Christian Gerhaher, Wigmore Hall

Gerhaher has been singing at the Wigmore Hall for years, so regular Lieder
audiences know him well. He shot into stardom with more mainstream opera
audiences with his Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannh‰user at the Royal
Opera House last year, which was reviewed
in Opera Today.
Gerhaher’s Wolfram was sensationally beautiful, perfectly
fitting the other worldly, rarified purity that is in Wolfram’s character.
Few baritones have that tenor-like lightness of touch. Gerhaher’s Wolfram
shimmered, but Elisabeth still chose Tannh‰user. Think what Wagner meant by

Vocal music, almost by definition, is about meaning. One of the fundamental
differences between opera and Lieder is how meaning is expressed. It’s not
simply a question of refinement or detail, but of perspective. In opera, an
artist creates a character defined by plot and music. In Lieder, the character
“is” the artist himself. In opera, a singer is expressing what the role
represents in the context of the opera. In most Lieder, text is confined to a
few lines from which a singer must extract maximum possible meaning. No help
from plot or orchestra. Opera singing is more extrospective. Lieder singing is more introspective.

The Schubert song cycles Die schˆne M¸llerin (D795) and
Winterreise (D911) allow more context than single songs, but their
narrative is internal, not external. Significantly, both are journeys, where
landscape marks stages in the protagonists’ inner development. Gerhaher and
Huber also gave a recital of Schwanengesang (D957), but it’s not
actually a song cycle but a compilation put together by Schubert’s publisher
after his death.

Die schˆne M¸llerin is interpretively more challenging because of
its deliberate contradictions — cheerfully babbling brooks and declarations
of love. But for whom, and by whom? The high tessitura is meant to
suggest the miller’s naivety. It’s a complication that a light, airy
baritone like Gerhaher doesn’t have to contend with, so the cycle is a good
test of his interpretive skills. This performance was infinitely better than
his recording with budget label Arte Nova six years ago, which fortunately will
be superseded with a new recording. Gerhaher uses his range more effectively,
and is more secure shaping phrases. His singing is particularly attractive in
songs like “Des M¸llers Blumen” which could be mistaken for a love song,
out of context. Yet almost from the beginning the poems hint at altogether more
sinister levels. The emotional range in this cycle is much more challenging
than the vocal range. In “Der J‰ger”, the miller’s jealousy erupts into
anger. Gerhaher expresses this through increased volume and projection, which
is effective enough, but doesn’t have quite the emotional wildness that can
make this song so troubling. Gerhaher’s miller isn’t menacing, even in
“Die bˆse Farbe ”with its hints of what today we’d call stalking, but
a poetic dreamer. Gerhaher is pleasant, but if you want limpid sweetness, Fritz
Wunderlich sings with such exquisite poise, his emotional denial is

What made this recital unusual was the inclusion of three poems from Wilhelm
M¸ller’s original set of 25, which Schubert did not set. “Das
M¸hlenleben” describes the girl at the mill, but comes between “Der
Neugierige ”and “Ungeduld,” which rather breaks the mood. On the
other hand placing it after “Am Feierabend” extends that mood too long.
More effective is “Erster Schmerz, letzter Scherz” before “Der liebe
Farbe” and “Bl¸mlien Vergissmein ”after “Die bˆse Farbe”,
for the spoken poems garland the two companion songs. Gerhaher’s reading of
“Bl¸mlien Vergissmein” was lyrical, leading smoothly into “Trockne
Blumen,” the poem enhancing the song.

In Winterreise the protagonist is leaving behind a relatively real world and
heading into the unknown. There are far fewer clues to his psyche in the text.
That’s why Winterreise is so fascinating, because the possibilities are even
greater. Performers have to connect to something in themselves to create an
individual approach that conveys something personal to the audience.

Those who’ve come to Gerhaher and Lieder via Wolfram in Tannh‰user will
admire the clean tone and even timbre of Gerhaher’s singing. There’s plenty
of scenic beauty in Winterreise, and some performances I’ve heard
make much of the external-internal interface, but Gerhaher describes rather
than contemplates. Individual songs like “Fr¸hlingstraum ”are
beautifully modulated. Winterreise moves in stages, and the structure
of this cycle is significant. The protagonist is heading somewhere, even if we
don’t know what will come of it. Is the Leiermann a symbol, and of what? Does
the cycle end in death, madness or, even more controversially, of resistance?
Here, we’re admiring Gerhaher’s smooth technique, so for a change, it’s
up to us to be the servant of the music and what it might mean.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Christian Gerhaher [Photo by Hiromichi Yamamoto courtesy of K¸nstlerSekretariat am Gasteig]
product_title=Franz Schubert: Die schˆne M¸llerin; Winterreise
product_by=Christian Gerhaher, baritone; Gerold Huber, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, 20th and 22nd September 2011.
product_id=Above: Christian Gerhaher [Photo by Hiromichi Yamamoto courtesy of K¸nstlerSekretariat am Gasteig]