Among the audience at Thursday night’s Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital, it seemed few had heard of baritone Christian Gerhaher. They had come for the excellent reason of András Schiff playing the piano. But by the end of the evening it was clear that neither name would be soon forgotten. In a warhorse-heavy program of Beethoven, Schumann, and Haydn, they were an exceptionally subtle and accomplished team.

Christian Gerhaher © Hiromichi Yamamoto
Christian Gerhaher
© Hiromichi Yamamoto

Gerhaher is that rarest of birds, a Lieder specialist (though he sings the occasional opera too). His singing presents first and foremost the words and their meaning. While his exceptionally beautiful, velvety lyric baritone can belt it out with operatic strength (as he did at one or two very select points), that is generally not his concern, and he scaled his voice to a speaking level in the small Perelman Theater and carefully weighted every word and musical gesture. In this he is an ideal partner for Schiff, whose equally nuanced playing was perfectly in sync and always audible.

Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte is the earliest major song cycle, though it does not tell a story in the way of later cycles. The narrator, sitting on a hill, thinks of his absent beloved and the wonders of nature. He finally decides to send her his songs so she can sing them and thus experience his love. The six songs are performed without pause and are linked by motives to form a whole. While the text carries many Romantic tropes of longing and the wonders of nature, Gerhaher and Schiff’s performance owed more to the eighteenth century, with a light, staccato approach, the birdsong in the piano rippling beautifully.

This was followed by the most popular of song cycles, Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Like Beethoven’s speaker, the protagonist is a poet, but the fate of his love and his verses are less happy. Gerhaher and Schiff’s poet seemed quite miserable from the start, with a strong accent on the appoggiatura on “Verlangen” (“desires”) in the very first song, and a slightly manic take on “Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne.” But most of the tempos were on the slower side, particularly the sorrowful rather than angry take on “Ich grolle nicht” (including the high option on “die dir am Herzen frißt”). Schiff provided a hyperarticulated accompaniment in “Und wüßten’s die Blumen” and a virtuosic separation of voices in “Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen,” with subtly flexible tempos in the right hand and lively dancing in the left. The second half of the cycle turned even more dark, with a stark “Ich hab’ in Traum geweine.” “Die alten, bösen Lieder” opened dramatically, but Gerhaher and Schiff turned inward in the final lines to a quietly tragic conclusion.

The second half of the program began with “Ballade des Harfners” (“Ballad of the Harpist”) from Schumann’s Op. 98 settings of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. The harp playing was executed by Schiff with wonderful lightness and delicacy. But a mannerism in Gerhaher’s delivery, evident in the first half, became more prominent: his tendency was to begin each word with a sforzando, which was useful in articulating the words—but at times a smoother line would have been preferable.

The final set of songs, some of which were in English, was devoted to Haydn. While Gerhaher’s articulation was, as ever, clear, not all the pronunciation was entirely accurate. (German speakers have as much trouble with English R’s as English speakers do with German ones.) Musically these strophic settings are in the province of the clear Beethoven rather than Schumann’s chromaticism, but the mood was closer to Schumann’s desolation, from the dead lover of “The Spirit’s Song” to the torment of “Trost unglücklicher Liebe” (“Consolation of unfortunate love”). Even the happy “Content” registered more pleasant satisfaction than joy. The program closed with Beethoven’s early “Adelaïde,” a lovely love song that turns a little bit sinister at the end as the speaker proclaims that Adelaïde’s name will live in his heart even after his death.

If there was a drawback to this concert it was the somewhat vanilla programming. To hear a Dichterliebe as masterful as this one is a treat, but one can’t help be envious of European audiences, who this summer will hear Gerhaher in a similar program that replaces the Schumann with Schoenberg and Berg. While those composers are considered a hard sell to American audiences, it’s hard to believe that in the hands of Gerhaher they’d be anything less than enthralling.