Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Lieder Afternoon

There are two kinds of singers in the world, those who overwhelm us with the sheer beauty and power of their voice, and those who, although not blessed with a naturally beautiful instrument, move us with the power of their intellect and the interpretative insights they have into the music.

Baritone Christian Gerhaher appears to be blessed with both voice and brains, as was evident in the recital he gave in Vancouver this past Sunday with pianist Gerold Huber, his longtime musical partner. Their recital marked the opening of the Vancouver Recital Society’s 2014 – 2015 concert season. The performance consisted of lieder by Franz Schubert and Wolfgang Rihm, on poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Gerhaher alternated sets of songs by Schubert and Rihm, ending the concert with an extended lied each by the two composers. As the singer noted in his own programme notes, Schubert’s lieder is not merely poems set to “more or less suitably affective music”, but “appropriate musical equivalents for the texts of the pre-existing poems.”

The artistry of the performers was apparent in the first of a series of eight Schubert lieder. The quality and power of Gerhaher’s voice, the beauty of his diction, and his interpretative strength, reminded me of a younger Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In Sehnsucht (Longing), Gerhaher’s pacing was impeccable, building tension and changing moods by subtly changing the quality of his voice. Throughout, Huber proved an equal partner, musically and technically. The voicing of the chords at the beginning of the line, “Auf einmal erschein ich, Ein blinkender Stern” (“All at once I appear, A glittering star”) was magical. In An den Mond (To the Moon), Huber beautifully echoed the vocal lines, especially in the final two stanzas. And the pianist sensitively supported Gerhaher’s singing in the gently relentless piano part in Geheimes (Secret).

In Schäfers Klagelied (Shepherd’s Lament), Gerhaher had the remarkable ability to shape the musical and emotional arch of the song, allowing the emotion to gradually open up until the dramatic line, “Und Regen Sturm und Gewitter” (“In rain and storm and tempest”). It was truly a masterful performance.

Like Schubert, German composer Wolfgang Rihm exploits the beauty of the solo voice, and the vocal lines of his song settings are lyrical. It is in the piano figurations and the harmonic language that we view Goethe’s poems with 21st century eyes (or ears.) Compared to Schubert, Rihm's songs have a wider vocal and dynamic range, as well as greater technical challenge. As in the Schubert songs, Gerhaher, consummate artist and musician, sing these songs like a masterful storyteller, leading us through the ever-changing emotions of poems, confiding in the audience the innermost secrets of the poet’s soul.

In spite of the sophisticated harmonic language and the intricate piano writing, I must confess that, for me, Schubert is far more successful in underscoring the language of the poems, using far more economical means. To me, there is, to borrow the words of Yehudi Menuhin in describing the music of Arnold Schoenberg, a curious discrepancy between the word and the gesture. Unlike even the simplest Schubert lieder, I do not feel that the vocal lines of the Rihm songs really convey, or underscores, the emotions of the words being sung.

Schubert’s Gesänge des Harfners, three songs that closed the first half of the programme, are harmonically and musically darker than the preceding songs by the same composer. Again, Gerhaher drew us into Schubert’s incredible sound world, with Huber’s piano playing sometimes setting the stage, sometimes creating the atmosphere, sometimes commenting on the poem, and always sensitive to the drama unfolding before our ears. The dramatic and harmonically unresolved piano postlude to the second song was especially memorable.

The songs in the second half of the programme were larger in scope, poetically as well as musically. The first of the four Schubert songs, Prometheus, was almost operatic in style, with the music juxtaposing between the highly dramatic and declamatory to the emotionally intimate and subdued. Once again, Gerhaher captivated the audience like a master storyteller. With the beginning of the final stanza, “Hier sitz’ich, forme Menschen, Nach meinem Bilde” (“Here I sit, making man, In my own image”), the singing took on a regal air. In Ganymed, both pianist and singer conveyed the sense of urgency and feeling of movement in the stanza, “Ich komm! Ich komm!” (“I come, I come!”), making the audience feel that the heart of poet and composer was indeed beating faster.

The penultimate song of the programme, Wolfgang Rihm's setting of Harzreise im
Winter (Winter Journey Through the Harz Mountains) is a severe test of the musicians’ stamina with its huge range of emotions. In this particular setting of the Goethe poem, I did feel more of a connection between the words and the music. Strangely enough, I feel that the composer was more effective in mirroring the emotions of the words in the piano part than in the vocal lines. Both in this and the final song, Schubert’s Willkommen und Abschied (Greeting and Farewell), Gerhaher rose to the challenges set by the two composers, writing music almost two hundred years apart from each other.

At the end of the programme, both artists acknowledged the warm applause of the audience. It was not the kind of performance that sought to garner rollicking ovations. Rather, everyone in the audience seemed to feel a sense of communion with and gratitude toward the artists. It was an afternoon of intimate music making, even in the large space of the Chan Centre of Performing Arts, intimate in the sense that each member of the audience felt that the musicians were addressing him or her alone.

We must thank Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber for giving Vancouver such an auspicious start to the year’s concert season.