Christian Gerhaher to explore the world in Mahler’s songs

Sat Oct 12, 2019 at 4:12 pm
Christian Gerhaher performs a program of Mahler songs for Vocal Arts DC Friday night. Photo: Gregor Hohenberg/Sony

Musical partners now for over three decades, Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber represent for many the ideal in that most austere of vocal genres, the lieder recital. 

The German baritone and pianist return to Washington on Friday for a recital of Mahler songs presented by Vocal Arts DC. Their North American tour will also take Gerhaher and Huber to Santa Monica, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.

In an interview, Gerhaher recalls the Vocal Arts DC listeners as “a very appreciative and attentive audience” for the duo’s last local appearance in 2016—also a program of Mahler songs for Vocal Arts DC.

“Now we do another Mahler program,” he said. “Which is not so easy because Mahler did not compose so many songs. So we can finish our Mahler cycle like this.”

“In my opinion, Mahler is special,” the baritone says. “His songs may seem like a simple narrative on the surface, but Mahler tended to combine different poems and a wide palette of musical influences in his songs. 

“They are put together like a modernistic and conceptual painting—bringing things together which do not necessarily need to be next to each other but will give a kind of associative, impressionistic picture of what is going on.”

“As Schubert is on the border between the classical and romantic periods,” he continues, “Mahler has one foot already in the modern period.” Mahler made a point of going to and supporting concerts presenting the compositions of Schoenberg, he observes. Mahler said “he didn’t understand one thing of what it means,” Gerhaher admits with a wry laugh, “but it is necessary to support art which is not to be understood. That means that modernism is a kind of glimpse or thought in Mahler’s mind.”

In this recital, Gerhaher and Huber perform, among other songs, Mahler’s bleak song cycle Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the death of children). Friedrich Rückert’s poetry is so painful and personal, written after losing two children to scarlet fever and never intended for the public to see. Mahler admitted after the death of his own daughter a few years after he composed the songs that he could not have written them after her death.

Does it take a lot out of Gerhaher, who has children, to sing it? “The Kindertotenlieder are extreme pieces of music,” he observes. “On the one hand, these poems are really private and Mahler used them extensively in a way in which it is possible to ask if it was really right to do so.” He pauses, then adds: “The last song, this last cradle song, or lullaby, I think it might be, in terms of taste, a little bit over the top.”

“It is moving to see how these people [in the 19th century] had to suffer,” he says ruefully, “to see their own children die and die and die. Goethe had six children; all died before his own death. Bach’s children were dying like flies. It was a common problem. This amount of pain was extraordinary, and we cannot possibly understand now what it was like to lose so many children.”

“Always when I perform them,” Gerhaher adds, “I know there might be some parents who lost a child” in the audience. “I kind of feel ashamed. It’s a little bit over the border of what might be allowed or not. I always feel a kind of horrible feeling, being myself a father of three children, having this problem in front of my eyes. It’s something difficult, I must admit.”

Gerhaher mentions that he has came up with another interesting vantage point on Mahler after recently reading Franz Kafka’s Amerika, a novel-fragment edited by Kafka’s friend, Max Brod. “As in all his novels and short stories,” Gerhaher explains, “the whole thing is going down and down, always one step lower, in a not entirely desperate way, I am really surprised to say, in a way that is kind of humorous.”

To explain, he cites a story about Max Brod, who recounted how he and Kafka laughed a lot about his books. “That means,” Gerhaher concludes, “that these horrible stories are always accompanied by grotesque and humoresque situations and understandings. And this is what reminded me so much this summer of Gustav Mahler, because I think one of the main keys to understanding his vocal works is that it is not the whole desperate and intimate and hard thing he is expressing.”

“It’s the laughter and smile, which accompanies this world of sadness and makes it more understandable. That means, I think, Mahler could be a Kafka in music. It is sad, it is desperate, it is horrible, but it is also grotesque. It is accompanied by a lot of humor that makes these works a little bit enigmatic. It makes them a little more interesting and attractive than only being examples of pure sadness or melancholy or Weltschmerz. It’s more. It’s different, a modern understanding of the old world, which they both grew up with.”

Among Mahler’s musical influences was folk song, something that figures textually, if not musically, in his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, also on the program. “Brahms was always sort of nostalgic handling folk songs,” he says ruminatively, “going back to the root and glorifying them, putting them into gold. I am not sure if I really like this way around.” To explain what happens in folk song, he uses a German term, meaning “to sing it around.”

“That means that it is always a little different in each performance,” he explains. “I would add that it is not only a little different, it is always a little better, meaning the direction of each folk song is to be developed into a kind of art song. The folk song tries to be more artistic over its time of existence.” Mahler used folk material extensively, but not the tunes, just the lyrics, and in a free way. “He goes on with this idea that the authenticity of the folk song is not the goal,” Gerhaher notes.

In other words, Mahler was not like Brahms, who reinvented old forms and glorified the idea of folk expression. Brahms’s way is “still charming, but it’s a little pink, we could say in German,” he jokes, meaning something like seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. “Mahler tore away every curtain in front of oddities and cruelties. He wanted to make them visible, but not in a consistent way, rather in a broken way. This is the modern art of Mahler in my eyes.”

Gerhaher and Huber started rehearsing Schumann’s Dichterliebe, their first collaboration as singer and pianist, thirty-one years ago. Friends since their teenage years, they both celebrate their fiftieth birthday this year. 

Asked how theirs became such a valuable, long-term  partnership, Gerhaher uses the word “symbiotic.”

 “We have worked together for such a long time that we are sort of brothers,” he says. “We don’t have to talk much about what we do anymore, because we do it by our work. He is always trying to understand the identity and individuality of every song we perform. I wouldn’t normally perform with other pianists, because I wouldn’t find what I get with him.”

At this point the duo has performed and recorded together just about all the major song cycles in German, some more than once. They are currently finishing their traversal of the entire song output of Robert Schumann, which has taken many years, but there are other works he wants to record. He mentions the piano version of Das Lied von der Erde, specifying that he means Mahler’s own piano version: “It’s not a reduction. It’s a piece of its own. It has a different meaning, different words, different harmonies partly, and melodies.” Other plans include the Blake songs of Benjamin Britten and also French songs by Debussy and Fauré.

“There is quite a bit left,” he says, gratefully acknowledging a fruitful recording partnership with BMG (now Sony), lasting eighteen years. “This is a great opportunity,” he says, “because as a song recitalist, you don’t sell millions, not even thousands.”

Lest his concert tours and recording projects are not enough, the singer is also writing a book reflecting his views on music and lieder lyrics.

“I hope I can finish the manuscript maybe this year—or the first half of next year, and then it will be published. It will also be translated into English. I don’t know when, but we have a contract with Faber & Faber.” 

If the book is as insightful as a conversation with Christian Gerhaher, it will be a most compelling read.

Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber perform songs by Mahler 7:30 p.m. October 18 in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. vocalartsdc.org; 202-467-4600


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