26 Sep 2011
Christian Gerhaher, Wigmore Hall
Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber presented Schubert’s song cycles at the Wigmore Hall, London.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
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Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber presented Schubert’s song cycles at the Wigmore Hall, London.
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.