News in brief: baritone Christian Gerhaher, the German master of mellifluous artistry, brought his seasoned interpretation of Schubert’s late song cycle to a packed Wigmore Hall and was ecstatically received.

Gerold Huber and Christian Gerhaher at Wigmore Hall © Clive Barda | ArenaPAL
Gerold Huber and Christian Gerhaher at Wigmore Hall
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

That summary does not begin to characterise a deeply absorbing evening of rich vocal colours, extraordinary pianism and the occasional imperfection. Gerold Huber’s interpretation of the piano part was revelatory: consistently probing and precise, it eschewed decoration in favour of psychological truth. Who would have thought that a Steinway could tell a story? Both musicians honoured Wilhelm Müller’s poems with distinction but it was Huber who led the way in tracing the narrator-wanderer’s decline – and therein lies my concern. Gerhaher sang with heroic attack and he brilliantly depicted the wintry trek in physical terms, but I missed the character’s mental journey into night and as a consequence found myself insufficiently moved by his fate.

Gerhaher sometimes plays at being casual, but it’s all sleight of hand as he invariably knows the effect he intends. Thus his throwaway entry into Gute nacht opened with two stanzas of nonchalance before a frisson of tension crept in at the howling dog metaphor “Was soll ich länger weilen”. The whole thing seemed cunningly judged to set up Song Two, Die Wetterfahne, which ensued in a reading of bristling torment and sharp contrasts.

Gerold Huber © Clive Barda | ArenaPAL
Gerold Huber
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

Both Gerhaher and Huber are prodigious technicians. The baritone’s ability to hit every note dead centre and weight it to perfection is matched by his regular piano partner’s communicative gifts and mastery of the telling tenuto. For me the highlight of their Winterreise was Einsamkeit, perhaps the most unambiguous moment of the cycle in which the wanderer yearns for raging storms to mirror his mood. Their account of this desolate walking song was so terse, stark and spare that Die Post, which followed, galloped in with the welcome joy of a cowboy theme.

It feels heretical to criticise the vocal choices of a singer like Gerhaher, whose tonal beauty is irreproachable and who applies such intelligent shading to his interpretations, but on occasion in Winterreise he coarsened his sound for effect and Schubert’s notes became amorphous. The baritone barked only rarely and then very deliberately, for example in Erstarrung and Letzte Hoffnung, but such instances jolted this listener outside the score.

Christian Gerhaher © Clive Barda | ArenaPAL
Christian Gerhaher
© Clive Barda | ArenaPAL

The wanderer’s final descent towards oblivion begins in earnest at Das Wirtshaus, the first of Schubert’s four last songs in which he sees a graveyard as an inn and funeral wreaths as welcome invitations to death. Huber’s morbid piano here was chilling and pointed the way to a harrowing finale that never quite materialised. Müller’s hallucinatory Die Nebensonnen, in which the wanderer confuses the sun with his beloved’s eyes, was sung without subtext, but the stunning closing number, Der Leiermann, flowed with exquisite calibration by both artists. This song can all too easily slip into melodrama (the Austrian Florian Boesch opts for big rhetorical acting here) but Gerhaher took the road less travelled in preferring a more dispassionate approach. That seemed to work for most of the Wigmore Hall audience. His tone remained poised and unflustered; his doom the cultured despair of a Lieder singer who’s just turned over the final page.

****1