The realities of the industry and allures of new pairings make the partnership of Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber a rarity. Instead of two artists briefly thrown together in collaboration, theirs is a duo partnership spanning decades. This familiarity, coupled with their exceptional calibre, allows for immense musical freedom. There is no tension regarding tempos, never a feeling that one is following the other, and not the least sense of surprise or uncertainty. Everything is polished to perfection; each song explored and treated down to the smallest detail and all on display for a rapt audience filling the great hall of the Musikverein to capacity. Gute Nacht crept in quietly, Huber holding back dynamically for Gerhaher’s protagonist, who seemed more refined than rustic, at least for the first two verses. Die Wetterfähne which followed it was emotionally charged to a completely different degree. Interestingly enough, were one to split hairs, the duo’s great strengths are closely related to the elements one might also feel were missing. So much polish means no rough edges, few surprises, no risks and limited extremes. Likewise, dissecting each song in a cycle uniquely – treating each as an individual world – can lead to a loss of the overarching journey.

Christian Gerhaher
© Gregor Hohenberg | Sony Classical

Regardless if one prefers more raw emotion and large-scale architecture or is thrilled by perfectly sculpted individual masterpieces, this was undeniably chamber music of the highest order. Erstarrung and Rückblick were whipped through in a frenzy that was nonetheless perfectly controlled, and Der Lindenbaum was an intimate duet between Huber’s left hand and the vocal melody. Huber, a master of exquisite voicing with winged fingers, was very much present, balancing Gerhaher’s reserved physical demeanour nicely. He seemed to relish the variety of attacks, voicings, phrasings and dynamic values available to him, and the surprises of the evening came largely from his end, such as the thundering bass which shocked the listener out of the linden tree’s enticing invitation and threw him back into the chill of a cold storm. Likewise Im Dorfe, generally interpreted as a menacing, bitter number filled with barking dogs and rattling chains, was almost playfully cheery; the oscillations in the introduction bright and sparsely pedalled.

Gerold Huber
© Marion Köll

Gerhaher’s diction, though sometimes more appropriate for a recording than a large concert hall, is something to study. His timing in placing consonants is impeccable, allowing for immaculate cleanliness within his legato. Without ever over-enunciating, he lingers on a cluster of sounds to give subtle emphasis, then cuts the next vowel ever so slightly short, representing not only the natural rhythm of the German, but also supporting his chosen mood and colour. Through detailed attention to text and sound, he gives the impression of telling a story which just happens to be sung, without relying on crutches of tempo manipulation or exaggerated pathos. His sound is beautiful, but he does not seem overly attached to it. In Rast he demonstrated not only that he can float a tone with the best, but also sang the two notes per syllable semiquaver note passages cleanly enough to render a perfect dictation from even the least gifted music theory student. The dark grey mood with which the song ends dissipated like dew in May at sunrise with Huber’s bright introduction to Frühlingstraum. Die Krähe and Das Wirtshaus were both nuanced and measured readings, as was Mut, which sounded courageous but in no way desperate. The closing Der Leiermann felt ambivalent – this protagonist may not have truly cut himself loose from the mortal coil. One could almost believe that he could begin again with Gute Nacht from the top and – like a duo of talented touring musicians – tirelessly march on telling his story.