Gerhaher explores death in transfiguring Vocal Arts recital
Life can look bleak by the end of a lieder recital by Christian Gerhaher.
The German baritone’s last recital here, at the Austrian Embassy in 2007, was devoted to the dark corners of Robert Schumann’s oeuvre. The Mahler lieder performed in his concert Tuesday night, presented by Vocal Arts DC at the University of the District of Columbia’s Theater of the Arts, were no less grim. Relief from the world’s oppression came only at the end, in the form of an unexpected encore.
Gerhaher has spoken before about his attraction to Gruftmusik, the marvelous German term meaning “crypt-music,” works obsessed with death and gloom. He set the tone for this program by opening with one of two songs of mourning from Mahler’s collection Das Lied von der Erde. In “Der Einsame im Herbst” Gerhaher sang with an angry intensity that complemented the spareness of the Chinese poetry text.
Gerhaher’s partner at the keyboard, Gerold Huber, brought out the details of Mahler’s piano reduction of his orchestration, creating remarkable transparency in the many wandering melodies. In the last two lines of the poem, Gerhaher and Huber offered a glimpse of hope in a crescendo into a new sonic landscape, but resignation quickly returned as the song ended.
The five so-called Rückert-Lieder, which Mahler eventually placed in his Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (Seven songs from latter days), offered a few lighter moments. A playful tempo gave “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” a Puckish, chiding quality, and Huber’s lilting right-hand melody intertwined sweetly with Gerhaher’s legato line in “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft.” Each note was perfectly placed, all consonants and attacks and conclusions in order. Only in “Liebst du um Schönheit,” a coquettish song in a woman’s voice, did Gerhaher’s focus wander.
As other singers have done, Gerhaher tweaked the order of the Rückert songs, putting the forbidding darkness of “Um Mitternacht” in the central position. Gerhaher created a striking range of tonal colors in this song, from lightless to broad and shining. Placing “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” last put the emphasis of the set on Mahler’s embrace of artistic ecstasy beyond the concerns of the world. Nothing about the song dragged or seemed calculated; the effect was not sad but instead quietly delighted in its own interior knowledge.
Mahler eventually combined these five songs with two tragic lieder from the folk poetry collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Huber took the lead in the grotesque military march that accompanied “Revelge” (Reveille), incarnating the soldier’s devil-may-care attitude toward impending death, his left hand creating a ruckus of sound at the climaxes. After the refinement of that final Rückert song, it was a shock. There was more rumbling of funeral march drums in the concluding “Der Tambourg’sell,” as Gerhaher’s tight-lipped drummer boy was led to the gallows.
Another Wunderhorn song, “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen,” extended the anxious mood at the start of the second half. Huber again played an important role, weaving the distant sound of military trumpet calls into the unease of the soldier’s darling in this song. Most of the work fell to Huber in “Der Abschied,” the half-hour conclusion to Das Lied von der Erde, in approximating the unusual sounds of the orchestration with only the Steinway. The pianist worked wonders, giving a familiar homeliness to the oboe’s plaintive tunes, as well as the sweetly oscillating strings.
With that behind him, it was not difficult for Gerhaher to hold the narrative thread of this long and complicated song, steeped in sorrow. The only vocal uncertainty of the evening came at the climax of this song, where Gerhaher had some trouble with the high F on the word “blauen,” which Mahler, somewhat maliciously, marked “sempre pianissimo.” Gerhaher recovered easily, and in the end it was good to be reminded that even this remarkable artist is human after all.
An encore seemed unlikely after such a conclusion. How could Gerhaher possibly add to the dark and tragic atmosphere he had created?
An extended ovation, though, elicited one, a fervent and utterly surprising rendition of “Urlicht,” the Wunderhorn song that Mahler ended up including in his Second Symphony (“Resurrection”). It proved an ideal conclusion to the lost wandering of the narrator of “Der Abschied,” as in the “eternal blue light of the horizon” a loving God gave the illumination of eternal life.
The next concert from Vocal Arts D.C. will take place 3 p.m. January 22, with soprano Antonina Chehovska and baritone Alexey Lavrov performing Tchaikovsky songs. vocalartsdc.org; 202-669-1463.