Music review: Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber | Wigmore Hall

Third-person delivery of a first-person song cycle.

The Winterreise journey is an unchanging one - beginning in the moonlit landscape as a man once a lover departs a stranger, ending to the eerie strains of the organ-grinder - but the wanderer himself changes with each performance. For Christian Gerhaher and his pianist Gerold Hubert this was a supremely elegant winter's stroll punctuated by a series of emotive, but never overtly emotional, encounters.

Now in his forties, it's hard to characterise Gerhaher as lieder's bright young thing. His studiously unstarry presence clamours (quietly and decorously) to be ignored, leaving him a vessel for the music. But despite this, his recitals have started to attract the same kind of compulsive following and attention usually reserved for opera divas, and from a secondary baritone role he managed to eclipse Johan Botha's Tannhäuser almost entirely at the Royal Opera last year.

His trio of Schubert cycles - Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise and Schwanengesang, performed across a single week - form the inspired centrepiece of the Wigmore Hall's 2011-2012 season, offering Gerhaher an opportunity to return to the lieder repertoire in which he made his name. The juxtaposition also places the dramatic onus on Gerhaher to develop the boy of Die schöne Müllerin into the wounded man of Winterreise.

We started as close to raw as Gerhaher allows himself to get, ends of falling phrases left uncherished, unprojected, as the wanderer bids pained farewell to the girl "who spoke of love". The particular gift of this singer is his directness, and a technique so secure as to offer no barrier to interpretation. When, as here and again in "Gefrorne Tränen", this is allied to just a flicker more of self, song inhabited rather than expertly performed, the result is potent indeed.

Yet even in his thunder and rage ("Die Wetterfahne", "Der sturmische Morgen"), projected with all his operatic force, there lacked often a core of humanity, with Gerhaher offering up volume in place of emotional specificity. His pianissimo and the purity of space he finds in his head-voice seemed more truthful, or perhaps just more in keeping with the quiet intensity of his physical delivery which was strained by the moments of dramatic excess.

Huber's approach is less inscrutable, his characterisation taking the lead in "Auf dem Flusse", and it was he rather than Gerhaher who brought delicate shades of optimism - that poignant spice for the cycle's despair - to "Fruhlingstraum" and "Die Post". His closing hurdy-gurdy chilled the ear, but Gerhaher seemed determined not to surrender his wanderer to the Leiermann's damnation. While interpretations of this final song can seem to forbid applause, claiming the silence that follows as the only appropriate due for such a conclusion, Gerhaher's did not. A hall as small as the Wigmore can sustain quite a lengthy communal silence, yet we none of us felt the need to maintain it. It was as if the book was closed when the music finished, the spell of its narrative - whether for good or ill Gerhaher never revealed - complete.

Unaffected and direct, Gerhaher's is a third-person delivery. Winterreise is a - perhaps the - first-person song-cycle, and for this reason the pairing will never sit entirely naturally. This disjunction, this perceived lack, owes much to our expectations as listeners, to the assumptions Fischer-Dieskau and his diverse heirs in Bostridge, Padmore, Goerne have created. For many Gerhaher's purity, his absolute trust in the music and text, make him justly unsurpassed. Yet if what we want is an enactment rather than a description of grief, the emotional intimacy lieder can generate as no opera can, we must continue to look elsewhere.

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder