CHRISTIAN GERHAHER AND ‘THE ART OF THE LIED’ 

Christian Gerhaher, baritone, Gerold Huber, piano; Music of Schubert and Rihm, Chan Centre, September 28, 2014

We were all very excited about the return of baritone Christian Gerhaher after his striking Vancouver debut with pianist András Schiff in 2012.  Unfortunately, the singer had been under the weather in the weeks immediately prior to this recital, and the original programme that included Schoenberg and Berg was completely changed to one that celebrated the Sturm und Drang poems of Goethe in the hands of Schubert and contemporary German composer, Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1968).  But, no matter, while the programme was unusual and while it may have taken the singer a while to warm up, we still saw an absolutely compelling display of artistry. 

In this day and age where so many lyric baritones attempt to dig deeper and deeper into song texts and to convey meaning more vividly and dramatically than ever, it is wonderfully refreshing to hear Christian Gerhaher.  He seemingly aims to distill the inner core of a song in such a refined and subtle way that dramatic details are ultimately subservient to the articulation of the work as a balanced, complete and jeweled whole.  This is not to say that Gerhaher lacks power and expression, though he is a light baritone.  It is more that the singer’s range of complex vocal colourations, fineness of detailing and subtle legato phrasing adds up to an experience that is simply special in itself – something like discovering a perfectly-whole ‘painting’ that, once seen, remains in one’s memory for a long time. There is no attempt to heighten the dramatic colours of the painting; the expression is pure, true and communicative.

This programme was distinctive since it aimed more to present reflections on Goethe’s poems than convey their text to the letter.  As Gerhaher writes: “I had always regretted that Schubert had set only three of these outstanding masterworks -- Prometheus, Ganymed and Kronos -- and so over a period of several years I developed the idea of having contemporary composers complete the cycle. When I asked Wolfgang Rihm two years ago if he might be interested in working on some of the five remaining texts, his first reply was that he normally chooses his texts himself. Nevertheless, two weeks later I had his setting of Goethe’s Harzreise in my letterbox.”  

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I found the Rihm settings captivating.  Wolfgang Rihm in fact wanted to be a painter when he was young, and, for all his expressionist and post-Schoenberg vocabulary, he often composes in wonderfully-refined musical ‘water colours’ that communicate readily.  His Goethe-Lieder may be uneven in inspiration, but I thought that Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber got right inside these portrayals.  The wonderful differentiation in the singer’s phrasing and dynamics and his unerring sense of texture and continuity moved the songs on so purposefully, yet often so quietly, as we were transported through a stream of (usually pale) cells of colour. Gerold Huber’s accompaniment always underpinned the proceedings discretely, revealing its minimalist fabric and only occasionally moving to a strong dramatic posture.  This was perhaps immediately evident in Parabase,” almost pointillist in construction and feeling.  “Hochste Gunst” took us cunningly into more haunting, ominous world, “Heut und Ewig’ combined expressive long lines with a particularly interesting tonality, while “Aus Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahren” provided a special mixture of refinement and drama.  

In all of these, it was the singer’s keen perception of how to vary emotional intensity and line that gave the songs such a natural cohesion. And who is to say there was not tenderness here?  Some of the singer’s yielding legato lines hinted so transparently at the emotional fragility in the subject matter. And one could often find a glimmer of affecting sweetness too.  The peak of the Gerhaher’s art probably came in the last poem of “Harzreise im Winter” where the he suspended layer upon layer of finely-differentiated expressive fragments within of a wonderfully-cultivated underlying flow, the legato line pure but sensuous, the articulation stunning, the journey inevitable and entrancing. 

Christian Gerhaher has been a distinguished Schubertian for many years, and the only problem at the start of the concert is that the remnants of his recent illness seemingly conspired against his tone colour and vocal freedom to some degree.  Yet the lovely “An den Mond” (in its second version) certainly left its mark, blending the strongest structural awareness with the most sensitive shadings.  “Rastlose Liebe” featured impeccable articulation with no shortage of dramatic force, and the quiet still of “Nachtgesang” was almost transfixing. The three texts from “Gesange des Haffners” revealed remarkable poise and vocal control, the lyrical middle of his Gerhaher’s range blossoming in the second. Fortunately, all traces of vocal constraint magically disappeared after intermission. Gerhaher literally flew into “Prometheus,” the voice freer and richer, characterization more telling, achieving an enviable coherence and power.  “An Schwager Kronos” was a remarkable model of motion and integration, though here I sometimes wondered if a slightly more deliberate pace might have been chosen. The closing “Willkommen und Abschied” offered yet more compelling refinement and detail, the full range of tone exposed, in a rendering of great fluency and vocal integrity.

I thought the alternation between the Schubert and Rihm settings was quite fascinating; almost like seeing Goethe through two quite complementary but, in many ways, entirely different lenses.   What was invariant was Gerhaher’s consistent communication of feeling and wonder.  The cumulative effect was fully consuming, indeed as if discovering a perfectly-whole ‘painting’ that, once seen, must remain imprinted in one’s memory.  And that is the ‘art of the lied.’

 

© Geoffrey Newman 2014

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