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Christian Gerhaher, Wigmore Hall, London — ‘Extraordinary intimacy’

Christian Gerhaher, Wigmore Hall, London — ‘Extraordinary intimacy’

Christian Gerhaher, Wigmore Hall, London — ‘Extraordinary intimacy’
October 13
19:39 2016

An evening of biblical songs and late Schumann, from the period when the composer’s mental illness was taking hold, does not give up its beauties easily. Neither might seem obvious material for an awards ceremony or the opening of a festival. That, though, would be to underestimate Christian Gerhaher’s special artistry.

At the close of this recital Gerhaher was presented with the Wigmore Medal, inaugurated in 2007 and given to musicians who have made a significant contribution to their art and to the hall. From there he travelled to Oxford to give the same programme for the opening of this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival on Friday.

It is hard to imagine either event being celebrated in a more memorable way. Although Gerhaher has become a fairly frequent visitor to the UK in recent years, this was the performance that has come closest to matching the emotional intensity of his recordings. The extraordinary intimacy he achieves in the recording studio might seem impossible to replicate in front of 500 people. Not this time — in song after song it felt as if Gerhaher was singing to each member of the audience alone.

His programme opened with Dvořák’s sombre Biblical Songs. Tellingly, Gerhaher delivered them less as the musical evangelist, more the true believer, and his understatement yielded bountiful rewards. Schumann’s six songs to poems by Lenau Op. 90 are hardly less elusive, but in his native German Gerhaher can do no wrong. “Meine Rose” opened with pianist Gerold Huber voicing the accompaniment with the utmost sensitivity, and Gerhaher responded with soft, withdrawn singing. “Einsamkeit” was even more gripping. The quieter the music, the more intensity every word seemed to carry.

In the second half Schumann’s 12 varied Kerner Lieder widened Gerhaher’s range. “Stille Tränen”, a favourite encore for its arching romantic grandeur, lacked nothing in vocal expansiveness. But there was also extraordinary, breathtaking quietness in some songs and a wonderful eloquence with the German language in every one. Gerhaher and Huber have formed what is surely the exceptional partnership of their generation. The Wigmore Medal was well deserved. And Oxford audiences could count themselves lucky, too.

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