United Kingdom Brahms: Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 12.12.2021. (MB)
Brahams – Neun Lieder and Gesänge Op.32; Vier ernste Gesänge Op.121; Meine Lieder Op.106 No.4; Geheimnis Op.71 No.3; Die Mainacht Op.43 No.2; Treue Liebe Op.7 No.1; Lerchengesang Op.70 No.2; Acht Lieder und Gesänge Op.59 (‘Regenlied’, ‘Dein blaues Auge halt so still’, ‘Mein wundes Herz verlangt’, ‘Nachklang’); Auf dem Kirchhofe Op.105 No.4; Von ewiger Liebe Op.43 No.1; O kühler Wald Op.72 No.3; Herbstgefühl Op.48 No.7; Die Kränze Op.46 No.1
Christian Gerhaher singing Brahms: it promised much and, if anything, delivered still more. This was a song recital as finely planned as it was executed, as thoughtful as it was moving. Ably supported by his pianist Gerold Huber, not only did Gerhaher, by any standards one of the greatest singers of our age, give a masterclass in Lied-performance; he also showed quite how much his artistry has developed over the past few years. This is neither a musician to rest on his laurels, nor one to do something different for the sake of it; rather, with a quiet confidence and questing born of intelligence, sensitivity, and hard work, he led us to believe this was certainly the best way, perhaps the only way, whilst leaving open the door for other possibilities in subsequent reflection.
Much nonsense is spoken about Brahms songs. Some would have them all too similar, but then they might say the same about the composer’s symphonic works. Look, listen beneath the surface and you will divine a whole universe as distinctive and as varied as that of Schubert or Schumann. The first half offered bold programming in itself. If you place the Op.32 songs and the Four Serious Songs there, do you run the risk of upstaging whatever comes afterwards? Perhaps, but if so, that risk was averted, by construction and performance of a second half that related to, extended, and contrasted with what we had heard, with where Brahms had travelled already beyond mere death. Moments of Romantic wonder, of a divine spark that actually makes life worth living even if it lies within rather than beyond this world, found themselves retrospectively bathed in light as well as further darkness. Gerhaher and Huber took seriously, as well they might, Brahms the Bible-loving agnostic as one of the nineteenth-century’s most intriguing theologians. Mortality may, after all, be a blessing, not a curse. The German Requiem may already have told us that, but these songs, from both before and after, told us more.
Indeed, the structure of Brahms’s songs in this context came to represent an intricate jigsaw of response significantly more than a musical momento mori. We could hear that in the Platen songs of Op.32, just as in the Biblical texts of op.121; but we could hear it just as well, if differently, though a glass, less darkly, in the Schubertian flight of the early Treue Liebe Op.9, Gerhaher sensing and voicing inheritance without ever needing to underline. Echoed, with greater maturity, in the birdsong of Op.70 No.2, Lerchengesang, barriers between natural and metaphysical worlds dissolved. Other connections were to be heard, of course, again subtly pointed, as much by Huber as by Gerhaher: the strangely comforting and disquieting intimations of the G major Violin Sonata in ‘Regenlied’ and ‘Nachklang’ from the Op.59 set, the latter tellingly followed by ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’ from a decade-and-a-half later, haunted by the most celebrated Passion chorale of them all — and thus by Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps via Mendelssohn. There was autumn, of course, and something more final too, but there was spring. Gerhaher’s verbal inflection, ear for colour, and fine aesthetic judgement in declining ever to exaggerate were very much what was needed.
Where sometimes, a little while ago, I had begun to wonder whether his increased experience of opera — who can forget his Tannhäuser Wolfram? — was leading him to privilege sheer beauty of tone over other aspects of his art, here the thought never entered my mind. The comparison is odious, but from the opening of ‘Wie raft ich mich auf’, it was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau who came to mind. Sounding like Fischer-Dieskau was not the point, although more than once I fancied Gerhaher did. This rather represented a renewal of lyric art from the spirit of verse, a renewal that seemed, however incidentally, both to pay homage and to reimagine these songs once again on terms that were both theirs, Gerhaher’s, and ours. A rare evening indeed.