German baritone Christian Gerhaher and his long-time collaborator and pianist, Gerold Huber, offered an intriguing recital of voice and piano for the fortunate 100+audience in Park Avenue Armory. Sandwiched by Beethoven’s art songs were Schoenberg’s infrequently performed Buch der hangenden Garten, five of Haydn’s English songs, and Berg’s fascinating Altenberg Lieder. With an exception of Haydn’s Sailor’s Song, which is loud and boisterous, the program focused on the themes of love, yearning, loss and grief, both real and imagined. The performance offered an opportunity to savor the duo’s astounding musicality, versatility and intelligence, and reinforced Mr Gerhaher’s reputation as the leading lieder singer of his generation.   

Mr Gerhaher has an unassuming stage presence. He and Mr Huber quietly mounted the stage and proceeded with their first selection, Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, almost casually. The two quickly established the moody atmosphere of the song cycle in hushed tones. Each of the six songs describes natural elements and intertwines them with the poet’s unattainable yearning for a faraway love. These scenes were miraculously realized by Mr Huber’s melodious and intricate playing. Mr Gerhaher’s singing effortlessly moved from quiet contemplation to emotional outburst. It was a beguiling start of a rewarding evening.

The baritone's connection to text was masterful throughout, and one did not need to be fluent in German to be invited to the European countryside as his diction was clear and expressive. His use of various colors in his voice to describe beautiful landscapes softly and tenderly and to convey ardor and anguish by strong declaration was natural and never interrupted the narrative. He rarely used gestures, and his facial expressions remained mostly passive. And yet, watching his mouth contour a word and phrase expertly was revealing as a small movement was often eloquent enough to convey deep emotions. His voice was most attractive in the middle range, but as the voice soared higher, it opened up to reveal a slightly covered and yet clear, warm and penetrating tone with no sign of strain.

Schoenberg’s cycle of 15 songs was the longest and least familiar, and Mr Gerhaher stayed close to his music stand. His performance did not suffer, however, as he took us on an emotional journey of a troubled soul. The protagonists’s dreamy wandering in the garden as he fantasized of his beloved began quietly, almost speaking, and slowly gathered agitated tone as his fantasy became more passionate. The last several songs were more reflective. Along with Mr Gerhaher’s impeccable vocal performance, Mr Huber’s playing added another voice, the dramatic lengthy interludes between songs greatly enhancing the overall emotionally charged atmosphere of the piece.

Mr Gerhaher’s ability to provide expressive color to each word was apparent even in Haydn’s English songs. The first selection, Spirit’s Song, brought tears to many as the spirit sang to his beloved who remained alive. In the last of the five English songs, She Never Told Her Love, the word “smiling” was vocalized in a most tender way as Mr Gerhaher literally smiled as he mouthed the word.

Berg’s five songs, never performed in complete form during his lifetime, showcased the young composer’s talent as a forward looking modernist. The songs were free of diatonic system and yet melodious. As they were originally scored for large orchestra, here Mr Huber’s talent was even more on display as he performed the complex music. Berg selection was also the most challenging for Mr Gerhaher, as it calls for several high notes, in the second and third songs, especially in the last word “hinaus” in the third. Mr Gerhaher had no trouble with vocalizing them in a thrilling outburst. The fourth song, on the sorrow of aging alone, was a particular standout in this section, every word invested in deep contemplation and resignation. The last song sang the peace of mind reached at the end of suffering, and tested Mr Gerhaher’s low range. He completed Berg’s masterpiece with both fire (“das mir die Seele verbrennt” and tranquility (“Hier tropft Schnee leis in Wasserlachen…..”).

The last selection of the program, Beethoven’s early art song Adelaide, was a masterclass in lieder singing as Mr Gerhaher’s lyrical baritone soared and Mr Huber’s fingers glided through this ode to love. Coming full circle from the opening Beethoven, journeying through the modern masters Schoenberg and Berg with a backward glance at Haydn, the familiar song now sounded fresh.

Adelaide ends with an evocation of purple leaf over the poet’s grave. After thunderous ovations, the pair offered one encore, Mozart’s Abendempfindung an Laura, K523, that spoke of a violet for the poet’s grave. It was a fitting end of to evening of songs that were filled with death and yet were hopeful of love lasting beyond grave.