Ah, just what you need to counter the ghastly faux-jollity of mid-December – an all-Mahler evening tracing the cycle of love from the searing despair of rejection to the bitter pangs of the loss of children. As ever with Christian Gerhaher, the music is faithfully executed, the style technically secure even through the beginnings of a cold, and the interpretation cultivated and more detached than that of most other baritones. It’s Gerold Huber’s piano which tends to supply the passion, however, so that even if the restrained fervour of the singing does not exactly sear you, there is still plenty of excitement from the keyboard.
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is Mahler’s Winterreise, and this performance brought out the sense of the narrator’s journey from initial rejection to finding peace under that ever-handy lime tree. This was not a reading of Mahler’s poetry and music to have you choking back the tears – rather, it was an almost cool observation of one man’s youthful passion, only straying into the realms of the wrenching with ‘Mir nimmer, nimmer blühen kann! Huber’s sensitive, finely phrased playing was a constant joy.
Selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn offered contrasts in mood although the most successful were those tinged with melancholy; Gerhaher’s very individual, inward legato line was finely displayed in ‘Ich ging mit Lust’ whilst ‘Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz’ with its heart-wrenching tale of the homesick soldier whose longing for Heimat is so strong that he swims across to it, was sung with what for Gerhaher counts as exceptionally emotive emphasis. ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ found Huber evoking all the brightness of brass and the sweeping sorrow of strings to accompany singing of exceptional skill and directness.
Kindertotenlieder is a work which some think is almost too sad to sing, so this interpretation of it, concentrating on the terrible narrative of the aftermath of the deaths of Ruckert’s children rather than the potential it holds for emotional empathy, would surely please them. For others, myself included, although the singing is surpassingly beautiful in every possible way, and the playing is both technically superb and richly evocative, this performance lacks the ultimate in involvement, especially at such moments as ‘O Augen’ and ‘Ihr wolltet mir mit eurem Leuchten sagen.’ That being said, the closing phrase, with its sense of calm haven after storm, was as movingly sung as anyone could wish for, the piano’s final notes fading with the perfect dying fall.
Urlicht felt inevitable as an encore, just as, say, ‘Frühlingsglaube’ would after a Schubert recital similarly concentrating on songs of melancholy and despair. From the hushed ‘O Röschen rot’ to the final ‘…ewig selig’ Leben,’ this was a vignette of Gerhaher’s artistry in its solemn, inward-looking style and its refusal to indulge in too much sentiment. It’s fairly safe to assume that the audience for Friday’s repeat performance will contain many who can’t wait to hear them again.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.