Christian Gerhaher and six phenomenal string players kicked off the first of three portrait concerts at the Musikverein last night with a chamber music program dedicated to night. Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck’s Notturno for baritone and string quartet began the evening, a composition rarely performed though due to its length and complexity. Schoeck himself was unsure when he composed the work in the early 1930s if it could be effective in performance, and has remained functionally unperformed until Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Juilliard Quartet introduced it to the world in the late 60s. Since then it has been steadily, if occasionally programmed and recorded in the German speaking world, offering one of few German-language opportunities for a baritone and a string quartet to make music together. And chamber music it is; of the fourteen movements, which flow into one another in attacca, only ten involve the voice. The instrumental writing is complex and melodically driven, presenting the quartet as four individual voices which weave into each other, and the voice is effectively a fifth, which just happens to carry the text. 

Christian Gerhaher
© Gregor Hohenberg | Sony Classical

Gerhaher’s diction is singular, and his rendition of the nine sombre Nikolaus Lenau settings – poems drawing from the long Romantic tradition of using nature to reflect the inner emotional landscape – was beautifully nuanced. He can find a hollow sound in his open vowels to give the listener chills, and his depiction of the nightmarish, panicked frenzy of Der Traum war so wild, was breathtaking. Similarly, Isabelle Faust and Anne Katharina Schreiber (violin), Danusha Waskiewicz (viola) and Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello) conversed as easily in their musical milieu as in a Kaffeehaus. The final number, a setting of Gottfried Keller, Heerwagen, mächtig Sternbild der Germanen, provided a release from the veiled despair of the rest of the work. It’s looped harmonic movement and steady ductus provides a trance-like stasis almost hymn-like in comparison, but the release of Schoeck’s protagonist’s soul is into the nothingness of the universe, not paradise. 

Viola player Timothy Ridout and cellist Christian Poltéra turned the string quartet into a sextet for Schoenberg’s youthful masterpiece, Verklärte Nacht. Following Richard Dehmel’s poem on the ability of human love to transcend human jealousy, shame and embedded moral norms, the through-composed, five-movement work follows lovers uncovering a painful secret. Instead of becoming a wedge between them, their love transfigures an illegitimate child into a bond between the two. Like Schoeck, the work ends with stars, but here they sparkle, filled with warmth of love and life. The sextet played brilliantly, transfiguring their audience into a reverent mass, reluctant to disturb the mood that still hung in the Goldener Saal with applause. 

If there was a weak point to this standout evening, it was the final set. The six songs that comprise Berlioz’ Les Nuits d’été are difficult for any one voice to manage, and although I am certainly open to all songs being possible in performance for all genders, I prefer the tessitura of a sensuous, lush soprano embodying Le Spectre de la rose, sweeping above the instrumental work to Gerhaher’s grounded baritone, though the lament, Sur les lagunes (the one song which Berlioz specified for baritone in his piano score), worked well. The string players were brilliant, performing a new sextet arrangement by David Matthews. This is a welcome addition to chamber music repertoire, preferable to Berlioz’ piano accompaniment, and easier – logistically, if not technically – than employing his full orchestral version. All told, a wonderful night of nocturnal music.