wed 21/02/2024

Gerhaher, Huber, Wigmore Hall review - new colours from old favourites | reviews, news & interviews

Gerhaher, Huber, Wigmore Hall review - new colours from old favourites

Gerhaher, Huber, Wigmore Hall review - new colours from old favourites

Operatic scope and depth with a star baritone

Double helpings: Christian Gerhaher, Gerold HuberWigmore Hall

After a frozen week, the sensual languor of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été promised warm respite at the Wigmore Hall – especially when delivered by house favourite Christian Gerhaher and his peerless pianist, Gerold Huber.

Yet the Bavarian baritone saved that cycle for the end of a rainbow-hued recital that spanned a vast array of modes and moods: four composers, three languages (French, Russian and Czech, but no German), and solo interludes in which Huber played Chopin mazurkas and even the mighty Ballade No. 4 in F minor. The pair delivered more than generous measures, over a spectrum of styles that confirmed how far, and how well, Gerhaher has travelled. The refined, expressive middleweight voice that once sounded like an elegant ghost of his great teacher, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, can now leave the Lied heartland far behind as it tackles roles such as Berg’s tortured Wozzeck (as he did last year at Covent Garden). 

With songs by Fauré, Tchaikovsky and the Czech Jewish composer Pavel Haas also on the bill, the pair’s programme covered a wide emotional waterfront. It stretched from salon charm to elegiac melancholy and tragic passion. Gerhaher’s growing prowess as an operatic singer surely informed the range of his repertoire here – and the agility of his stagecraft as he shifted promptly from one scene to another within and between groups of songs. Indeed, quick-change transitions meant that the audience had little time to catch its breath, even after the grandest vocal climaxes. No meagre portions or ceremonious pauses for this duo, however starry their renown.

With his set of seven Fauré songs, Gerhaher sounded at first a little pinched and muddy – the polite prettiness of numbers such as “Le papillon et la fleur” hardly suit him best. In “Les berceaux”, he sometimes seemed to shake rather than rock the baby’s cradle. But Huber, as ever, painted in lovely pianistic touches, and the baritone struck a richer seam altogether in later Fauré pieces such as Verlaine’s “Clair de lune”. We enjoyed a taste, too, of the talent for gripping dramatic monologue, Sprechgesang or parlando style, that has long partnered Gerhaher’s more honeyed lyric gifts. 

His Tchaikovsky, though, was a revelation: eight brief bursts of concentrated feeling, with unshowy assurance and sensitivity across the voice’s range, and some spine-tingling full-blast fortes when the brooding soul suddenly erupts in despair or exultation. In the deeper reaches of these songs, such as “My genius, my angel, my friend” or “Not a word, my friend”, I even heard a mahogany streak of another kind of singer entirely: the still-much-missed Dmitri Hvorostovsky. His Russian diction sounded as clear and bright as his French had been (though I can’t speak with authority), and the skills of a genuine singing actor animated each twist in the words. Huber’s brilliantly-coloured Chopin interjections gave breathing-space, literal and emotional. Poles might not forgive me for claiming that these jewelled nuggets blended seamlessly with the Russian songs, but Tchaikovsky’s compressed miniatures needed some contrast. It made sense to give an accompanist as capable as Huber his own spots in the sun – above all in the kaleidoscopic blaze and dazzle of the E minor mazurka. 

After the interval, Pavel Haas’s “Four Songs on Chinese Poetry” took us from a late-romantic to a fully modern crisis of the spirit. Haas actually wrote these pieces in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1944, prior to his transfer to Auschwitz and murder. Yet these moonlit scenes of solitude, homesickness and contemplation aspire to a glittering serenity as well as the fretful anxiety captured not just in splintered vocal lines but jazz-tinged piano excursions, packed with a bracing rhythmic unease. Gerhaher and Huber (pictured above by Clive Barda) found defiance, even celebration, in these expressionistic scenes created at the very gates of hell.

After which, Huber’s reading of the Ballade in F minor had all the impassioned intricacy that its ferociously complex counterpoint requires. This was Chopin not as soothing light relief from the surrounding vocal dramas, but a stormy, violent foreshadowing of horrors to come. Not to say that Huber’s playing lacked mellifluous liquidity and gentle rubato poise when the occasion demanded – but the granitic chords and interwoven themes of the truly Beethovian climax transported us leagues away from salon gentility. 

Somehow, this stormy darkness continued to cast a shade over Gerhaher’s version of Les nuits d’été. It still feels slightly unexpected to hear Berlioz’s swooning settings of Théophile Gautier’s poems from a baritone rather than a soprano (although the composer himself set different songs for different voices). But Gerhaher dug deeper in another sense, pinpointing passages of sombre elegy as much as the ecstatic glimpses of bold voyages and future bliss. If his “Villanelle” lacked some of the gossamer delicacy other singers can bring to it, “Le spectre de la rose” had a vivid, spellbound dreaminess intensified by Gerhaher’s typically polished crafting of each phrase. 

By the time we reached “Absence”, a voice which had (to my ears) started out slightly constricted drew us in with the open, expansive  warmth of its “Reviens, reviens”. Yet his “L’île inconnue” signed off with the prospect of a turbulent crossing, rather than the placid sunlit voyage that some singers promise. Which is to say that Gerhaher can still widen his dramatic range of expression as well as the scope of his repertoire. With Huber as his indispensable partner, he brought four full seasons of musical weather to a frigid winter’s night. 

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