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S & H Recital Review

Schubert, "Schwanengesang," Christian Gerhaher (baritone) Gerold Huber (piano) Wigmore Hall, Monday October 22nd. (M.E.)


Writing about Christian Gerhaher's debut recital here, the "Daily Telegraph" critic commended him especially for his "....old fashioned virtues," most of which appeared to be to do with the fact that Gerhaher is virtually gestureless (or should that be gesture-free?) and since then many others have spoken approvingly of this aspect of his performance. I found his platform manner irritating; he stands stock still, arms stiffly by his side, and occasionally jabs at us with his right forefinger, rather in the manner of Robert Höll - but Höll is by far the better singer. I mention this by way of introduction mainly to refute what I take to be nonsense about old-fashioned singing, whatever that may be; for example, I suppose Matthias Goerne exemplifies what might be called modern singing in that his platform manner is intensely demonstrative, but the voice and interpretation are a united whole.

Who are these old-fashioned singers, I wonder, who merely stood motionless and entranced us all without moving a muscle? I'm old enough to have seen quite a few singers and I can't recall any who answer to that description. If Gerhaher really were some kind of wunderkind I'd be happier about his woodenness, but in fact he's just a good, solid baritone in the Henschel mould, with a few nods towards Quasthoff in the slower pieces.

The accompanist, Gerold Huber, is the complete opposite; he behaves like an "old fashioned concert pianist," complete with head- tossing and arm-waving. There were times when one would have thought he was playing Rachmaninov, but his is still a remarkable talent; it is seldom that one hears a pianist with such delicate use of the pedals, and so refined a touch in the softer passages - Julius Drake springs to mind as an influence.

"Liebesbotschaft" was affected by nervousness on the part of both singer and pianist, and neither really settled down until "Kriegers Ahnung," where Huber played with a real sense of drama and Gerhaher sang the lines "Wie hab' ich oft so süss geträumt an ihrem Busen warm / wie freundlich schien des Herdes Glut, lag sie in meinem Arm...... " with sensitivity. I would say that he is at his best in slower, more reflective numbers, despite not being possessed of much in the way of a smooth legato line; my major question with his singing is his tendency to chop up the phrasing, obviously striving for effects which he does at times bring off, but which often tend to make his singing sound lumpy and under-powered. That being said, he obviously has the reserves there when needed, as he proved later in the cycle.

"Ständchen" was sung with eagerness and fluency, if not quite managing the youthful ardour of Ainsley or the urgency of Quasthoff, and "Abschied" brought the Rellstab settings to a lively conclusion. All credit to Huber for his subtly varied playing here, and to Gerhaher for sustaining his melancholy interpretation of the song, but I do wish he had varied the subjects a little - the "freundlichen Mägdlein" and the "Sterne verhüllet euch grau" were bid farewell in exactly the same tone and with precisely the same phrasing. I found myself thinking fondly of the rueful smile which both Fischer-Dieskau and Ainsley manage to suggest in their tone at the former line.

In the Heine settings, the finest singing was to be heard in "Ihr Bild," which was in fact the high point of the whole recital. Huber played with edge-of-seat delicacy and poise, and the baritone's singing of "...und das geliebte Antlitz / Heimlich zu leben begann" showed him at his best, displaying a genuine care for the words and a feeling for the musical line. "Das Fischermädchen" showed some of the mischievousness which "Abschied" lacked; you almost heard the leer in the tone at "...und mache schöne Perle in seine Tiefe ruht."

"Der Doppelgänger" was delivered with skill and well-judged contrasts in the verses, but without that metaphysical horror brought to it by, say, Goerne; the tone was beautiful, but there was little sense of anguish. Graham Johnson refers to the song's "creepy melisma, as if the singer were breaking out into a cold sweat," and there was little sense of that here, although Gerhaher pitched and controlled that crucial, raw high G at "eigne Gestalt" more than competently. "Die Taubenpost" was given without a break - Gerhaher is clearly "old fashioned" in regarding "Schwanengesang" as a true cycle, and there's nothing wrong with that, although I wish he could catch a little more of this wondrous song's heart-rending meaning - his singing of it might best be described as merely delightful, even at that achingly tender last line; call me a curmudgeon, but anyone who can sing this setting of the phrase "die Sehnsucht" with such throwaway charm still has a lot to learn.

I notice that Gerhaher has recorded "Schwanengesang," something which most singers wait until they are well over 30 to do; it's true that Goerne was only 29 when he recorded "Winterreise," but Gerhaher is no Goerne, and the latter has still to essay Schubert's valediction to the Lied. Christian Gerhaher has a fine voice, is clearly highly intelligent and musical, but he is not yet an exceptional Lieder singer, and I'm very surprised to hear how early he was adopted by the Schubertiade. In my humble opinion, rather than singing on the same platform as Quasthoff, Gerhaher would benefit tremendously from taking lessons with him.

Melanie Eskenazi

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