It has always proved a great pleasure for me to hear Christian Gerhaher, and this Wigmore Hall recital proved no exception. I worried a little during the opening Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen that it might, indeed worrying more than slightly during the first song, ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’. One should of course bear in mind that there is rarely, if ever, one correct tempo for a piece. As Wagner observed in his brilliant little book, Über das Dirigieren, quoted approvingly more than once by that great Mahlerian, Pierre Boulez, the relationships between different tempi are really the crucial matter. (Even that, I think, is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it seems far closer to the truth.) That said, it is not the case that just anything goes, and the weirdly distended tempo for this song adopted by Gerhaher and his pianist, Gerold Huber, simply did not work for these ears. Yes, it will be a ‘day of mourning’ (‘Hab ich meinen traurigen Tag!’) when the wayfarer’s beloved has her wedding day, but the music did not seem able to support such a reading, still less quite so abrupt a shift in the second stanza. Given that the voice I most often hear in my head when thinking of these songs is that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – and what a wonderful performer of them he was! – I was surprised also to hear Gerhaher occasionally depart from the general beauty of his musical line to sound a little close to a caricature of Fischer-Dieskau at his most hectoring. But there was much to admire here, not just in Gerhaher’s tone, but in its alchemy with Mahler’s own words. Huber generally provided good support, often more than that in formal terms, structures emerging clearly and strongly. There were perhaps, though, a few occasions on which he might have proved more flexible; if a good conductor can, then a pianist should certainly be able to do so.

Ten songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn ( ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’, ‘Ablösung im Sommer’, ‘Ich ging mit Lust’, ‘Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen’, ‘Rheinlegendchen’, ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’, ‘Lied des Verfolgten im Turm’, ‘Das irdische Leben’, ‘Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz’, and ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’) followed: the first six before the interval, the final four after. Gerhaher does not – or at least here, did not – opt for Mahler as proto-expressionist; his instrument and his temperament are quite different from, say, Matthias Goerne. But that is not in any sense to say that he is unresponsive to the different requirements of words and music. We heard a similar range of human experience, veering, as it should do with Mahler, towards the darker side, even when, indeed sometimes particularly when, it seems relatively carefree. ‘Rheinlegendchen’ can express, after all, an almost Mozartian, or at least Schubertian, sense of smiling through tears. And if Goerne can harrow like few artists today in this repertoire, Gerhaher’s ambiguity has its own stories to tell. I wondered whether the cuckooing of ‘Ablösung im Sommer’ and ‘Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen’ might have been ironised a little more; Mahler’s Nature always expresses alienation. However, those folk characters indelibly etched on to our consciousness always shone through, and their particularly deeds and thoughts registered to any who would hear them. For all his famed beauty of tone, Gerhaher also knew when to modify and to withdraw it. But he also knew that the music expresses the most important story of all; lose that, and you might as well give up.

Those observations apply more or less equally to the closing Kindertotenlieder too. Rückert’s world is a different one, of course, as in some respects is Mahler’s by the time of writing. Moreover, the subject matter hardly permits, to put it mildly, of levity. Gerhaher’s deeply serious artistry was perhaps at its finest here. Words were certainly given their due, but the emphasis lay as much upon the shifting perspectives conjured up, as in the simpler ‘Wayfarer’ Songs, yet here more successfully, by the relationship between words, music, and vocal colour. Momentary withdrawal of vibrato made its point, without in any sense speaking of dogma. The evocation of ‘childhood’ could only have come from an adult; children themselves do not consider such matters. Gerhaher here seemed to speak almost, but not quite, directly for Mahler, the knowledge that we are distant from and yet remain so painfully close to the composer another matter for reflection. Huber’s knowing reiteration of material from the first song in ‘In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus,’ permitted Gerhaher to point to what had changed: a journey through these songs does not, or should not, leave one unchanged. The encore, ‘Urlicht’ disarmed with a simplicity that was, again rightly for Mahler, knowing: sentimental, in Schiller’s sense, rather than naïve, for all its longing aspiration to the former.

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