Beethoven – An die ferne Geliebte, op.98Schoenberg – Das Buch der hängende Gärten, op.15
Haydn – The Spirit’s Song, Hob. XXVIa/41; Content, Hob. XXVIa/36; The Wanderer, Hob. XXVIa/32; Sailor’s Song, Hob. XXVIa/31; She never told her love, Hob. XXVIa/34
Berg – Altenberg-Lieder, op.4, arr. Hans Erich Apostel and Gerold Hubert
Beethoven – Adelaide, op.46
Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Gerold Huber (piano)
What a wonderful programme, given under the heading ‘Wiener Schule’ (‘Viennese Schools’)! Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte and Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängende Gärten must, along with Hindemith’s Marienleben, stand as the most disgracefully neglected of song-cycles. (No reasonable person denies the greatness of Schubert, but do we really need to have Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise programmed quite so often?) The opening song, ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz ich spähend’, began beautifully slow, heartbreakingly so. This, one felt, with reference to Christian Gerhaher’s most celebrated operatic role, was Wolframs Lied. For whatever reason, and the reasons are, I think, complex, we hear what we imagine to be Beethoven’s voice, his character, in his music. Does anyone really not hear his greatness as a human being as well as a composer? The composer’s goodness certainly shone through here, through rather than in addition to vocal beauty; nor was Gerhaher’s performance at the expense of the words. There was sadness, though, too: how could there not be when measured against the state in which the world now stands? The acceleration in the final stanza was spot on: ‘natural’, with nothing remotely abrupt to it. That, of course, was Gerold Huber’s doing as well, and the subtlety of the brief transition to the next song – and not just to this next song – was his too. ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ offered contrasts between such beauty of tone and a dried out quality in the second stanza, vibrato strategically withdrawn. ‘Schmerzen’ indeed. I liked the playful yet serious character to ‘Diese Wolken in den Höhen’: akin to a vocal Bagatelle, and yes, the persistence of certain piano figures reminded me further of those true gems for the instrument. The sadness of an aspiration to naïveté, no longer possible to fulfil, Beethoven already too late, marked ‘Es kejret der Maien’. Beautifully sprung piano rhythms heightened the loss. The turn to the minor for concluding tears (‘Tränen’) sealed a tragedy in miniature. Gerhaher offered an almost Mahlerian serenity of exhaustion – closer, perhaps, to some of the symphonies than the songs – in the final ‘Nimm die hin den, diese Lieder’. The final stanza reinstated, not without implicit sorrow, Beethovenian good humour.
Schoenberg could, not without reason, be a pricklier soul. Here, though, we heard a veritable garden of delights. Placing his cycle after Beethoven’s suggested reinstatement of that slippery idea, ‘tradition’, and the intrinsic necessity of its Aufhebung. Lines heard in quasi-isolation might have been of the past, almost but not quite; where they were sung or played now, they became unheimlich. The eloquence of Huber’s opening left-hand single-line melody heightened expectations, which were certainly not to be thwarted. A Schubertian bird (‘Vögel’) sang during ‘Hain in diesen paradiesen’, the piano recognisably a collaborative partner drawing upon Schoenberg’s recent op.11 Piano Pieces. Rhythms in the following ‘Als neuling trat ich ein in dein gehege’ seemed to want to enjoy themselves, almost succeeding, Stefan George’s verse pulling them back. Gerhaher’s hairpin on ‘strauchelt’ encapsulated his marriage of drama and beauty, the vowel doing his magical work. Resignation – ‘leaning in’ on harmonic progressions – marked ‘Saget mir, auf welchem pfade’; and yet, it moved. Sometimes, as in ‘Angst und hoffen wechselnd mich beklemen’, the piano part seemed to attain relative autonomy, but it was not contradiction, such as Schoenberg unfarily accused Busoni of having advocated. Pierrot-ish rage seemed within range in ‘Wenn ich heut nicht deinen leib berühre’, whilst pale, wan tone drew us in and repelled us in ‘Als wir hinter dem beblübtem tore’. Ghostly dignity was Gerhaher’s mode of delivery here, that mode ever shifting, ever complex: like Schoenberg’s music itself, of course. The final ‘Wir bevölkerten die abend-düstern’ had, from its outset, a sense of finality, yet by the same token, the battle was not won before its singing. There was to be no easy conclusion; how could there be? Perhaps this offered some irresolute resolution of that which would not resolve.
We hear Haydn’s – and Mozart’s – songs far too little. This selection would, I suspect, have been quite an ear-opener to many. The particular gravity of the piano sound, the placing of chords, and their harmonies marked out the opening of The Sprit’s Song as ‘late’. Gerhaher’s performance of Anne Hunter’s words and Haydn’s notes seemed to hark back a little to Handel, whose music so enthused Haydn both in London and before, and, even, via the adoptive Englishman, to traces of Purcell. This was no merely genial Haydn; it was as dark as Schoenberg, indeed perhaps more unrelievedly so. The mood lifted for ‘Content’, as one might expect (!), but ambivalence remained in a fashion that perhaps hinted at Mozart. Edging toward Romanticism, though remaining in the eighteenth-century, the performance of ‘The Wanderer’ sounded perfectly placed. My sole reservation lay with the Hunter ‘Sailor’s Song’. For me, it does not present Haydn at his best, but more to the point, both performances sounded over-emphatic: heavy-handed and whatever the vocal equivalent might be. ‘She never told her love’, however, sounded as well judged as ‘The Wanderer’ and indeed announced its kinship thereto.
There is loss, of course, in any piano version of Berg’s Altenberg-Lieder, but Huber’s own revision of Hans Erich Apostel soon had us forget and perhaps even to experience certain compensations. The piano’s quicksilver flickering, relative weighting of instrumental voices constantly shifting, sounded in model fashion. Mood and style were marked out as differently from Schoenberg as Haydn from Beethoven. Gerhaher’s attention to detail presented in the first song a quasi-turn upon ‘schöner’ as careful as if it had been by Haydn. Occasional erring of pitch, not of great importance or degree, was eradicated by the time of the second, ‘Sahst du nach dem Gewitterregen’. The paradoxical, or better dialectical, musical plenitude of Berg at (almost) his most aphoristic was something to savour in ‘Über die Grenzen des All’ and ‘Nichts ist gekommen’. Huber plucked the piano strings, harp-like, in the former: a lovely touch. Gerhaher’s final note, in falsetto, rang out in near-perfection. Sands constantly shifted beneath an almost Brahmsian core in ‘Hier ist Friede’. This truly chilled, as if Tristan were meeting Wozzeck.
Placed after Berg, Beethoven’s Adelaide sounded as painfully past, as unattainable, as Mozart might after Beethoven: heart-stopping indeed. The Mozart of The Magic Flute did not in fact sound so far removed from Beethoven’s palpable sincerity. Tamino, rather than Papageno, seemed almost the guiding spirit. I thought that before knowing what would come next: a delectable, light yet truly felt, encore of Mozart’s Abendempfindung. I cannot conceive of any of the preceding works without Mozart’s example; there is, happily, no need to do so.