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Seen and Heard Recital Review

Schubert: Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano) Wigmore Hall, 14 September, 2005 (AO)


The first bars of the first song in this concert had me amused:  Huber's playing is athletic at the best of times, but here he seemed to be dancing as well as playing.  He thrust his head back, then buried his face close to the keys. Then his shoulders leapt into action as if they had a life of their own.  But his playing was very good indeed.   As soon as Gerhaher began to sing, it became obvious that this was going to be a performance full of vigour.  Gerhaher can be inconsistent.  His Schoenberg recording was disappointing, yet he's done excellent Dichterliebes and seems to have a natural fluency for Schumann.  Tonight he was in good form.

The Klopstock hymn Dem Undendlichen was a wonderful way to begin, for Schubert paid more attention to the musical imagery, of trees singing to Harfengetön, and planets dancing gravely to celestial trumpets.    Gerhaher made much of the joyous music. He highlighted words like Posaunen Chor, without detracting from the overall musical line.  Long vowels were deliciously coloured, consonants crisply and clearly formed.   After his dramatic, firm Gott, Gott, Gott ist es, den ihr preist!, the stunned audience broke into spontaneous applause.

The programme then evolved seamlessly into Schubert's setting of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister songs.   The tragic Harfner (harp player) is forced to keep wandering, trying to escape his past and his fate.   As an interpreter, Gerhaher can seem impatient, as if listeners should know what the songs are about.   He doesn't have much time for pathos  and overdramatisation.   On the other hand, his instinct seems to attach to the inner drama in the music.  He has a clear ear for its inner dynamics.  In Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt, he shaped the contemplative middle passages so gently that the song had a real sense of momentum.  Quasthoff has made Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen his trademark.  Gerhaher's voice is cleaner and his diction sharper, so his approach was more direct, if it didn't have Quasthoff's gravitas. 

Every singer has instinctive mannerisms, just as athletes have a personal style, or painters preferred colours.  The secret is to use them well, without letting them become formula.   Gerhaher's instinct is for shaping each word in a sentence with a slight gap between them.  Here he used it creatively, for the Rückert Daß sie hier gewesen, where the lines seem to linger on the stillness of the beloved's fragrance, lingering in the air.  Gerhaher lets his voice linger in the mind, hovering over the tiny, almost imperceptible silences he puts between words, especially the crucial last line of each verse that holds poem and song together. Mishandled, it could lapse into staccato, but there was no such problem tonight.   He was happily eliding words and adding melismas where they were needed.   This was another sign of his feel for “inner mechanics”.   It's a more difficult thing to pull off than straightforward expressiveness.  Usually it takes a singer of the calibre of Goerne to do it really well.  Later, Gerhaher managed to express the subtle structural complexity in the last verse of Himmelsfunken.   In this verse, he has to slow down, to sing of blissful rapture.  O süßer Hochgenuß!”

When he allows himself not to rush, Gerhaher lets his voice breathe warmth and colour.  Thus Alinde was exquisite, a gentle, lyrical song often the preserve of tenors.  Gerhaher's soft Bavarian vowels are an added bonus in songs like this, and in the lovely Ständchen, which was the encore.  That inborn smoothness balances his tendency towards gutteral staccato.  When he sang of the nightingales bringing rest with their Silbertönen, my heart too felt bliss.  Developing that balance between softness and strength would be productive, because there is a lot going for this singer.  He and Huber are a well-matched partnership, for Huber challenges him, pushing him along, forcing him to be as animated as the piano part.   An assertive pianist like Huber nurtures by getting his singers to  reach their personal best, just like a good trainer spurs on athletes.  Never believe that Lieder is an easy ride. 


Anne Ozorio


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