Ferne Geliebte

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
An die Ferne Geliebte [13:28]
Adelaide [5:57]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Das Büch der Hängenden Gärten [25:25]
Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
Trost unglücklicher Liebe [3:31]
Geistliches Lied [3:05]
Das Leben ist ein Traum [3:43]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Fünf lieder nach Ansichtskartentexten von Peter Altenberg [11:32]
Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano)
rec. January 2012, Studio II of Bayerische Rundfunk, Munich
SONY 88691935432 [67:05]
This is a wonderful disc, the finest song recital to come my way in some time, as much for the well curated choice of repertoire as for the quality of the musical vision. Gerhaher and Huber give us a summation of the German Lied tradition, encompassing what many would see as its very beginning and its very end. The First Viennese School is represented by Haydn and Beethoven, while the Second gets cycles from Schoenberg and Berg. What in some hands might seem polar opposites here become complementary halves, and one turns to one School with new ears, having been refreshed by knowledge of the other.
Any new disc from Christian Gerhaher is an event, something to get excited about, as he is one of the finest Lied singers we have today. You can take the beauty of his tone for granted: it’s silky, gentle, warm and very beautiful, a worthy successor to the likes of Fischer-Dieskau. What sets him out as special, however, is the supreme intelligence with which he combines his vocal tone with interpretation of the words. He has the ability to render vivid even a cycle as well known as An die Ferne Geliebte through the way he, for example, holds on to a consonant for just that tiny moment longer, or the way he elides one phrase into another so as to shine a new light on a phrase the listener thinks he knows inside out. He sounds as if he is creating this music not just afresh but almost for the very first time. In fact there is an exploratory, almost tentative nature to his singing that is incredibly compelling, at times nigh heartbreaking. Nowhere is this more effective than in the final song of An die Ferne Geliebte, where the poet tenderly uses his songs to eliminate the distance between himself and his “distant beloved.” The early stanzas of the song are shot through with almost unbearable longing, which then transforms into triumphant hope with the return of the opening motif in the final verse. It turns the cycle from something beautiful into something transcendent, confirming this as what is for me one of the finest interpretations of the cycle on disc.
So how do Gerhaher and Huber deal with the prickly challenges of the Second Viennese School? Triumphantly! The most surprising and, in many ways, the most interesting part of the disc is Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens cycle. This, I suspect, was particularly special to Gerhaher, as he accompanies it with a special essay in the booklet, tracing the development of the poetry and even using a diagram to illustrate the emotional arc of the cycle. His honeyed voice gets right inside Schoenberg’s illustration of love awakened in a heady, almost dangerous context. The young lover’s sexuality is first awakened in the sensuous world of ancient Babylon and the cycle charts the consequences of his awakening; but is it all a fantasy and is any of it real? Gerhaher inhabits the ebb and flow of the passion to an uncanny degree, unlocking the wave of expression to an extent that is almost unsettling for the listener. The rampant sexuality of the seventh and eighth songs is so powerful because the groundwork for them has been so effectively laid in the descriptive opening songs, and the final sequence, where the lover has to withdraw into frustration and fantasy, crackles with barely concealed desire. Huber’s accompaniment comes into its own here, picking out Schoenberg’s atonal piano writing with exploratory precision, painting with notes in a way that is every bit as effective as the singer’s. The whole experience reeks of the sensuous, perfumed world of fin-de-siècle Vienna and, lest that seem clichéd, it has an uncanny ability to leave the listener emotionally drained. Stefan George’s dense, almost Wildean poetry, fits convincingly with Schoenberg’s music and here finds interpreters whose belief in it is complete. However, the pianistic colouring is, if anything, even more impressive in the Altenberg Lieder - listen to the snowstorm that Huber depicts in the opening bars - and Berg’s writing, in many ways even more avant-garde than Schoenberg’s, stretches Gerhaher to produce an entirely different kaleidoscope of sound with his voice, sometimes even approaching falsetto. It works extremely well, however, and it’s entirely appropriate for the fragmented, sometimes illusory world of Altenberg’s texts. The vocal line is smooth and linear, even while the piano seems lost in abstract colouring. It’s a wonderful mix, less intoxicating than the Schoenberg but, for me, more powerful in its ability to suggest, and I love the way the performers rise to its challenge.
Gerhaher and Huber pay the Haydn songs the great compliment of taking them seriously, and the intensity of the performances pays rich dividends, especially in Das Leben ist ein Traum whose direct poetry and simple melody are elevated into something very special by a performance of concentration and vision. Similarly, the thoughtfulness of the other songs, with their spiritual messages, is clear and purposeful with little touches, such as the modulations from minor to major, made to bring great rewards. It was an inspired idea to end with Beethoven’s visionary Adelaide, a summary of Beethoven’s achievement in song and a look forward to the achievements of those who would succeed him in the classical tradition. Gerhaher is at his most poetic here, lyrical and ardent with a lovely ring to the upper reaches of his register, while Huber’s accompaniment is never “by numbers” but he brings the setting to life with each of Beethoven’s deft touches rendered magical under his fingers. This song sets the seal on an unusual but incredibly effective perusal of the German Lied tradition, well programmed and brilliantly designed.
There are quibbles, most notably in the balance which, to my ears, gives parity to piano and voice in a way which ends up giving the piano de facto dominance, making the singer sometimes a little difficult to hear. That’s a pity when the quality of what the singer has to offer is so stupendous, but it’s something you’ll find yourself tuning into as you get further into this quite extraordinary disc. Rush out and buy it!
Simon Thompson
A quite extraordinary disc. Rush out and buy it!