Masters of song – Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber perform Brahms in Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Brahms: Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano). Opernhaus Zürich, 26.4.2022. (RP)

Christian Gerhaher (baritone) and Gerold Huber (piano) (c) David Parry/PA

Brahms – Neun Lieder und 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; Regenlied (early edition), Op.59; ‘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

Familiarity often breeds popularity with Swiss audiences, which may have helped to account for the large turnout for the Brahms recital by baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber at the Zurich Opera. Their joint artistry, to say nothing of Gerhaher’s compelling Wozzeck in Andreas Homoki’s 2015 production of Berg’s opera of the same name for the Zurich Opera, undoubtedly carried more weight. As they have in the past, Gerhaher and Huber again demonstrated their incomparable mastery of the art of song.

Time has not stood still for either singer or pianist, and they now seem to personify prototypical, middle-aged romantic artists. Gerhaher’s grizzled appearance and courtly, if stern, demeanor summons the mature Brahms captured in photographs of the composer. With his flowing mane of silver-streaked hair, Huber emanates a lighter, cheerier, if no less serious-minded, persona. Watching him mouth the words to the songs as he plays, one is struck by the absolute involvement in both text and music that he brings to each.

Gerhaher’s baritone was never the most sumptuous of voices, and the effects that other singers achieve with lushness of tone were never his to command. He has also been open about the impact of aging on the voice, as well as personally coping with Crohn’s disease. Neither, however, have diminished his artistry, and his baritone was, and still is, beautiful and sizeable enough for the repertoire that he sings.

The songs performed are Brahms at his most heartfelt and pensive. There was little of the lilt and lightness that is to be found in songs such as ‘Ständchen’ or his settings of German folk songs like ‘Sandmännchen’. They are works, however, ideally suited to Gerhaher’s singular talents.

At the core of the recital were Vier ernste Gesänge and Regenlied, two song cycles in the purest sense of the word in which a composer sets songs by a single poet. Vier ernste Gesänge is a hybrid of sorts in that Brahms selected four passages from the Bible: three from the Old Testament reflect on death and the transience of life, while the text of the fourth, taken from the New Testament, expounds on the virtues of faith, hope and love.

Unsurprisingly, the four songs found Gerhaher at his most profound and singing with the greatest depth of feeling. He could be forceful and declamatory, as when he sang against the swirl of piano in the first song, ‘Denn es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh’, or lyrical and soft when musing on death in the third, ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du’. When Gerhaher sang of love, the greatest of the virtues, in the final song, ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen- und mit Engelszungen redete’, his voice was forthright and dramatic, resounding with the most heartfelt emotions of the entire recital.

The Regenlied are settings of four poems by Klaus Grothin, whom Brahms greatly admired, in which the images of raindrops and tears create a framework that unifies the four songs. Singer and pianist expressed the yearning for the simplicities of childhood and the complexities of life with the finest of musical brushstrokes, climaxing in an expression of absolute sadness and regret when Gerhaher sang of tears streaming down the cheeks of a distraught lover in ‘Regentropfen aus den Bäumen’.

The recital began with the nine songs that comprise Op.32. The set opened with suspense, as Gerhaher vividly expressed images of the night in ‘Wie rafft’ ich mich auf in der Nacht’. He began ‘Nicht mehr zu dir zu gehen’ more spoken than sung, while mustering passionate outbursts of fury in ‘Der Strom, der neben mir verrauschte’. The nine songs are a unified arc of pain, frustration and despair that ends, somewhat surprisingly, with a radiant expression of devotion in the final song, ‘Wie bist du, meine Königin’, which Gerhaher captured splendidly in just a single word – wonnevoll, or bliss in English.

The highlight of the final group of five songs was ‘Von ewiger Liebe’ in which Gerhaher assumed the guises of narrator, young man and the girl he loves. Gerhaher effectively cast a mood of foreboding in his description of the couple wandering forth from their village as evening falls, with the young man expressing remorse for the shame he has brought upon her. Gerhaher built the young woman’s response from a simple, quiet declaration of love into a soaring, unswerving declaration of eternal commitment that rang through the opera house.

Huber was indispensable in capturing the richness of tone, sumptuous melodies and subtle mood changes that are synonymous with Brahms. In ‘Dein blaues Auge’, the second of four songs in Regenlied, the piano sparkled with pinpoint accuracy as Gerhaher described the clarity and coolness of eyes devoid of affection. Huber cast a subdued, spectral mood in ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe’, and summed up all the emotions that had coursed through the entire recital in the postlude of ‘Die Kränze’, when tears and sorrow were once again transformed into sound.

Rick Perdian

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