Switzerland Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin, Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano), Opernhaus Zurich, Zurich, 15.6.2016. (RP)
Franz Schubert composed Die schöne Müllerin in 1823 when he was in his mid-twenties. With it, he came as close to perfection as possible in what was then an emerging musical form, the song cycle. The texts are based on poems by Johann Ludwig Wilhelm Müller, who wrote: “My songs lead but half a life, a paper existence of black and white, until music breathes life into them.” Müller, like Schubert, died young, probably without knowing that Schubert had done more than set his texts to music, he had created a masterpiece. Die schöne Müllerin tells the tale of a wanderer whose constant companion is the brook along which he travels; it leads him to a mill and to the lovely young girl who lives there. His happiness is shattered with the appearance of a hunter, who wins the heart of the maiden. Distraught, he continues on, with the brook promising him rest and release from his sorrows. I choose to think that the sound of the water brings him much needed sleep, but it may just as well be his watery grave.
The hallmarks of baritone Christian Gerhaher’s singing are his seamless legato in combination with the clear articulation of text. Each breath and pause are an integral part of the musical line. His rolled “r’s” are remarkably executed and such a wonderful part of the fabric of his singing. Certain words, often those resting higher in his range, were attacked with more force and effort, however, than one might expect, leaving one to wonder if this was driven by musical inspiration or physical necessity. In what is basically a narrative, Gerhaher took every opportunity to create a character. In “Am Feierabend,” the miller’s statement that the young man’s work pleases him was delivered in a stolid, almost hollow tone. There was utmost simplicity, almost naïveté, in “Der Neugierige” as the young man muses, then asks the ever-present brook if this new sensation can be love. The unbridled joy of “Ungeduld” and the sheer triumph of “Mein!” turn to anger when he senses the threat posed by his rival, and ultimately to desperation as his dreams are shattered. In the final song, “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” true warmth is reserved for the brook which provides solace and lulls him to sleep.
Schubert did not set all of Müller’s poems to music. In his program notes, Gerhaher writes that three of them – “Das Mühlenleben,” “Erster Schmerz, letzter Scherz,” and “Blümlein Vergissmein” – provide insights into life at the mill, the protagonist’s emotional development, and his problematic personality. Gerhaher recited the poems where they fit into the narrative. As this was a predominantly, if not an entirely, German-speaking audience, there was no question of understanding the texts. Once again, it was the phrasing that was so impressive. With just the spoken word, Gerhaher created the same sense of drama as when singing, transitioning seamlessly to the moment when pianist Gerold Huber’s fingers touched the keys and instantly carried the mood forward.
Huber was Gerhaher’s equal in all respects. Schubert gave the piano its own independent voice in the cycle, and it is called upon to create the sounds of a bubbling brook, the rhythm of the water mill, the strumming of a lute, and, forebodingly, the call of a hunter’s horn. The emotional arc that the young man experienced was as deftly expressed in the piano as it was in the voice – maybe more so. Watching Huber play was also a delight, as his head bobbed ever so slightly and his mouth voiced silent words and sounds in wonder and awe, as if he were discovering the music’s delights and depths for the first time.
Gerhaher is one of the finest exponents of this craft. His impeccable musicianship, sensitivity to text, and burnished, lyric baritone are ideally suited to the repertoire. The full house at the Zurich Opera was testament to his renown. The artists, holding large bouquets of deep pink peonies, were repeatedly recalled to the stage and rewarded with a standing ovation. Both appeared at once exhilarated and emotionally drained by their efforts. For the audience, it was the same journey, rewarded in the end by the gentle, soothing brook meandering along its path. It was a cathartic experience.