard the song almost instrumentally, at least until the penultimate and final stanzas, in which suddenly, Gerhaher seemed resolved to do more with the words – and how! Frühlingsglaube was suffused with quiet longing, whilst Nachtviolen again offered an emotional build up rooted in words as well as music. However, there seemed once again to be a somewhat excessive degree of vocal reticence in Abendlied für die Entfernte; Huber’s command of rhythm offered considerable compensation.

In the final group, Wehmut had a more strongly defined mood to it. I was intrigued that Der Strom sounded decidedly ‘late’, despite its relative earliness (1817?) Here, Gerhaher sounded more animated than had often been the case; if ‘enraged’ would be an exaggeration, it would be a pardonable one. Der Hirt received a splendidly subtle performance, the slight vocal wanness in the final stanza telling of much. Nachtgesang likewise drew one in subtly, as did the closing Der Sänger am Felsen. There one heard undeniable artistry of the highest order, Gerhaher offering, in one sense, a return to the world of the very opening, but now laden down by some of the cares voiced in the intervening songs. That was a significant achievement of both programming and performance. Perhaps some of my expectations had been unreasonably high.

Mark Berry


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