The death of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau earlier this year marked the end of an era. For half a century he had presided as the world’s leading song recitalist and his reputation led to events of extraordinary ambition, such as his solo recitals at the Royal Albert Hall, when he would sing Schubert or Wolf in front of capacity audiences of up to 5,000 people.
It should not perhaps come as a surprise that his nearest successor in the present generation should be so completely different. Christian Gerhaher’s art is of the most intimate nature and much of the pleasure when he sings, even more in live recitals than his recordings, comes from his ability to take the German Lied back to its roots in the drawing room.
Gerhaher’s voice is easily able to fill the Royal Albert Hall – he sang one of Mahler’s orchestral song cycles there to acclaim at the BBC Proms two years ago – but his favoured venue for song recitals on his visits to London is the far more appropriately-sized Wigmore Hall. No other baritone sounds better there. The beauty, the pure tone, the subtle colours of the voice are all perfectly in scale.
For this all-Schubert recital he was joined by his regular accompanist, Gerold Huber, who understands Gerhaher’s inward style better than any other. It was an unusual programme – a preponderance of rarely-heard songs, most of them gloomily melancholy, taking us on a slow journey of moonlit nights and sorrowful farewells. Given Gerhaher’s hands-off attitude towards emotion, it risked being a grey evening.
Of the pair’s accomplishment, there is not a shred of doubt. Gerhaher sings the German language more beautifully than anybody else today and the poetry of, for example, “Herbst” and the gravedigger’s song, “Totengräberweise”, could not have been uttered more naturally. Sometimes, he roused himself to drama – the grisly tale of the dwarf and his queen in “Der Zwerg” was narrated with urgency – but for the most part the songs were set out with a minimum of emotion. Gerhaher sees no need to “sell” his performances to the public, which is one reason he is never likely to book the Royal Albert Hall. The world of German Lieder has changed a lot since those days.