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Christian Gerhaher [Photo by Hiromichi Yamamoto courtesy of KünstlerSekretariat am Gasteig]
26 Sep 2011

Christian Gerhaher, Wigmore Hall

Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber presented Schubert’s song cycles at the Wigmore Hall, London.

Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin; Winterreise

Christian Gerhaher, baritone; Gerold Huber, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, 20th and 22nd September 2011.

Above: Christian Gerhaher [Photo by Hiromichi Yamamoto courtesy of KünstlerSekretariat am Gasteig]


Gerhaher has been singing at the Wigmore Hall for years, so regular Lieder audiences know him well. He shot into stardom with more mainstream opera audiences with his Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House last year, which was reviewed in Opera Today. Gerhaher’s Wolfram was sensationally beautiful, perfectly fitting the other worldly, rarified purity that is in Wolfram’s character. Few baritones have that tenor-like lightness of touch. Gerhaher’s Wolfram shimmered, but Elisabeth still chose Tannhäuser. Think what Wagner meant by that.

Vocal music, almost by definition, is about meaning. One of the fundamental differences between opera and Lieder is how meaning is expressed. It’s not simply a question of refinement or detail, but of perspective. In opera, an artist creates a character defined by plot and music. In Lieder, the character “is” the artist himself. In opera, a singer is expressing what the role represents in the context of the opera. In most Lieder, text is confined to a few lines from which a singer must extract maximum possible meaning. No help from plot or orchestra. Opera singing is more extrospective. Lieder singing is more introspective.

The Schubert song cycles Die schöne Müllerin (D795) and Winterreise (D911) allow more context than single songs, but their narrative is internal, not external. Significantly, both are journeys, where landscape marks stages in the protagonists’ inner development. Gerhaher and Huber also gave a recital of Schwanengesang (D957), but it’s not actually a song cycle but a compilation put together by Schubert’s publisher after his death.

Die schöne Müllerin is interpretively more challenging because of its deliberate contradictions — cheerfully babbling brooks and declarations of love. But for whom, and by whom? The high tessitura is meant to suggest the miller’s naivety. It’s a complication that a light, airy baritone like Gerhaher doesn’t have to contend with, so the cycle is a good test of his interpretive skills. This performance was infinitely better than his recording with budget label Arte Nova six years ago, which fortunately will be superseded with a new recording. Gerhaher uses his range more effectively, and is more secure shaping phrases. His singing is particularly attractive in songs like “Des Müllers Blumen” which could be mistaken for a love song, out of context. Yet almost from the beginning the poems hint at altogether more sinister levels. The emotional range in this cycle is much more challenging than the vocal range. In “Der Jäger”, the miller’s jealousy erupts into anger. Gerhaher expresses this through increased volume and projection, which is effective enough, but doesn’t have quite the emotional wildness that can make this song so troubling. Gerhaher’s miller isn’t menacing, even in “Die böse Farbe ”with its hints of what today we’d call stalking, but a poetic dreamer. Gerhaher is pleasant, but if you want limpid sweetness, Fritz Wunderlich sings with such exquisite poise, his emotional denial is chilling.

What made this recital unusual was the inclusion of three poems from Wilhelm Müller’s original set of 25, which Schubert did not set. “Das Mühlenleben” describes the girl at the mill, but comes between “Der Neugierige ”and “Ungeduld,” which rather breaks the mood. On the other hand placing it after “Am Feierabend” extends that mood too long. More effective is “Erster Schmerz, letzter Scherz” before “Der liebe Farbe” and “Blümlien Vergissmein ”after “Die böse Farbe”, for the spoken poems garland the two companion songs. Gerhaher’s reading of “Blümlien Vergissmein” was lyrical, leading smoothly into “Trockne Blumen,” the poem enhancing the song.

In Winterreise the protagonist is leaving behind a relatively real world and heading into the unknown. There are far fewer clues to his psyche in the text. That’s why Winterreise is so fascinating, because the possibilities are even greater. Performers have to connect to something in themselves to create an individual approach that conveys something personal to the audience.

Those who’ve come to Gerhaher and Lieder via Wolfram in Tannhäuser will admire the clean tone and even timbre of Gerhaher’s singing. There’s plenty of scenic beauty in Winterreise, and some performances I’ve heard make much of the external-internal interface, but Gerhaher describes rather than contemplates. Individual songs like “Frühlingstraum ”are beautifully modulated. Winterreise moves in stages, and the structure of this cycle is significant. The protagonist is heading somewhere, even if we don’t know what will come of it. Is the Leiermann a symbol, and of what? Does the cycle end in death, madness or, even more controversially, of resistance? Here, we’re admiring Gerhaher’s smooth technique, so for a change, it’s up to us to be the servant of the music and what it might mean.

Anne Ozorio

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