Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Winterreise: Gerhaher / Huber @ Wigmore Hall, London

16 January 2019

Christian Gerhaher

Christian Gerhaher
(Photo: Alexander Basta)

A German interviewer once asked the Austrian baritone Florian Boesch, how Wigmore Hall audiences respond to recitals, given that they are English and Lieder is German – Boesch took the question entirely seriously, and replied most emphatically that the Wigmore audience is definitely the best, and they “really understand Lieder, believe me.” No better evidence of this could be provided than last night’s recital, when a completely packed house received this poetically played and vigorously sung Winterreise. ‘Received’ is somehow the right word, in the sense that Wordsworth’s ‘uncertain heaven’ is ‘received / Into the bosom of the steady lake’ since the atmosphere is of absorbing or being given a sacrament.

Is that impression justified by the performance? Certainly, in the playing of Gerold Huber, which belongs up there with the greatest, in its nuance, fluency and expressiveness, but it’s questionable as to whether or not Christian Gerhaher’s singing quite equals it. The voice seems to have taken on a more strident note of late, and such tenderness as there is, just stops short of being genuinely moving. This is a somewhat unvaried interpretation, powerfully forte at the more dramatic moments yet still a generally outward one – it’s not mere narrative, but at the same time one does not feel totally swept up in it. There was nothing of the wholehearted identification found in the interpretation of the aforementioned Boesch – last heard in Amsterdam in November – and we left the Wigmore Hall feeling pleased rather than completely shattered.

But do people want to be emotional wrecks at the end of Winterreise, or for that matter after Three Sisters or King Lear? Some would say yes, I want to be totally swept away – for others, such art is not in its intensity, as Keats famously averred, but in its ability to allow for diverse readings of what is sung and played. Here, Gute Nacht – wonderfully introduced and concluded by Huber’s sensitive playing – was a straightforward narrative, gracefully sung yet with little sense of the betrayal or the gentle acquiescence involved. At the close of Die Wetterfahne, the voice rose to powerful heights but did not convey much of the searing bitterness suggested by the words.

Der Lindenbaum was played with delicacy and sung as a poem of regret, the line ‘Hier findst du deine Ruh’!’ strongly emphasized yet omitting any sense of irony. One might wish to hear a feeling of gritted-teeth determination at ‘Ich wendelte mich nicht’ but Gerhaher prefers a more narrative approach, leading into a ruminative final stanza. In Frühlingstraum the full beauty of the voice, with its somehow unearthly quality, was fully displayed yet one wanted more of the emotion inherent at such moments as ‘Von Wonne und Seligkeit.’

Die Krähe was remarkable for the eerie evocation of the crow’s flight conjured up by Huber,and with the nostalgic Täuschung  and the gehende bewegung of Der Wegweiser, Gerhaher evoked that sense of quiet shared confidences which is so much his trademark, trudging on with steely, clear-eyed purpose. Das Wirtshaus highlighted Huber’s noble, solemn phrasing of this prayer-like song, matched by Gerhaher with singing of muted splendour. Der Leiermann was as bleak as can be imagined, with no hope offered for this partnership of protagonist and ‘Wünderlicher Alter.’

A short but absolute silence at the close was followed by an enthusiastic ovation, as one would expect from any exhibition of this exceptional Lieder partnership in this hallowed place.

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