This elegantly planned programme framed the expressionism of Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängeden Gärten Op 15 and the miniatures of Berg’s Fünf Lieder nach Ansichtskartentexten von Peter Altenberg Op 4 with Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte and Adelaide, and gave further point to the link between the fathers of the Lied and their 20th century inheritors via Mozart’s Abendempfindung, in a finely judged encore. Anyone expecting outright romance from the Beethoven would obviously have been disappointed, since Christian Gerhaher’s objective was not to draw contrasts but to emphasize the continuity of the development of the Lied.
As if to accentuate the links between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ composers, the recital’s centre was a remarkable Haydn set, performed in beautifully cultivated English. Everyone knows the ‘Sailor’s song,’ but it has seldom been sung like this – taken completely seriously, as it ought to be, and accompanied by Gerold Huber with the kind of panache that makes you want to stand up and cheer. ‘She never told her love’ was another sublime example of this partnership’s art, Shakespeare’s words heavily laden with sorrow and Huber’s piano reminding us of how inventive Haydn could be.
An die ferne Geliebte was definitely not a heart-on-sleeve performance; indeed, Gerhaher’s habitual restraint here became almost classical poise, with very little in the way of special emphasis given to words and phrases such as ‘Seufzer’ (sighs) and ‘aus der vollen Brust’ (from a full heart). This style, which also embraces such quiet intonation that it seems at times to suggest the singer communing with himself, may not please those who prefer more of a sense of heartfelt involvement. Huber’s accompaniment frequently lent the music a passion which the singing eschewed.
In his typically erudite programme notes Richard Wigmore characterizes the Schoenberg songs as exuding “an otherworldly calm,” and this sense of detachment was finely brought out in Gerhaher’s singing. There was no lack of drama, either, especially in ‘Streng ist uns das glück und spröde’ (Fortune is severe and coy with us). Huber’s playing of the final phrases surrounding the troubling conclusion of the piece sent the audience out in eager anticipation of the works to follow.
We were not disappointed, that exceptional Haydn being followed by a searing performance of Berg’s songs to poems by Peter Altenberg. Gerhaher’s much-praised Wozzeck in Zurich suggests his present immersion in Berg’s sound world, and he negotiated the vocal leaps and other challenges of this music with persuasive skill, as always immeasurably aided by Huber’s superbly collaborative playing. To follow these songs with Adelaide and close with Abendempfindung reminded us of the unbroken line of inspiration which informs the tradition of the Lied.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.