Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber: "Ferne Geliebte"
Songs by Beethoven, Berg, Haydn and Schoenberg. Notes, texts and translations. Sony Classical 88691935432
German baritone Christian Gerhaher makes a distinctive, assertive impression in this lieder recital. The program has one foot squarely in the niche of Viennese modernism, but what defines this singer most clearly is his manner.
In a modernist work such as Arnold Schoenberg's song cycle Book of the Hanging Gardens, performers often adopt a mainstream style, to emphasize continuity, vocal opulence, emotional directness — in a word, universals. Brigitte Fassbaender offers a prime example of this approach, with her vehemently dramatic 1983 recording of the work. This mini-drama of a failed romance, in fifteen angular, elusive songs, is a slightly unusual choice for Gerhaher, since it has been performed almost exclusively by women. (Glenn Gould hoped to record it with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, until their artistic differences proved irreconcilable during a failed Richard Strauss project; the pianist collaborated instead with the warm-voiced Helen Vanni, and other LP versions featured direct, lyrical performances by Jennifer Lane and Suzanne Danco, as well as the dazzling, if more eccentric, Jan De Gaetani.) Fassbaender and Gerhaher, quite apart from gender and vocal differences, are poles apart in terms of interpretation.
The baritone's style here is not uniformly cold; he reaches an intense emotional peak in the eighth song, "Wenn ich heut nicht deinen Leib berühre" (If I do not touch your body today), with its unusually quick tempo (rasch, in the score), its extreme range and the drop of a minor ninth on the word "leidet" (suffering) before it comes to an abrupt stop. Even this is less shattering and operatic than Fassbaender. In many of the songs, moreover, Gerhaher keeps an ironic distance or implies that his character is dreaming or recalling the drama that Fassbaender lives so nakedly. He stresses Schoenberg's irregular rhythms and almost atonal intervals with an insinuating, reedy tone, a sliding, unsettling delivery and phrases that sometimes verge on speech. The dexterity, rhythmic energy and imagination are fascinating, and no doubt justified by poet Stefan George's "decadent," devious text. In its way, this version makes an excellent counterpart to those recorded by the aforementioned mezzo-sopranos. Gerhaher's illuminating commentary in a liner note confirms the braininess so evident in his singing.
In Berg's Altenberg Lieder, also associated with female voices, the baritone offers a display of contrasting tone color over the freakish range, shifting into a piercing falsetto in a few places and chasing other details with gusto. At times, some of the subtlety he showed in the Schoenberg work would have been welcome in poet Peter Altenberg's series of "postcards," which doggedly compare landscapes and climate to the woman being addressed.
Gerhaher and his adept accompanist, Gerold Huber, work wonders with three marvelous songs that have a surprisingly somber cast for a composer of Haydn's usual high spirits. Best may be "Trost Unglücklicher Liebe" (Consolation for Unhappy Love), which is becoming something of a staple of late, although it rarely achieves the focus and taut melodic line that are so effective here. The Beethoven cycle An die Ferne Geliebte benefits from all the variety at these artists' command, which is saying a good deal.
A tendency to lop off his phrases a little too soon gives the first song in particular ("Auf dem Hügel sitz ich spähend") a strange cast, as if Gerhaher were shifting into a whisper, a spoken delivery, on each phrase's deep final note. This manner, heard in low passages elsewhere on the disc, may just be compensation for a weakness in the bass register, rather than a stylistic quirk. In a florid romantic song such as Beethoven's "Adelaide," a listener may miss the vocal ping of a tenor or of a more extroverted lyric baritone, and Haydn's "Das Leben ist ein Traum" makes life's dreaminess a little drab. Those limitations have to be recognized, but they're a small price to pay for the expertise of these artists, who encompass such a range and nearly always get to a song's defining rhythmic pulse.
DAVID J. BAKER
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