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.

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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition