It seems there are pitfalls to celebrity even in the rarefied world of lieder. Baritone Christian Gerhaher sold out the Wigmore Hall so quickly another night was staged, which sold out too – to an audience both young and old, including, I noticed, the redoubtable Margaret Mountford, moving on to higher things after her misguided removal from The Apprentice. For many, he’s the finest lieder singer alive today, and inspires hushed reverence. So it was with surprise that I overheard an audience member comment in the interval that Gerhaher ‘clearly had a cold so there was no point in hearing more’.
A more staggering case of missing the point I have yet to encounter. This customer had made a fetish of Gerhaher’s voice, a voice which had nothing to communicate unless it was on peak form. Gerhaher does have one of the great voices of our time, not because it is particularly big or burnished, but because he knows how to use it to convey profound and complex ideas. Gerhaher is, in fact, the polar opposite of ‘The Voice’. The point of the evening was Mahler’s songs, and the artistry of remarkable pianist Gerold Huber had as big a part of play in its success; they have long been an inextricable duo.
He may well have had a cold, but that had little or no diminishing effect on these immaculately detailed, deeply-felt performances. His style is intimate, sometimes whispered, often vibrato-less, every word considered and weighed. Gerhaher confides in his listeners, bringing Mahler’s world of exultant hope curdling to despair, of innocence jangling with irony, up so close we can feel the warm breath of spring, the dank cold of the prison cell and see the child’s flaming eyes.
The special symbiosis between pianist and singer was there in the first of Leider eines fahrended Gesellen: Huber’s brightly alert figures vividly set the scene, while Gerhaher found a shadowy undertone for ‘my dark little room’. It could almost have been another singer evoking the little bird a few lines later, in gleaming, high tenorial colours, while Huber’s insistent low chords pulsed a warning, By the final verse, both exquisitely aligned their sounds in a drear, empty ‘my sorrow’.
While every note had a visionary intensity, the overall shape of this cycle came through powerfully, from a flood to tonal beauty for the ‘lovely world’ and an almost shouted cry of love, to the ferocious force of ‘I’ve a gleaming knife’, Huber penetratingly articulate, to a reading of ‘Two blue eyes’ of hypnotic stillness. No one creates space around their singing like Gerhaher.
Similarly, in Kindertotenlieder, they brought tremendous direction and shape to what can seem a mawkish cycle in the wrong hands. Those deranged repetitions of the grief-struck father rang true, and the sense of breathless anticipation felt piercingly cruel as Rückert imagines his daughter coming through the door. It wasn’t until the raging storm that Gerhaher unleashed his full, thunderous volume, the recital’s cataclysmic climax.
In between came songs from Das Wunderhorn, rightly characterised as rougher and more impetuous, with their disturbing, cheery violence. Never before have I felt quite so absorbed in these miniatures as a series of folk-tales. A spell-binding encore of ‘Urlicht’ transcended all that gone before; nothing could follow it. Food for the soul.