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.