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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit