Gerhaher and Huber Explore Mahler’s World
10/22/2019 - & October 18 (Washington), 20 (Santa Monica), 25 (Chicago), 29 (New York), 2019
Gustav Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen – Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn – Kindertotenlieder
Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano)
G. Huber, C. Gerhaher
If a symphony must be like the world, as Gustav Mahler once intoned, then his songs must each be their own worlds in the solar system. They encompass as much in fractions of time yet are endlessly absorbing. One would be hard-pressed to find a more enticing duo of guides to lead on such a journey of those worlds as celebrated German baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber. The team (and it really is a team) has been lauded for years as perhaps the premier interpreters of Lieder. An all-Mahler program, by Gerhaher and Huber, lived up to expectations for a modest, but enthusiastic, crowd at the beautiful Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.
The program was a generous offering of Mahler’s songs that surveyed a wide span of his output, from his early Songs of a Wayfarer to his later Kindertotenlieder. The journey was as revealing about Mahler’s works as it was about Gerhaher’s interpretation of them. As with the composer’s symphonies, the duality of ideas that the songs contain are part of their enduring genius. Whether the sounds of the meadow in “Ging heut morgen übers Feld” or the call of the nightingale in “Ablösung im Sommer,” Mahler constantly juxtaposes the beautiful with the tragic, reality with hope. Gerhaher executed this in stunning immediacy in “Wo di schönen Trompeten blasen” and “Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz,” the final two pieces of the Wunderhorn sets. Gerhaher seemed at ease here, letting his guard down to invite the audience in on the tragic irony of a soldier choosing war and death over his beloved in the former. In the latter, he let the bitterness of the deserting soldier shine through. Gerhaher was expressive, both in voice and in manner, eking smiles and a knowing sweetness when called for that had hitherto been unexpressed.
This was a welcome change from an evening that began with a heavy, saturnine reading of the Wayfarer songs. Here, Gerhaher was repressed, inwardly despondent, refusing to allow the beauty of nature to give him a temporary reprieve. With each song and each line within it, Gerhaher seemingly knew how the story ended. His cries of “O Weh!” in a stentorian “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer” were shattering, a powerful culmination to the anger of the spurned young lover. Only toward the conclusion of “Die zwei blauen Augen” did Gerhaher impart relief, simply and quickly.
Throughout the evening, Gerhaher sang with a beguilingly rich tone, capable of great heft and subtle nuance. With exceptional vocal range, Gerhaher produces complex tones throughout with ringing top notes that are remarkably accurate. It is a voice of exceptional immediacy, ideal for this music, and, combined with his unrivaled gift for poetic expressiveness, an enveloping artistic experience.
But in Lieder, the voice is only half of the equation and Gerhaher’s collaborator since school days, Gerold Huber, is an equally worthy partner to the baritone. Behind the keyboard, he not only matched Gerhaher, but, more importantly, consistently made way for the singer’s expressivity, pulling, pushing, and plying the phrases to allow Gerhaher complete comfort in exploring Mahler’s long vocal lines. And whether plumbing the depths of the Rhine or delivering a rhapsodic serenade, Huber delivered Mahler’s sonorities with expert precision and intellectual rigor. Huber and Gerhaher were a true team in service to Mahler, whose orchestral and piano accompaniments are as poetic as the texts themselves.
Gerhaher and Huber were at the height of their artistic and musical powers in the culminating selections of the evening, the devastating Kindertotenlieder. After the expressiveness of the final Wunderhorn songs, Gerhaher came into his element here in these poems, tragic in their denial of the reality of a dead child, holding out hope when none is warranted. Here, Gerhaher allowed the earnestness, naive hope of lines such as “Als sei kein Unglück die Nacht geschehn!” (“As if no misfortunate had occurred in the night.”) to inform his expression. Singing with a comforting warmth, Gerhaher portrayed the tragedy of these songs in not just the death of a child, but, just as devastatingly, the denial and hope of her parent. Gerhaher’s recalling portrayal of “Wenn dein Mütterlein” was heartbreaking in a way that the adolescent Wayfarer songs were not, more mature and tragic. Each of the stages of grief throughout the set were acute. Throughout, Gerhaher’s mellifluous voice delivered the texts in ideal nuance with Mahler’s music.
The enthusiastic crowd was able to draw out only one encore, but the ideal one. Gerhaher and Huber delivered Mahler’s “Urlicht” as a microcosm of Mahler’s Lieder achievements. As with the entire evening, Gerhaher and Huber were in complete control, but it was Mahler’s world after all.
Matthew Richard Martinez