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Christian Gerhaher: Im Lied das tiefe Leid

Photo of baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber by Alexander Basta/Sony BMG, courtesy of Colbert Artists Management
The concerts offered by the Vocal Arts Society may be the greatest value for your classical music dollar in Washington. For $40 a ticket, you can hear some of the world's best singers in recitals of that most intimate and intellectual musical genre, the art song (with some opera arias, too). For its latest extraordinary season, VAS has announced a new partnership with the Austrian Embassy, where it will present six of its nine subscription recitals this year. The move away from its former and more easily accessible principal venue, the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, means that the city government simply must do something about the annoying left turn from northbound Connecticut Avenue onto Van Ness Street NW. There is always a bad bottleneck at that point, making the trip to the Austrian Embassy even longer.

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Abendbilder, C. Gerhaher, G. Huber
For the opening concert at the embassy, it was German baritone Christian Gerhaher and his regular collaborator, Gerold Huber, at the piano. You should know from my review of the pair's latest CD, Abendbilder, that this recital was not to be missed. While that excellent recording was devoted to Schubert, all of the songs on this recital were composed by Robert Schumann, and we can only hope that Gerhaher and Huber have plans to record this program.

The first half consisted of Lieder that can hardly be called rarities, beginning with a selection of six pieces from Myrten, op. 25, the collection Schumann presented to his bride, Clara Wieck, as a wedding gift. The most famous one, Du bist wie eine Blume, was representative of the creative approach on display. Gerhaher sings with exquisite diction, the text always clear as a bell, perhaps exaggerating the trill of his R's. The poetry really is paramount. The tall Huber, like Gerhaher in formal tails, sat hunched over the embassy's sonorous Bösendorfer, favoring the soft pedal to craft a delicate envelope of sound, like the Lotusblume opening only to the gentle moonlight, perfectly scaled to Gerhaher's voice. The softness of many of the songs honed one's ears, so that we were glad indeed when the performers paused while helicopters passed over the embassy.

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Cecelia Porter, Christian Gerhaher (Washington Post, October 13)
That sensitivity also made those moments when the full power of Gerhaher's high range and the boom of the Bösendorfer were unleashed even more impressive. My hair literally stood on end when Gerhaher roared at the end of Waldesgespräch and in Frühlingsnacht, both part of a complete performance of Liederkreis, op. 39. One noticed occasional rawness in the high range and minor intonation issues, but Gerhaher was suffering from a cold. The real discoveries were in the second half, some lesser-known Schumann Lieder, beginning with the truly dark Fünf Lieder, op. 40. Poems by Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Adelbert von Chamisso, take as their subjects ravens croaking outside a window, hungry for the baby inside to become carrion; a soldier on a firing squad shooting a condemned man; and a fiddler playing at the wedding of his beloved to another man.

If you did not read the interview and concert preview that Jens Laurson wrote for WETA, it gives some insight on why Gerhaher is attracted to the dark corners of the song repertoire. Gruftmusik this was indeed, and the most satisfying set on the recital. The other pieces on the second half were equally grim and equally gripping, including Der arme Peter, op. 53, and Belsatzar, op. 57. The welcome but sadly singular encore was the slightly less gloomy Aus alten Märchen winkt es, from Dichterliebe. All in all, Gerhaher's selection and his approach bring out the game of contrasts in that line from the Liederkreis set, mentioned in the title of this post, about the deep sorrow in the song.

The next recital from Vocal Arts Society features soprano Anne Schwanewilms and pianist Malcolm Martineau, at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (October 30, 7:30 pm). The program is all Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.

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