wed 24/04/2024

Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber, Wigmore Hall review – revelatory Schubert welcomes audiences back | reviews, news & interviews

Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber, Wigmore Hall review – revelatory Schubert welcomes audiences back

Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber, Wigmore Hall review – revelatory Schubert welcomes audiences back

Applause resonates again in the chamber music temple after six months of silence

Christian Gerhaher in the first of 100 autumn concerts at Wigmore HallDavid Parry

“It’s SO good to be back,” said Catherine Bott, and it would be impossible to disagree with her. She was presenting the livestream of the first concert to be performed in front of an audience at Wigmore Hall since March.

The rules as originally in place (presumably from Westminster council) were going to limit that audience to a meagre maximum of 56 people, or just 10% of the seats, but the ruling was suddenly overturned, and the capacity last night was expanded to accommodate 112 of us fortunate souls.

It felt not just like an imperative, but also a duty and a pleasure, to be able to produce the very first applause to resonate in those admired acoustics for six months. We managed it even before the artists themselves emerged. The hall’s director John Gilhooly was heartily clapped as he stepped out by the side of the stage to give a short speech, curtain-raising for the series of 100 (sic!) concerts to come before Christmas, and pointing out some hard economic reality: that the numbers simply won’t add up unless people choose to donate.

At his stunning best, Christian Gerhaher comes across as the Schubert baritone we used to dream of in the days when Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Hermann Prey were pre-dominant in his Lieder. Gerhaher often sings the songs (both “Abendbilder” and “Alinde” from last night’s programme for example) in the same keys that Fischer-Dieskau sang them, but the miracle is that he also brings the lightness and the lyricism of Prey, who normally sang them a tone or so higher.

On the strength of last night’s rendition of the four strophes of “Alinde”, I’m wondering if Gerhaher might be a more convincing and persuasive story-teller than either of those illustrious forbears. The mood of “Alinde" travels from impatient longing through a series of rebuffs to a calm and happy ending. Gerhaher didn’t just shape that narrative exquisitely, he also brought tremendously subtle inflection and word-painting along the way. For example, the vocal colouring given to the words "Balsamduft/ Haucht die Luft" had a feeling of airiness which gave a whole layer of meaning to them.

Gerhaher has been overt about his mission to both revel in and to reveal Schubert’s stylistic variety. As he said in a book of interviews published in 2015: “I find it very important to emphasise that there is not only the Schubert of song cycles. No, there are many styles within his output of songs (he uses the German word 'Binnenstile’) which cannot all be named.” He explained in the book that he likes to group songs either by poet, or by juxtaposing adjacent songs in Deutsch’s catalogue which is sequential in order of composition. That latter stratagem was much in evidence in last night’s programme. It was fascinating to hear the three sonnets D.628-630 written in November and December 1818 as a sequence. The first two, translations of Petrarch by the imposingly literary A.W. Schlegel are restless. They flip from recitative into and out of vignettes of melody, and feel like precursors for Berio. The third sonnet, a translation by the dilettante Gries, receives a far more folksy treatment, until Schubert becomes transfixed by a repeated single line about how the poet has been both healed and wounded by the same hand.

Pianist Gerold Huber, who is Gerhaher’s regular lieder partner, found marvellous life in the shadows of the three "Harfner" songs to poems by Goethe, again with sequential Deutsch numbers. In “Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß”, where heavenly powers and big Goethean concepts like “Schuld” are flying around, the way he brought attention in on the silences and half-lights between the verses by holding the pace back for a moment was inspirational.

If these investigations of Schubert were revelatory, the excursions into Berg’s songs were far less persuasive. One couldn’t help feeling that, as Gerhaher himself has pointed out in his book, there is plenty more to find in Schubert, if one only keeps going. It may be that Berg’s piano writing needs less searching and tentative exploring, and more shaping and elucidation than Huber was showing us last night. Or perhaps because we didn’t actually hear Berg’s most persuasive collection of songs, his Op. 7.

Yet such quibbles are quickly forgotten when one remembers the moments of magic. The way Gerhaher made the open “ah” sound ring out in the phrase “Atmet die Seel‘“ (the soul breathes) in the central stanza of “Auf dem Wasser zu Singen”, sung as the only encore, was glorious. And utterly unforgettable.


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