Christian Gerharer and friends at Wigmore Hall

This recital looked somewhat ‘epic’ on the page and fulfilled its promise in performance, presenting three major chamber works, each encompassing expressive heights, and nadirs, and unified by the nocturnal realm in which love, loss and life find freedom to flourish, and to fail.  

For his Wigmore Hall Residency this season, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher is performing seven concerts in collaboration with numerous fellow artists.  This was the second of two performances of a programme which included Notturno, asong-cycle for baritone and string quartet by the Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck (1886-1937), and a new arrangement for baritone and string sextet by David Matthews of Hector Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, and in which Gerhaher was joined by violinists Isabelle Faust and Anne Katharina Schreiber, violists Timothy Ridout and Danusha Waskiewicz, and cellists Jean-Guihen Queyras and Christian Poltéra.

Although Schoeck’s music is infrequently performed today, in his lifetime he had a prominent career as a composer, conductor and pianist, and alongside Arthur Honegger and Frank Martin was one of the significant Swiss composers of the 20th century.  According to Schoeck’s biographer Christopher Walton, James Joyce was to write to his daughter-in-law that ‘he stands head and shoulders above Stravinsky’.  He was friends with many of the great literary figures of his day including Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, and his oeuvre included hundreds of songs, frequently setting texts by Hesse, Nikolaus Lenau and Gottfried Keller.

Notturno is a highly original synthesis of song and string quartet, its five movements interleaving nine poems by Lenau with string interludes and concluding with a setting of a prose poem by Keller.  Written in 1931-33, it is a profound expression of the spiritual disquiet and disillusion of the inter-war age.  One is reminded of Berg’s Lyric Suite, but there are intimations, too, of Reger, Schoenberg and even, in the clarity of some of the instrumental textures, the neoclassicism of Stravinsky.

Lenau’s texts are prevailingly sorrowful, filled with images of twilight and darkness, of nature’s roaring and restlessness, of wild dreams and sleeplessness, of decay and dissolution.  The strings’ flowing polyphony conjured a spirit of eternal searching which complemented Gerhaher’s parlando-arioso, ever gentle, quietly roving, the harmonies never settling though never fully adrift from a sense of an anchor or goal.  At times, Gerhaher’s baritone, progressing tentatively in small melodic steps, was tinged with the lethargy of melancholy.  “Die dunklen Wolken hingen/ Herab so bang under schwer,/ Wir beide traurig gingen/ Im Garten hin und her” (The dark clouds hung so anxiously and heavy, we both walked up and down sadly in the garden) he sang, with understated sadness, the strings barely moving then piling into pinching dissonances to evoke the bitterness of the starless night and painful love.  Elsewhere, intimations of transfiguration conjured a quasi-peace, dreaming and oblivion freeing the soul and salving its wounds, “Des Herzens Wunde schliessen”.

The strings embodied dreams and ghosts – fleet and light in the second movement, the pulse relentless and tugging at the syncopated vocal line – and storms and winds, the cello’s tritone rises at the start of the third movement, Unruhig bewegt, voicing the wind’s chilling moan which strips the boughs and foretells of death.  Such portents eventually summoned an angry riposte from Gerhaher, “Warum denn aber wird dem Erdenleden bange,/ Wenn es ein Schein nur ist, vor seinem Untergange?” (Why then does mortal life grow fearful of its downfall, if it is mere illusion?), and the closing images of metaphysical despair were shaped with poignant, ironic beauty.  What a pity that the strings’ ethereal harmonics were disturbed by the raucous cough of one audience member. 

The final movement, Rasch und kräftig, began more assertively, with the poet-speaker’s affirmative reflections on solitude, but after the declarative opening Keller’s hymn to the celestial constellations was dreamy and gentle, assuaging the preceding tribulations.  The polyphony now stilled, Gerhaher’s baritone floated softly as the poet wondered at the stars that steer a silent but glorious path across the heavens, climbing in the East then returning again each day: “Über den Himmel deine herrliche Bahn!”  There was hope in the closing reflection, “Ich spähe weit, wohin wir fahren” (I’ll watch out far ahead to see where we are bound), though this was unsettled by a final dissonance, the strings’ chord cluster tugging at the stillness until the cello’s fall brought the gentle peace of a major chord consonance.  At last, release.

Isabelle Faust, Anne Katharina Schreiber, Danusha Waskiewicz and Jean-Guihen Queyras were joined by Timothy Ridout and Christian Poltéra after the interval for a wonderfully riveting performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, the changing moods of which evolved naturally and compellingly, the musicians’ control as impressive as their communication with each other and with us.  Once again we were in the realm of the night and of nature, as the evolving variations encompassed, in the words of Richard Dehmel whose poem was the inspiration for Schoenberg’s tone poem, ‘the entire life of a soul and human fate’.  Everything here was precise yet flexible, every repetition freshly inflected, the musical always growing, progressing with a sure sense of direction.  Endlessly varied bow strokes created myriad textures and colours, solo voices ebbing and flowing, duets blossoming passionately within the ensemble.  Hushed pianissimos swelled into lyrical outpourings, then evolved into impressionistic mood-portraits.  Vibrato and pizzicato created changes of character, as the moonlit wood in which the couple wander became a haven for confession, forgiveness and transfiguration.  

Music and poetry were truly one in this recital, which closed with Berlioz’s 1840 settings of poems by his friend, Théophile Gautier.  Berlioz later orchestrated the six songs for piano and voice which form Les nuits d’été but they were presented here in a new arrangement for chamber forces by David Matthews, one which seemed wholly idiomatic and natural.  The strings were airy and fresh in the opening ‘Villanelle’, the violins’ quavers fleet and dancing, the cellos providing dynamic impetus, while the perfumed imagery of ‘La spectre de la rose’ was beautifully evoked by changing timbres and textures.  Gently pulsing chords captured the sombre mood of ‘Au cimetière’, while the slowly shifting harmonies of the close of that song were elegiac and ghostly.

Gerhaher’s French lacked an idiomatic elegance, and occasionally his baritone seemed a little heavy for the innate transparency of the music – as when conveying the innocence of ‘Villanelle’, say, or the transfixed obsession of ‘Absence’.  But, he made much of the poetic sentiments, contrasting, for example, the glowing glory of the rose which, worn on a glittering gown, outshines the brightest jewel with the flower’s essential, quiet nobility.  The anguished lament of the poet-speaker in ‘Sur les lagoon’, compelled to sail loveless across the sea, was powerfully expressive of grief, anger and hopelessness, while ‘L’île inconnue’ brought the cycle to an exuberant and hopeful close: “Où voulez-vous aller?”

With Covid-era performances restricted with respect to both length and magnitude, how wonderful it was to be treated to two hours of concentrated, invigorating – even cathartic – music-making.  

The performance on 28th September was broadcast on Radio 3 and is available for one month on BBC Sounds, and also streamed live on the Wigmore Hall website.

Claire Seymour

Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Isabelle Faust (violin), Anne Katharina Schreiber (violin), Timothy Ridout (viola), Danusha Waskiewicz (viola), Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello), Christian Poltéra (cello)

Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957) – Notturno Op.47; Anold Schoenberg (1874-1951) – Verklärte Nacht Op.4; Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) – Les nuits d’été Op.7 (arranged by David Matthews for baritone and sextet.

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 29th September 2021.