No one who heard Christian Gerhaher sing ‘Oh du mein holder Abendstern’ in Tannhäuser at the Royal Opera House in 2010 and 2016 will ever forget the experience, given that his sound felt so quiet and yet filled the entire auditorium. The Wigmore Hall is a significantly smaller space, and yet the underlying principles that enabled him to pull off that feat were much in evidence in this recital of Mahler songs.
The evening began with the first song from Das Lied von der Erde (1907-09) and ended with the last. Gerhaher was superbly accompanied by Gerold Huber, with the rediscovery of the manuscript of the original piano version leading musicologist Stephen Hefling to conclude that there is “no doubt that all of Das Lied von der Erde was originally conceived for performance with orchestra or piano”. Gerhaher’s performance of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ revealed much about his ability to think through a song and to micromanage his sound as he continually adjusted its shape and textures in response to the piece’s disparate demands. At this early stage in the evening, however, his thought processes felt a little too obvious, so that there seemed something rather deliberate about the performance.
In this respect, the Rückert Lieder (1901-02) felt an easier challenge because, although the five songs vary considerably in mood, the progression that needs to be followed through in each one seems more natural. The performance of ‘Um Mitternacht’ was particularly impressive as Gerhaher brought out the cyclical nature of the song as he broadly pushed on the same parts in each verse, while also building up over the entire piece so that the final verse felt particularly commanding and monumental.
The programming was also thoughtful as the Rückert Lieder were followed by ‘Revelge’ (1899) and ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’ (1901). This is because, while both of these are from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the first time that all five songs from the Rückert Lieder were published together was in 1910 as part of a collection, Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit, that also included these two songs.
‘Revelge’ represented the moment in which this became a truly great recital as Gerhaher revealed to the full his ability to capture the emotional essence of a song through his vocal technique. Tied to this was his ability to make some declarations of ‘Tralali, tralaley, tralalera’ feel drunken and lilting and others seem particularly straight and precise. In a similar way, ‘Der Tambourg’sell’ really captured the sense of a man recalling happier, more innocent, times as a drummer boy as he now faces death. Huber’s playing also contributed to the stark emotional intensity of the song, especially as the final notes played out like a drumbeat that one minute was there and the next gave way to silence, thus signifying the end of the man’s existence.
The second half of the main programme featured just two songs, and once again Huber’s playing shone, especially in the opening to ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ (1898), which felt particularly sensitive and tender. The performance of ‘Der Abschied’ then crowned the evening, and it was remarkable just how different the piece felt in nature with a piano, although Gerhaher’s own considered sound also contributed to the way in which it came across. With there being a quietness and restraint about the performance that could never be achieved to the same extent with a full orchestra in a larger venue, it was almost as if glimmers of the divine were cutting through a void that otherwise consisted entirely of silence.
This was both a thoughtful and emotional performance, in which Gerhaher’s ability to seemingly ‘let rip’ on phrases such as ‘Wo bleibst du?’ while still imbuing them with enormous sensitivity was spellbinding. It was also a lovely moment to witness Bernard Haitink rising from the auditorium at the end to give the pair a well deserved standing ovation.
For details of all of Christian Gerhaher’s upcoming events visit his website.