Christian Gerhaher: "Romantische Arien"
Works by Wagner, Schubert, Schumann, Weber, Nicolai. Symphonierochester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Harding. Texts and translations. Sony Classical 88725422952
When Christian Gerhaher sings, we are not listening to a gifted artist's preliminary reactions, however passionate and genuine, but to a seasoned distillation of intellect and heart, fired with imagination and funneled through a visceral sensuality of language. The baritone's impeccable lieder credentials lend profundity to his interpretation of German Romantic arias, partnered by the superb Daniel Harding and the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. With the exception of Wolfram's excerpts from Tannhäuser, the repertoire is off the beaten track and includes Schubert and Schumann, composers who excelled in song composition.
The attraction of German composers and librettists to subjects drawn from medieval legend is apparent in Schubert's unfinished opera Der Graf von Gleichen, Weber's Euryanthe and Schumann's only opera, Genoveva. In "O Himmel… Mein Weib, o Gott," from Schubert's crusade story, the title character sings an ode to his distant wife, later forgotten when he marries the sultan's daughter Suleika and attempts a happy polygamous life. (Did Schubert actually believe this would pass the censors?) The opposite situation arises in Genoveva, when another crusading count returns to find his wife false but doesn't realize his best friend has framed her. Unfortunately, no plot lines are revealed in Michael Wittmann's turgid booklet essay, which sheds little light on the performed material but confusingly refers to several pieces not included in the recital.
Gerhaher is at his best in two excerpts from Schubert's Alfonso und Estrella, especially the lyrical "Sei mir gegrüsst, o Sonne," with its harmonically striking opening — a depiction of sunrise — and its string of expansive arias. Often the baritone brings to mind Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; both display spacious, translucent top voices and quicksilver tonal palettes, alert to a character's changing emotions. Like that of his great predecessor, Gerhaher's vocal technique favors a light, floating emission that highlights text, yet he brings plenty of muscle to a satisfyingly vehement voicing of the Schumann excerpt and an explosive, impassioned delivery of the recitative and aria from Euryanthe.
Harding and Gerhaher sell Otto Nicolai's weak "Norton!... Verfehmt kehrt er," a martial excerpt from Die Heimkehr des Verbannten. Tenor Maximilian Schmitt brings sweet tone to this, as well as to the scene from Genoveva.
In Gerhaher's conception, Wolfram's arias are the culmination of German Romantic sensibility; having sung the role with great success, he embodies the introspection and ardor of the legendary poet. He delivers "Blick' ich umher" as an artist in a trance of inspiration, and both Gerhaher and Harding seem to be improvising with their careful pacing, thoughtful pauses and delicately colored chord changes. Gerhaher has often noted the problematic dramatic situation of "O du, mein holder Abendstern," with its weird chivalric stance, but his intimate, fervent delivery, seemingly suspended in time, is glorious.
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