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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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood