Christian Gerhaher offers a special experience in his Mahler recital

GermanyGermany Mahler: Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano), Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin, 23.9.2019. (MB)

Christian Gerhaher © Gregor Hohenberg/Sony Classical

Mahler – Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Des knaben Wunderhorn (Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht’, ‘Ablösung im Sommer’, ‘Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald’, ‘Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen’, ‘Rheinlegendchen’, ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’, ‘Lied des Verfolgten im Turm’, ‘Das irdische Leben’, ‘Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz’’, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’); Kindertotenlieder

Christian Gerhaher in Mahler was always likely to prove special. Thus it was here at the Pierre Boulez Saal, if anything still more so than an identical programme – I thinkat the Wigmore Hall in 2014. At any rate, these were no repeated performances; in many respects, they proved quite different, bearing no trace of the routine.

Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen opened with Gerold Huber on piano nervous (in a good way!) and agitated, full of detail, Gerhaher surprisingly wan of tone (also in a good way: interpretatively, not by default). The sadness of that first song’s final stanza sounded still more sorrowful, even desolate, both in tone and tempo: ‘Denk’ ich an mein Leid! An mein Leide!’ A forthright ‘Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld’ followed, Gerhaher closer to Fischer-Dieskau than I can recall, not least on repeated, ironic references to ‘eine schöne Welt’, Mahlerian alienation strongly to the fore. Recent performances of Wozzeck (also forthcoming, in Munich) seemed to have left their mark on a final, hallucinatory stanza. Would his ‘happiness’ now begin? No, no: that could never bloom for him. The vehemence, even rage, of ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ again brought Fischer-Dieskau to mind; so too did attention to detail, if not the detail of that detail. Different colourings applied to cries of ‘O weh!’ offered progression without fussiness. Mockery, hallucination, and much else seemed to have developed from previous songs, whilst retaining their specific imperative and character in this. Memories of late Schubert haunted the final song: Winterreise and Schwanengesang in particular. They were memories, though, mediated through and through. Here were not only smiling through tears, warmth that could not warm: they knew themselves to be such.

A selection of Wunderhorn songs spanned the interval: different in mood and implication, of course, yet possessed of similar virtues in detail without pedantry. Bachian coloratura in ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht’, ironic sympathy in ‘Ablösung im Sommer’ both lightly suggested a continuation of that fateful, necessary alienation that haunts Mahler’s music and summarises its modern lot. A leisurely stroll – much to take in, all the better at such a tempo, as would also be the case in ‘Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz’’ – through the green wood of the following song prepared the way for affinity and contrast in ‘Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen’ and ‘Rheinlegendchen’. The prisoner in the tower sang freely, freshly, Gerhaher fully rising to the challenge of two ‘characters’ without caricature. ‘Die Gedanken sind frei’ (‘thoughts are free’) proved a final line rich with summative ambiguity. If Huber perhaps underlined specific figures too much in ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’, in danger of losing overall line, Gerhaher’s infinitely touching contribution more than made up for that.

Presaged in ‘Das irdische Leben’, Kindertotenlieder took matters further – and what a work with which to close! What a performance too. The different vocal colours in a single line such as ‘Als sei kein Unglück die Nacht gescheh’n!’, a line that yet remained very much a line, set the scene for a performance that moved through a profound musicality that had no need for histrionics, for anything externally applied. That ability to express all manner of verbal and emotional nuances without disruption to line was just as apparent in the sadness and regret, moving towards yet never quite attaining bitterness, of the second song too. Words were throughout permitted to chill through the bitter-sweetness of music. Was the hallucinatory conclusion to the final storm, repose ‘as if in their mother’s house’, enlightenment or delusion? In a formal sense, it must be the former, yet performance quite rightly left room for doubt. ‘Urlicht’ as encore brought lengthy, unfortunate, and deeply unsettling telephone disruption; and yet, finally, comfort and resolution.

Mark Berry

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