The Covid-19 era being what it is, every season opener feels like a victory. As London’s Wigmore Hall welcomed 112 concertgoers to the opening of their season last night, strict entrance controls and sanitary measures – including pervasive mask-wearing – may have dimmed any festive atmosphere, but they provided great reassurance and the shared sense of thumbing our noses at the Coronavirus foe was palpable, assisted by some short, carefully chosen words from John Gilhooly.

Christian Gerhaher
© Wigmore Hall | David Parry

In case I hadn’t realised how important the sound of the human voice is to me, returning both to hearing live opera and Lieder in recent days has made it abundantly clear. On the bill at the Wigmore was one of the great voices of our time: the baritone of Christian Gerhaher.

Gerhaher fans already know the vast majority of what I’m about to say here, so I’ll be brief: his singing is a near-miraculous blend of qualities. Every word is crystal clear, the consonants crisply articulated and the vowels never compromised by what’s easier to sing in the particular register. The timbre is clean and light; Gerhaher has an extra gear, but when he ratchets up the tension, what we hear is the power of a sharply honed edge rather than the rolling of thunder. The breath control and legato are flawless. The musicality with which the sound of the voice follows the line of each phrase is immense.

The role of the accompanist is all too unsung, so it also needs to be pointed out that Gerold Huber is a very fine pianist indeed – with qualities that are very much the instrumental equivalent of Gerhaher's; there’s the sense that every note is intelligible, that the piano textures make sense and are never blurred and that the dynamics are under complete control.

Gerold Huber and Christian Gerhaher
© Wigmore Hall | David Parry

The first song played, Schubert’s Abendbilder, set the tone for the concert. The first four stanzas of Silbert’s poem are a gentle evocation of a lovely summer evening, but Gerhaher’s tone and manner suggest anything but unabated joy: the narrator’s mood turns dark when a village church reminds him of the bones in its graveyard, leaving a plea for their blissful resurrection as the only conclusion. The second song, Himmelsfunken, is another Schubert setting of Silbert and follows the same pattern: the sweetness of the early stanzas leads to a melancholy consciousness of death and a gentle – to my ears, less than perfectly confident – look forward to resurrection.

The musical structures of Berg’s 4 Lieder, Op.2, could not be more different. Rather than multi-verse poems, these are miniatures, they span greater dynamic range and they explore melody and harmony in a way that Schubert would have found utterly foreign. But in Gerhaher and Huber’s reading, they are a natural extension to the Schubert. They express the same yearning sadness; the sweetness of the nightingale’s song leads only to a girl musing on her departed lover – who we assume has either died or abandoned her.

Gerhaher’s vocal beauty is nothing short of extraordinary, its conjunction with Huber’s piano playing is of untold sensitivity, but I’m afraid that I’m suffering from a reduced tolerance for the constant melancholy of this style of poetry, in which every silver lining has a cloud – indeed, so much cloud that the vocal style is mostly focused on it. Perhaps my attention span has reduced in recent months, or perhaps I just need a bit more optimism, but vocal beauty only carries me so far and I would have wished for a programme more varied in mood. As an exponent of that particular style and mood, though, Gerhaher and Huber are matchless.