New York music lovers were reminded on Saturday night that there are more performers in heaven and earth than are usually dreamt of on New York stages: German baritone Christian Gerhaher made one of his rare appearances in the U.S. I’d never heard him before and I suspect that I wasn’t alone. By the end of his all-Mahler song recital at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, however, the audience, which had sat transfixed and virtually soundless despite the maximal concert-coughing season, was on its feet and howling its enthusiasm for its belated discovery.
What distinguishes the 47-year-old Bavarian is the uncanny naturalness of his delivery. In Gerhaher’s middle range, the listener has to remind himself that Gerhaher is singing rather than simply speaking to the audience. His diction is crystalline—not a given even when a performer is singing in his native language. Certainly Gerhaher’s voice is beautiful and warm, possessing a wide range of timbres: sometimes hooded and erotically sinister, other times operatically ringing. But other world-class singers possess those rare qualities as well. What they don’t possess is Gerhaher’s directness. The source of that directness is mysterious—perhaps a lack of vibrato in his initial attacks, or perhaps something more intangible in his connection to poetry. I am not yet prepared to dethrone German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau from the pinnacle of vocal beauty and musicianship. But if I were somehow inoculated against Fischer-Dieskau’s charms, I might be tempted to turn one of his cardinal virtues—a minute attention to text—into a drawback that can result in too mannered an interpretation of individual lines. By contrast, Gerhaher’s presentation seems straightforward and spontaneous, approaching the usually unattainable Romantic ideal of art uncontaminated by artifice, an art that seems indistinguishable from nature itself.
Mahler’s songs and symphonies are anything but natural. Though many originate in folk ballads, real or apocryphal, their harmonies are too sophisticated, their emotional contrasts too extreme, to be mistaken for spontaneous expression. Mahler wrote many of his songs both for an orchestral and for a piano setting. The piano versions tone down the occasional garishness of Mahler’s orchestral mood swings—which can career from heart-breaking lyricism to apocalyptic bombast—confirming the proposition that the piano improves everything.
Gerhaher’s program opened and closed with two introspective songs from Mahler’s late song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), written from 1908 to 1909 and better known in its original orchestral version. The texts are loose German renditions of eighth-century Chinese poetry. The second of the program’s two Das Lied songs, “Das Abschied (The Farewell),” was the evening’s highlight. The poem conveys the delicate nature-worship so central to the Germanic literary tradition, but supplements Germanic Einsamkeit (solitude or loneliness) with a melancholy leave-taking between two friends. This mesmerizingly attenuated work contains echoes, in its piano version, of Schubert’s Winterreise, Brahms’s intermezzi, and Granados’s syncopations, while foreshadowing Scriabin and Alban Berg. A long piano interlude, in which a tentative melody winds around a funereal pulse, occupies the song’s middle. Gerhaher and his lifelong friend and accompanist, the supremely sensitive Gerold Huber, captured the song’s mystery and foreboding; the thrice-repeated final line, “Ewig, ewig!” (Eternally, eternally), coming after a burst of Straussian ecstasy, disappeared into silence through Gerhaher’s barely parted lips.
(Gerhaher and Huber defied the sartorial code of contemporary European classical musicians, dispensing with the usual black, open-necked shirt and black jacket ensemble, in favor of elegant evening dress with white cummerbunds. Such iconoclasm also extends to Gerhaher’s reported contempt for Regietheater: “You do not have to put excrement on stage,” he has told the Telegraph, nor is there a “necessity to eradicate history,” he says, by updating an opera’s plot.)
The songs in the rest of the program came from the poems of influential German author and linguist Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866) and from the folk collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn), to which Mahler returned repeatedly during his career. The selected Wunderhorn songs were macabre, bitter takes on war; the Rückert songs, posthumously collected in Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (Seven songs from the last days), were reflective and poignant. Gerhaher interpreted them with disarming naturalness and immediacy. Gerhaher and Huber had performed this same program in 2010 in Rheingau, Germany, to celebrate Mahler’s 150th birthday. It was well worth reviving intact; the lack of a recording is unfortunate.
Typical of many German musicians, Gerhaher got his start among the plethora of classical music institutions that still grace German cities and towns. After studying philosophy and medicine, and after playing a range of instruments, he finally settled on a singing career anchored in the German repertoire. He has collaborated with the aristocracy of the conducting world—Riccardo Muti, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Simon Rattle, Bernard Haitink, and Christian Thieleman, among others—and has a cult following in London, where he performs regularly. New Yorkers take pride in the international stars who regularly appear at the Metropolitan Opera and at Carnegie Hall, but there is much beyond our ken. The European early music scene, for example, is reviving Baroque operas, above all, those of Vivaldi, that American audiences can only dream of hearing live. For New Yorkers who have come late to Gerhaher, we can be grateful that the encounter has finally arrived.
Photo by Ansgar Klostermann/www.Gerharer.de