Wigmore Hall sees and hears Gerhaher and Huber as messengers of poets’ words and Mahler’s sounds

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mahler: Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 17.1.2020. (AK)

Christian Gerhaher (c) Gregor Hohenberg

Mahler – ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’, ‘Der Abschied’ (Das Lied von der Erde); Rückert Lieder; ‘Revelge’, ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ (Des Knaben Wunderhorn)

Baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber presented an identical Mahler programme twice in succession, on 15th and 17th January respectively, at the Wigmore Hall.

The venue was packed on both occasions. Arguably they could have filled a larger hall – such as the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Cadogan Hall, and so on – but nowhere would have their programme found a more suitable venue as the Wigmore Hall. The combination of Mahler songs, these two extraordinary artists and the intimate ambience of the Hall culminated in a truly breathtaking artistic trinity.

On paper the programme looked like a short recital; during the performance time stood still. Yet, as it transpired on conclusion, we were treated to almost two hours of exquisite Lieder interpretation. The partnership of singer Gerhaher and pianist Huber created an inseparable unity. Throughout each of the songs their storytelling was a shared experience of musical intimacy, drama and virtuosity.

Mahler composed the six songs of Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) for high (tenor) and low (contralto or baritone) voice – three songs for each voice  – for orchestral setting but also only with piano. The latter version first came to light as part of the Mahler Critical Edition in 1989. Gerhaher/Huber started their programme with ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ (‘Autumn Loneliness’) which is the first of the songs for the lower voice. There is a twenty-four bar long introduction in 3/2 time by the piano, with non-stop exhausting quaver runs mostly in the left hand. Here Mahler’s basic dynamic is pianissimo but with several expressive changes. Huber’s delivery was tireless; he delivered the musical text with beauty and discipline in equal measure. For the final nineteen bars Mahler again left the pianist to tell the story and Huber again served Mahler with self-effacing dedication. In the vocal section Gerhaher projected his words and melodic phrases with utmost care and modesty. He was singing Mahler, not Gerhaher.

The programme finished, as it started, with a song from Das Lied von der Erde, this time most appropriately with the last song that is with ‘Der Abschied’ (‘The Farewell’). Gerhaher sang from music, negotiating the occasional high register notes with consummate artistry: I forgot he was singing, not only telling the story. His final long-held repeated words ‘Ewig’ (‘Forever’) over the busy but highly expressive piano passages were magical. If the song was perhaps about life and death, in this interpretation there was consolation too.

Programming of this concert included a bit of music history. Mahler’s five Rückert Lieder were first published together with two additional songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) in 1910. Here we heard all seven songs before the interval, followed by one more Wunderhorn song (‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’) after the interval. Gerhaher’s tonal painting of specific words, his elastic but well-planned rubato within the bars, his occasional almost operatic outbursts and Huber’s dramatic as well as lyrical interventions gave us a true insight into the thought processes of poet and composer.

‘Revelge’ (‘The Dead Drummer’) and ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’ (‘The Drummer Boy’) from the Wunderhorn songs tell heart-breaking stories. Owing to the words, the music and Gerhaher/Huber’s astonishing presentation I was truly heartbroken.  Mahler’s marching motives delivered by pianist Huber in ‘Revelge’ was as frightening as any call to arms; it was also more effective than in many orchestral performances.

Throughout the recital Gerhaher employed purity without vibrato, specific tonal colours for words particularly important in the story, a wide dynamic range within the confine of the venue and full discipline. He was standing in front of the piano’s open lid – as if to emphasize that piano and voice were united as a single musical tool – and he did not move at all. It was all about the sounds of Mahler illustrating the words of the poets; the artists were the messengers. One could not wish for more.

Agnes Kory

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