Christian Gerhaher, Wigmore Hall

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The Independent Culture

Schubert’s majestic song-cycles ‘Die Schoene Mullerin’ (The beautiful mill-girl) and ‘Winterreise’ (Winter journey) – plus ‘Schwanengesang (Swansong) which was put together by his publisher after his death – form the cornerstone of the Lieder repertoire, and represent a challenge which tenors and baritones find irresistible.

On my shelf sit several baritone attempts to emulate the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, including from Thomas Quasthoff and Christopher Maltman; British tenors Ian Bostridge, Mark Padmore, and James Gilchrist (whose excellent ‘Winterreise’ is released this week by Orchid Classics) present these masterpieces in a higher voice-range. All have singular merits, and no two are alike.

Last week the hottest classical ticket in London was Christian Gerhaher’s three-concert Wigmore performance of the triptych, of which I caught the first and third parts. After this German baritone’s peerless performance in the Covent Garden ‘Tannhauser’, expectations were so high that the understated way he launched into ‘Die Schoene Mullerin’ came as a shock. With his right hand on the piano and his left at his side, his stage presence became a still centre, and his singing reflected this.

In his new collection of essays ‘A Singer’s Notebook’, Ian Bostridge writes that this work probes psychoanalytic truths, speaking of sex and death in a way few other works have managed. Gerhaher turned it into an un-mysteriously simple tragedy, whose caus lay in its young protagonist’s despairing awareness of his own impotence. Gerhaher allowed the words to take him where they would, following every nuance, every subtle mood-change, from hopeful bravado to the most tremulous sadness, as he personified the mill-stream with its regretful elegy on his own death. What wrung the heart in this performance was less the expressive beauty of his sound - or the artistry he deployed with ‘I’ll clothe myself in green’ and ‘I’ve hung my lute on the wall’ - than the sheer emotional nakedness he projected. It was a clever stroke to include dramatic recitations of related poems which Schubert never got round to setting to music.

‘Schwanengesang’ was written in the last year of Schubert’s life. Gerhaher and his pianist Gerold Huber expanded it with additional songs, thus reinforcing the sense it gives of life seen in sad retrospect from the Other Side. When this singer realised that the ghost filling him with terror was himself, we froze too.