Back in March of this year, Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber landed in Madrid with a programme entirely devoted to Robert Schumann that left the audience in awe, in what was unquestionably one of the best concerts of the past season. With such a memorable evening still relatively fresh in people’s mind, it was always going to prove challenging to rise to the expectations. Except it is Gerhaher and Gerold we are talking about, so in fact they raised their own bar, making of this new proposition, an evening dedicated to the songs of Gustav Mahler, something hard to do justice to in words.

The Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a wayfarer), set to poems by Mahler himself, bear clear similarities to Franz Schubert’s Winterreise – or, should we say, to Wilhelm Müller’s Die Winterreise, the original poems that were set to music by Schubert: a wanderer goes on a journey to nowhere following an ill-fated love affair. In Mahler’s case, the recipient of this love was soprano and actress Johanna Richter, her blue eyes prevalent in the verses of the cycle. Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my love has her wedding day), which draws from one of the poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn extensively, tells of the beloved one who is alas marrying someone else. It does not get much more exposed than this, really, especially when this is the first piece the audience heard. And here was Gerhaher singing his simple but deeply insightful lines, in the company of a piano which nonconformity suggests the distant celebration, but also reveals what is left unsaid. In the much more vocally demanding Ging heute Morgen übens Feld (I walked across the fields this morning), Gerhaher took us through the transition a man experiences when marvelling at the beauty of the world only to acknowledge that such beauty will never be for him to enjoy. This lead directly into the distressing Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer (I have a gleaming knife), an agonising remembrance of the vanished love, which Gerhaher conveyed hauntingly alongside a dissonant piano. The cycle closed with the longing Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz (The two blue eyes of my love), voice and piano in thorough communion, with Gerhaher taking his rich delicacy still a step further.

A careful selection of ten songs from those set to poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The youth’s magic horn) followed, each treated like a gem in its own right: there was the joyfulness and light if devilish coloratura of Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht (Who made up this little song?), which prompted giggles from the audience, as did the mischievousness of Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen (How to make naughty children behave); we witnessed disarming immediacy in Gerhaher’s recounting of Rheinlegendchen (Little Rhine legend); we were privy to the full extent of the power of both instruments – piano and voice – in Der Schildwache Nachtlied (The sentinel’s night song); we shared the bare desperation in Das irdische Leben (Life on earth) at the realisation that when the bread is finally baked, the famished child has died from starvation.

Further tragic stories about children were still to come. Although the concert was scheduled to draw to a close with the Rückert-Lieder, instead, it was announced that the programme would be changed to the Kindertotenlieder, also set to poems from Friedrich Rückert. Mahler chose five out of over 400 poems the German poet wrote after losing his two younger children to scarlet fever, and did something with them that defies any rational explanation. So did the two interpreters, opening the cycle with the tonally evasive Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn (Now the sun will rise as bright), a reflection on the impossibility to cope with the most unspeakable of losses (Als sei kein Unglück die Nacht geschehn, continues the verse: as though no misfortune had befallen in the night). This lead very aptly into Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen (Now I see clearly why with such dark flames) – let's not forget that Mahler insisted on these five songs remaining an inseparable unit. Wenn dein Mütterlein (When your dear mother), the third in the cycle, had Gerhaher sing his beguiling lines against the stream of quavers coming from the piano, forever chasing after the gone child. With Oft denk' ich, sie sind nur ausgegangen (I often think they have only gone out), we entered the world of denial, that impenetrable desire to resuscitate the deceased. And what can possibly be said about In diesem Wetter (In this weather), with Gerhaher’s stoic face almost disfigured and the piano disorienting and anxious. Only by the end did we get a slight feeling of acceptance, perhaps transcendence and consolation in the knowledge that no more suffering awaits the departed children. They rest in peace.

“Have you noticed that, with me, the melody always grows out of the words, that the words, so to speak, create the melody, never vice versa,” Mahler once asked his friend and violist Natalie Bauer-Lechner. It could have been Gerhaher that posed the question, for he most certainly subscribes to this principle. He exists on stage, first and foremost, to tell a story. So does his partner in crime, who can speak more compellingly through his keyboard than many people will ever do through language.