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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

CONCERT REVIEW | Christian Gerhaher Warms Up a Blustery Winterreise

By Colin Eatock on February 27, 2015

Christian Gerhaher
German baritone and bass singer Christian Gerhaher (R) and pianist Gerold Huber (L)

Baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber, at Koerner Hall, Thursday.

Once in a blue moon, I hear a song recital that makes me question the purpose of all other forms and genres of music.

As I sit, mesmerized and delighted by what I’m hearing, I may say to myself, “What is the purpose of elaborate scenery, costumes and lighting? And what do we need with a phalanx of strings, or a barrage of brass, or a conductor flailing around on a podium? All that’s needed to achieve the full breadth and depth of musical expression is a singer and a piano.”

Thursday night’s recital at Koerner Hall by baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber put me in mind of such thoughts.

Fresh from a performance at New York’s Alice Tully Hall, the well-matched pair of recital artists was in excellent form. And of course it helped that they brought to the stage a consummate masterpiece: Schubert’s Winterreise. (It was an apt choice, given the frigid weather that has descended on Toronto this winter.)

From the first song, “Gute Nacht,” Gerhaher’s and Huber’s shared ideas about Winterreise unfolded like the petals of a flower. Their approach was intimate, balanced, and even a little restrained. It was an “inside-the-box” performance, devoid of extravagance or wilfulness. But within the box that two musicians skilfully constructed, they revealed a miniature universe, intricate and fascinating in every detail. Yet at the same time, there was an arc to the recital, as Schubert’s 24 songs were built up into a strong and unified musical structure.

Throughout, Gerhaher’s technically flawless delivery was at times lyrical, at times declamatory – but always clear and direct. And, in a very refreshing way, this Winterreise wasn’t smothered under a blanket of maudlin self-pity. Melancholy was certainly a prominent emotion – but there was also serenity in the famous “Lindenbaum,” and a kind of religious ecstasy in “Die Nebensonnen.”

And particularly impressive was Gerhaher’s skilful way of shifting the mood of a song, throughout its course. A short song doesn’t give a singer a lot of room to manoeuvre – but in “Rückblick,” “Die Post,” “Frühlingstraum,” and others, he deftly changed course in fluid and persuasive ways.

In all these ways Gerhaher virtually became the central figure in Winterreise, as effectively as an opera star might inhabit Carmen or Figaro on stage. Yet in Gerheher’s case, this transformation was accomplished in white tie and tails, while he calmly stood next to a piano. It was an inward, rather than an outward, manifestation of the poet Wilhelm Müller’s unfortunate protagonist, brilliantly achieved through the medium of Schubert’s music.

Gerhaher also sings opera – “in select productions,” according to the program notes. But based on this performance, it’s clear why the 46-year-old German singer is regarded as the heir to Dietrich Fischer Dieskau as an interpreter of Lied. Let’s hope he comes back to Toronto soon.

Colin Eatock

Colin Eatock is a freelance music critic and has written for the Globe and Mail, New York Times, Houston Chronicle and the Kansas City Star. He is the author of two books: “Mendelssohn and Victorian England” and “Remembering Glenn Gould.”

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