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
"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.