Christian Gerhaher does not appear at first to sing but rather to speak on pitches, telling stories, explaining words by lingering on them or biting them off short.
In two lines of “Die Einsame im Herbst,” the opening number of the all-Mahler recital he gave on the Great Performers’ Series at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday night, he went from a resonant, room-filling head voice (I don’t know how else to describe it) to a deep and gritty low phrase of his baritone range, gliding from one to the other with consummate ease and without apparent effort.
The first words, as it happens, invoke autumn mists above the singer, the later phrases the rocky frozen autumnal ground. Mahler’s melody presents this, and Gerhaher’s vocalization illustrated it. It was not necessary to know German to take in the scene-setting contrast.
Gerhaher does not make use of the torrents of voice that (glancing at YouTube for examples) a Christa Ludwig or a Jessye Norman provides in that song, admittedly with a full orchestra behind them, to support and to escort the singer.
Gerhaher bookended his concert with songs from Das Lied von der Erde for which both those ladies are famous, and the second—almost the entire second half of the recital—was the concluding “Abschied” from that work, also a pointillist, impressionist reading of the text to musical pitches. Gerhaher’s work was the explication of the text, the mood of the poetry, rather than a vocal display.
His partner (and fully his equal) was not an orchestra but the pianist Gerold Huber, who played the orchestral parts with subtlety and dramatic flare, underlining as Mahler underlines, supporting as Mahler supports. You could almost pick out which instruments his touch on the keys was meant to invoke.
“Der Herbst,” from almost the end of Mahler’s life, was followed by seven songs from a decade earlier, five with texts by Friedrich Rückert, two from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Poetic meditations like “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” and “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” led into the morbid folk tales like “Revelge” and “Der Tamboursg’sell.”
Gerhaher often demonstrated his command of all the extremes of the lyric baritone compass, and a perfect easiness in moving from high to low, in forcing intensity into a phrase or letting it pluck at the meaning, as the poetry describes water under a frozen brook or wind moving a tree, as the singer withdraws from the world or feels lured back to it by the sight of a certain beauty, a certain scent, an impression. It was a painter’s sort of description, using music as the paint, color rather than beautiful sound as the modulation of choice.
And there was a “petite phrase,” a certain regretful motif of Mahler’s, that occurred in the Lied von der Erde songs and also in one or two of the earlier ones, as if chosen to make us, half-unconsciously, return to the original autumnal regrets and feel them freshly in different songs.
But the melodrama of the Knaben Wunderhorn songs was fully, sarcastically demonstrated, and here the voice (which had seemed so intimate) gave signs that it could fill an opera house if called upon to do so—Gerhaher’s manic Pelleas and world-weary Don Giovanni have been widely admired, though not in this country where he appears rarely. He is artist-in-residence at Wigmore Hall this year, a smaller venue than Tully Hall—but Tully gave him no problems at all.
The entire second half of the concert (though there was one encore: “Urlicht” from the Mahler Second) was entirely given over to “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” from the Knaben Wunderhorn, another ghost story: A dead soldier comes back for his living sweetheart, or do all the dead remind us they await us?—and the concluding “Abschied” from Das Lied von der Erde, a long and varied meditation on the fading of life at its end and an assurance of its renewal.
These reassurances, which Mahler always tacked on to his musical explorations of depression, often seem tacked on, as if he is hastily apologizing to you for being such a downer at your party. In the case of “Abschied,” this is especially so: Mahler added the encouraging verse to the translation from the Chinese.
Gerhaher performed this like a wandering philosopher in a scenic landscape, remarking this, reflecting on that, back and forth and always surprised by his own reflections. There is a great deal of Fischer-Dieskau and Schwarzkopf in his approach, rather than the more sweeping operatic approach that is fashionable hereabouts. It was wonderful, even to someone who speaks no German, to hear other style given so inspiring an outing.
Mahler wrote all these songs simultaneously for piano or orchestra, but the array of coloration sometimes defeats a less brilliant pianist. Huber matched his singer dynamic for dynamic, and performed the lengthy piano interlude to continue in our mind’s eye the image of the wandering philosopher in his landscape of images.
Photo: Alexander Basta