It’s hardly news that many consider Christian Gerhaher the world’s foremost Lieder interpreter. Often heard in intimate recital with pianist Gerold Huber, his longtime artistic partner, the German baritone has a knack for making it seem as if Mahler, Schubert and Schumann composed their song cycles especially with him in mind. Yet in my experience, Gerhaher’s bantamweight instrument can sometimes lack the heft needed for a full orchestral accompaniment. Going into his performance of Rückert-Lieder with the Bamberg Symphony under Daniel Harding’s baton, I wondered how close cameras and well-placed microphones might compensate and allow him to give a more relaxed interpretation, where he wouldn’t need to sacrifice style for sound.

Christian Gerhaher
© Gregor Hohenberg | Sony Classical

The results were mixed. Gerhaher sounded tentative and slightly mannered in Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!, and he struggled with some of the lower passages of Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft. Although he exhibited extraordinary commitment in maintaining clean legato throughout, and each German word emerged clear enough to be dictated, Gerhaher’s bone-dry, occasionally astringent singing lacked the fulsome tone one desires in Liebst du um Schönheit. Still, that lack of adornment served him in Um Mitternacht, and especially Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, rendered her as a descent into the darkest night of the soul. Surprisingly, Gerhaher brought a refreshing lightness of touch to Urlicht, his sole encore.

Harding elicited exquisitely detailed accompaniment from his players, from the mournful English horn in Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen to the lively violin solo in Urlicht. He brought the same attention to Blumine, the oft-excised movement from Mahler’s First Symphony, played here as a curtain raiser. The interpretation was notable for its refined contributions from the flute, oboe, harp and, of course, trumpet. The strings lacked finesse, however, and the rather sluggish tempo Harding took with most of the piece put perhaps too fine a point on the theme of spring awakening.

Daniel Harding
© Julian Hargreaves

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Robert Schumann’s Symphony no. 2 in C major emerged with welcome vibrancy. Many conductors approach the work as a beast in need of taming. In embracing the composer’s somewhat eccentric orchestrations, though, Harding took the listener on a thrilling journey. The bright, high strings of the Scherzo have rarely sounded so transparent, and the pulse-quickening finale was executed with a Mozartean elegance. Schumann’s writing can be confounding, but Harding and the Bamberg forces served him well by getting out of his way.

This performance was reviewed from the Medici TV live video stream.