Christian Gerhaher has a beautiful voice, he is fortunate in his accompanist, he is clearly a very self-effacing fellow and he loves the music he sings. His Wigmore Hall recitals attract packed houses, a rather fervid atmosphere and sometimes embarrassingly adoring reviews. Gerhaher is the very embodiment of the old-fashioned recitalist – formal in his white tie and tails, eschewing gesture and external manifestation of feeling, his lovely voice seldom wringing too much nuance out of a phrase, and his stage presence reassuring.
The programme was varied, with a few delightful Schubert lollipops to assure the faithful that they may drink from the divine fountain before they need to get involved with anything more taxing. It’s just about as corny as you can get, to begin a recital with ‘Sei mir gegrüsst’ with its sweet sentiments and seemingly never-ending repetitions – Gerhaher sang it rather nasally (incipient cold, perhaps?) and it took Gerold Huber a while to get into his stride. ‘Lachen und Weinen’ is a superficially jolly song, but the final line ‘Muss ich dich fragen, o Herz’ suggests sadness, not really brought out here.
‘Du bist die Ruh’ was a showcase for Gerhaher’s mellifluous legato line and capacity for hushed singing, although I would have liked a more marked diminuendo on the second ‘erhellt.’ Huber played it exquisitely, his earlier hesitation quite forgotten. It’s a treat to hear ‘Greisengesang’ in concert, especially when it’s sung and played with as much devotion as it was here.
The centre of the recital’s first half was the premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Tasso-Gedanken, which was written for Gerhaher. It’s perhaps even more demanding for both performers and audiences than Rihm’s earlier vocal works, employing as it does a mixture of quasi-lyrical phrasing, Sprechgesang and narrative monologue to tell the story of the poet presented in Goethe’s play Torquato Tasso. In some ways it’s about patronage and the ownership of art, a key preoccupation of the early Romantic period, when the public face of poetry was coming to be superseded by the egotistical individual. It’s a powerful, uncompromising work which demands exactly the qualities which define this Lieder partnership, and it made quite an impact.
Alban Berg and Hugo Wolf formed the core of the recital’s second half, with Huber’s playing of the nachspiel to Wolf’s ‘Begegnung’ and ‘Auf ein altes Bild’ the most memorable moments, especially in the latter’s noble solemnity. These Mörike settings are well suited to Gerhaher’s voice and style, at once acerbic and mellifluous, and ‘Schlafendes Jesuskind’ showed him at his best. Berg’s Vier Lieder,Op. 2 were less ideal although ‘Warm die Lüfte’ had just the right melancholic edge. Perhaps the evening’s finest singing came in the second encore, a wonderfully free and ebullient ‘Der Einsame’ (Schubert) with both singer and pianist relishing every note.
Gerhaher and Huber will return to the Wigmore with Winterreise on January 16th; expect to be trampled underfoot in the rush for tickets.