Irresistible Story Telling from Christiane Karg and Gerold Huber

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Schumann, Pfitzner, Mahler: Christiane Karg (soprano); Gerold Huber (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 16.9.2017. (CC)

Christiane Karg © Gisela Schenker

Schubert – Winterreise, D911/24: Der LeiermannDer Zwerg, D771, Erlkönig, D328

Schumann – Aus alten Märchen Op.48 No.15; Ein Jüngling Liebt ein Mädchen Op.48 No.11; Waldesgespräch Op.39 No.3; Auf einer Burg Op.39 No.7; Im Walde Op.39 No.11; Die Meerfee Op.125 No.1; Der arme Peter Op.53 No.3; Die Löwenbraut Op.31 No.1

Pfitzner – Hast du von den Fischerkindern das alte Märchen vernommen?, Op. 7 No.1; Lockung, Op. 7 No.4; Gretel, Op. 11 No.4; Alte Weisen, Op. 33 No.2; Ich fürcht nit Gespenster, Nachtwanderer, Op.7 No.2

Mahler – Das Knaben Wunderhorn: Des Antonius von Padua FischpredigtRheinlegendchenVerlorne Müh, Ablösung im SommerDas irdische Leben,  Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, Hans und Grete

This was a very different programme, near the start of the Wigmore 2017/18 season, from that presented by Christiane Karg at the Proms Chamber Music Series around a month ago (review). On that occasion the featured composers were Guridi, Duparc, Ravel, Koechlin and Poulenc. Karg sounded more at home here, both in repertoire and, indeed, in venue. The concert was advertised on the Wigmore website with a heading: “Es war einmal … Märchenhafte Segenwelt” (Once upon a time … A fairytale world of legends) although that seemed to have disappeared in the printed documentation for the concert itself.

The opening was daring: the last song of the end of a huge journey, ‘Der Leiermann’ from Schubert’s Winterreise. Emotionally discombobulating for the listener, it was nevertheless a performance with superb clarity of utterance, Karg’s tone appropriately, and powerfully, blanched. Her simple way of phrasing the highly charged phrase “Wunderliche Alter” gave it great meaning; in full contrast came a rapid Der Zwerg. As with the surrounding two songs, there is more than one character present (that character is silent in ‘Leiermann’), and Karg differentiated the voices in Der Zwerg superbly, narrating the drama brilliantly (she has the low notes the melodic line requires, too). Gerold Huber was splendid as co-creator (much more apt a descriptor than “accompanist” here): bass gestures took on huge resonance. Finally, the well-known Erlkönig, superbly painted by Karg. It was an occasionally (and deliberately, surely) radical interpretation, the pederast undertone of the Elkönig’s invitations to the young boy seeming to take on decidedly uncomfortable implications. All credit to Huber’s handling of the piano parts, particularly with the challenges of Erlkönig.

From Schubert’s fantastical world to Schumann’s, in ‘Aus alten Märchen’ from Dichterliebe; a heartfelt, beautiful interpretation. It led to a trio of songs from the Op.39 Liederkreis: a ‘Waldesgespräch’ of wonderful rhythmic Schwung and impeccable diction, a blanched, hymnic ‘Auf einer Burg’ and a perhaps less rhythmic than expected ‘Im Walde’. Continuing the Nature/magical theme, Die Meerfee (Op.125 No.1) was presented as beautiful and bright (those who know this song from Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg’s DG Schumann disc would find Karg and Huber even more persuasive). Huber’s rendition of the angular piano contribution to ‘Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen’ (Dichterliebe) was a thing of joy. Two longer songs to round off the first part: the superbly narrated Der arme Peter and a beautifully done account of the rather grizzly story of Die Löwenbraut (The Lion’s Bride).

The main draw of this recital for me was the inclusion of Pfitzner songs. One of the most cruelly under-rated composers, Pfitzner’s large output deserves mining. There are over 100 Lieder in his worklist. Karg included three of the five songs of Pfitzner’s Op.7 (1888-1900). Immediately with Op.7 No.1, ‘Hast du von den Fischerkindern das alte Märchen vernommen (Have you heard the old fairy tale about the fisher’s children?) we were in a different, more heady world. The magical ‘Lockung’ (Temptation) boasted a fantastical piano part, particularly around the idea of the mermaid’s whisper (a magical idea in and of itself!). To prove Pfitzner can do simple and uncomplicated, the sweet ‘Gretel’, Op. 11 No.5 came before the imaginative piano writing of ‘Ich fürcht nit Gespenster’ (I fear no ghosts). The link between the piano writing and indeed words of Nachtwanderer (it begins “Er reitet nachts auf einem braunen Roß”) was another example of Karg’s fine programming. This is a simply superb song; Karg deserves some sort of a medal for bringing this repertoire to our attention.

Far more familiar fare in Mahler: Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt to begin with, given at a surprisingly measured tread – too much so, perhaps. Rheinlegendchen was, however, deliciously delivered with a charming end from both singer and pianist. It was nice to have some less familiar fare here, too: the 1886 song Hans und Grete, joyous in every regard, before the slow dance-like swing of the more familiar Verlorne Müh’ and the echt-Mahlerian Ablösung im Sommer.

Putting Das irdische Leben and Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen next to each other to conclude the advertised programme ensured an emotional reaction. Huber set the scene perfectly for the former; the end of that song was crushing from both. The final offering, with superb breath control from Karg, acted as a stark reminder of the power of Mahler’s music.

One encore and, as one might expect with a programme of this imagination and integration, it was an apt and unexpected one. More Des Knaben Wunderhorn, but this time from the pen of Richard Strauss: Hat gesagt – bleibt’s nucht dabei, Op. 36 No.3. Karg read out the text in English before delivering the song, wonderfully. How nice to have the luxury of the text even in encore! The performance was, as one might expect from these two performers, impeccable.

Incidentally, it’s nice to see the new design of Wigmore programmes – more compact but just as informative and with the work order and artists printed on the front cover for ease of reference.

Colin Clarke

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