In a recital of Dvořák and Schumann Lieder at Wigmore Hall last night, Christian Gerhaher gave us a masterclass in vocal timbre. Diction was perfect throughout, with every consonant clearly distinguishable,  whether in Czech or in his native German. The palette of colours with which Gerhaher can paint his voice is nothing short of extraordinary, because he has so many primary components at his disposal.

Gerold Huber and Christian Gerhaher at Wigmore Hall © Simon Jay Price
Gerold Huber and Christian Gerhaher at Wigmore Hall
© Simon Jay Price

He can thicken out the voice for a full, chesty resonance, or he can thin it out, almost to falsetto levels as he depicts the maiden taking holy orders in Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud’! A thinned voice can indicate hesitancy, the faintest of slides before a crisply sung note adds a level of jauntiness to the wanderer’s gait in Wanderlied. He is capable of controlling a smooth transition between resonant and thin within the compass of a single note, at the same time as controlling the shape of a note’s dynamics: monotones had virtually no place in the entire concert. A note can be beautifully contoured, as in “ústa má”, “my lips” from “my lips shall praise thee”, or can be rock solid, as in “potěšuje” (“they shall comfort me”), the last word of Dvořák’s setting of Psalm 23. Accelerations and decelerations in tempo are facilitated by the fact that Gerhaher has been singing with the same pianist – fellow German Gerold Hüber – for years: there isn’t a vestige of doubt in Gerhaher’s mind that where he leads, Hüber will follow.

The variation in the voice and the level of control over nuance is unparalleled. But it’s not just a matter of the overt technical tricks: there’s also the simple fact that this is a fundamentally attractive voice to listen to, together with a rare combination of clarity and richness across the whole range.

But the make or break of any Lieder concert lies in whether or not the singer succeeds in bringing the words to life and infecting the audience with the sentiments in the poetry. And in this, for me at least, the results were mixed. There were some notable successes: mostly in the Schumann, but some amongst the Dvořák Biblical Songs, Op.99, of which “Hear my prayer, O Lord My God” was the most stunning, with the desperation of the plea that “the fear of death overwhelms me”. Schumann's setting of Die Sennin gave me a direct injection of the romantic view of a rugged mountain landscape lit up by the cowgirl’s song, Resignation put across the weakness of the protagonist who, since his earthly love cannot be requited, can only clutch at straws by anticipating a theologically improbable reunion in heaven. Wanderlied gave us good cheer and the joys of the road, Auf der Trinkglas eines verstorbenes Frendes spelled out mawkish regret as we stared into a departed friend’s long-unused drinking glass. The best was left until (nearly) last, with Stille Tränen showing real threat and bitterness of the sentiment epitomised by Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s “Weep and you weep alone”.

Gerold Huber and Christian Gerhaher © Simon Jay Price
Gerold Huber and Christian Gerhaher
© Simon Jay Price

However, for many of the songs, I was unable to match up Gerhaher’s tonal colouration, vivid as it was, with the text. It would be pedantic to run through a litany of examples, so I’ll just give one: Nikolaus Lenau’s Der schwere Abend is written in the guise of a man going through the uttermost depression; Gerhaher’s rendering was so understated that the misery simply didn’t come across to me.

The concert was a traditional one: Gerhaher standing ramrod straight, right hand resting on the piano, with barely a glance towards Hüber, whose role was definitely that of the expert accompanist, following the tempi and dynamics set by the singer. The programme was also traditional, created from the specific and limited emotional palettes of biblical psalms and German High Romantic poetry. Those audience members heavily attuned to both those sensibilities will have been fully satisfied. As for me – a prospective convert to the Lieder genre rather than a card carrying member – I was blown away by the quality of the musicianship I had just seen, but fell well short of a full conversion.

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