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October 29, 2013 5:31 pm
It seemed to take an age for Christian Gerhaher to win the recognition he deserved outside his native Germany. In the UK it was only his Royal Opera debut in Tannhäuser in 2010, for which he won the Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera, that catapulted him into the public spotlight.
As a song recitalist, he is second to none. It is easy to list the virtues that are at the root of his success – the beauty of his warm baritone, the conversational ease in the way he sings the words, the close partnership with longstanding accompanist Gerold Huber – but nothing in that tally explains the sense of magic that sets him apart.
It was there in this recital at Wigmore Hall, though not all the way through. The greater part of the programme was given over to Schumann, including the song cycle Dichterliebe, of which Gerhaher has made an almost unbearably intimate recording. That would be difficult to replicate live, and the early songs did not go beyond the warm, perfectly enunciated singing that is always at Gerhaher’s command. But at about a third of the way through, the voice held back, drawing the listener in, as though to a private world, and from there nothing was standard. Where other singers look at Heine’s poetry and see outgoing anger and bitterness, Gerhaher plumbed an indescribable sadness.
A group of Fauré’s mélodies took him in a new direction. There was lyrical warmth again here, and more than that in his memorably brooding “Les berceaux”, but the spark was missing, perhaps because the language was not Gerhaher’s native German (good though his French is).
To end, we had the first UK performance of a new song cycle, Das heisse Herz by Jörg Widmann, a co-commission by Wigmore Hall and three other international venues. The first song took scraps of suggestive nothingness, from which composer and singer produced a universe of meaning, like a conjuring trick. After that, the cycle flew off at a tangent, dropping off flamboyantly at various staging-points in the history of German song on the way, from Schumann to Des Knaben Wunderhorn. It was difficult to see how it added up, but Gerhaher’s commitment to new music can only be good news.
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