Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Gerhaher / Huber @ Wigmore Hall, London

12 December 2021

Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall (Photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber reveal a range of Brahms songs in all their glory.

The thesis of the concert was that while it ‘may seem that Brahms’ songs are exclusively concerned with death and melancholy’ the point of many of them is ‘not the pain of living, but the beauty, wonder and love that can exist despite mortal hardships’. While the final song in the main programme, ‘Die Kränze’, illustrated this particularly clearly, the evening as a whole was geared to revealing the multifaceted nature of the composer’s output. It included a wide variety of pieces that spanned 44 years, and was made even more special by the inclusion of two substantial song cycles, 9 Lieder and Songs Op. 32 (1864) and 4 Serious Songs Op. 121 (1896), in the first half.

One might imagine that a singer would make it easier on themselves to put these works later in the programme, as it cannot be easy for even the very best to launch straight into such demanding pieces. Christian Gerhaher, however, appeared so at home with the works that he proved nigh on perfect from the start. Not only was each piece micromanaged superbly so that the tone adopted for each note or line was highly fitting, but the actual range of sounds that the baritone produced was staggeringly vast. Every time one thought there is only a finite number of different types of sound that any one person can produce, Gerhaher introduced another that met exactly what the occasion demanded.

“Christian Gerhaher… appeared so at home with the works that he proved nigh on perfect from the start”

In the first of the 9 Lieder and Songs, ‘Wie rafft ich much auf’, what was striking was the coherency with which he captured such contrasts between, for example, the bold second line, ‘Und fühlte mich fürder gezogen’, and, in his hands, the highly lyrical third, ‘Die Gassen verliess ich, vom Wächter bewacht’. In this first song, Gerhaher also presented the four verses in such as way as to capture something of the piece’s cyclical nature, while simultaneously making it feel as if it really progressed from start to finish. 

The songs themselves are set to texts by August von Platen, perceived as the more ‘tortured’, and Georg Friedrich Daumer, seen as the more ‘sensual’. These allow for associated contrasts in the music, but the division between the two writers is not always clear cut. This allowed Gerhaher to ‘move through’ ‘Wehe, so willst du mich wieder’ and ‘Du sprichst, dass ich mich täuschte’, both with texts by von Platen, to Daumer’s ‘Bitteres zu sagen denkst du’, so that the middle song felt like a halfway point between the two ‘extremes’ of the first and last of the three.

The 4 Serious Songs that followed are all set to liturgical texts, with the first three focusing on death and pain before the final one offers hope, alongside faith and charity. This once again enabled Gerhaher to bring out many contrasts, with his performance of the third song, ‘O Tod’, proving to be particularly intriguing. The word ‘Tod’ itself was imbued with a heaviness that said so much, but the word that comes soon after it in each instance, ‘bitter’ on some occasions and ‘wohl’ on others, was always handed its own unique quality of sound.

Although one of the highlights was four songs from 8 Lieder and Songs Op. 59 (1870-73), the second half generally concentrated on individual pieces. These covered a range of years (1852 to 1888) and styles, but, while the choice may have been influenced by a desire for variety, all were outstanding pieces in their own right. Each was executed impeccably by Gerhaher with ‘Treue Liebe Op. 7 No. 1’ (1852), which is imbued with intrigue, and ‘Auf dem Kirchhofe Op. 105 No. 4’ (1886), in which storm gives way to gentleness, standing out in particular. The chosen songs also featured some complex accompaniments, as well as times when the pianist essentially took on a solo role, and Gerold Huber consistently demonstrated superlative levels of precision and accomplishment in spite of the demands on his playing being varied in their own right.

For details of all of Christian Gerhaher’s upcoming events visit his website.

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