By Lawrence B. Johnson
NEW YORK — The songs and symphonies of Gustav Mahler form parallel lines that meet not at infinity but rather in spiritual perpetuity. Such was the profound journey, with its inevitable destination, undertaken by baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber in a concise and yet monumental recital in Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series on Dec. 17 at Alice Tully Hall.
Isolation and death, the existential tropes that constantly spurred Mahler’s creative imagination and indeed shadowed his life, were the connective themes of a program devoted entirely to Mahler’s songs. One might almost call it an evening-length song cycle, framed as it was by two movements from the composer’s ultimate lyric essay, the symphony Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth).
Along with the recital’s theme, its structural complexity — the real measure of the magnificence of this entire experience — also became instantly apparent with the stage-setting selection, “Die Einsame im Herbst” (The Lonely One in Autumn), the second movement of Das Lied von der Erde. It would be inadequate, simply wrong, to call this a voice recital. As technically splendid and expressively masterful a singer as Gerhaher is, the insight and elegance of Huber’s pianistic collaboration substituted amply and subtly for full orchestra to endow these songs with their proper psychological rigor. Moreover, the two artists have a long history as a duo; their performance here was essentially in one voice.
Gerhaher delivered the “lonely one’s” melancholia not only with pinpoint vocal control, but also with an actor’s precise diction and specific inflection. In the defining “Einsame im Herbst” episode that begins “Mein Herz ist müde” (My heart is weary) and goes on to liken a sputtering lamp to the onset of sleep, Gerhaher’s gentle vocal caress drew the listener to a welcoming place of peace, a harbor from the bitterness of life.
An unusual, yet historically accurate, grouping of songs followed: what Mahler’s publisher titled Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (Seven Songs from Latter Days). Not exactly “late” in the sense of Strauss’ “Four Last Songs,” but rather Mahler in mid-career (1898-1901), composing five settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert that have been traditionally bundled as the Rückert-Lieder and his last settings of folk poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn).
Two of Mahler’s greatest songs fall within this Rückert group. In “Um Mitternacht” (At Midnight), at once a paean to human suffering and a pledge of faith in the “Lord over death and life,” Gerhaher summoned the text’s gravity through a dynamic range from whispered softness to startling vocal power. Here, and in a mournfully reflective turn through “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I am lost to the world), Gerhaher’s vivid expressivity was cast against the emotional surge and flow of Huber’s ever-attentive piano.
In sunnier Rückert songs, Gerhaher captured the gentle sweetness of “Liebst du um Schönheit” (If you love for beauty) and “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” (I breathed a delicate fragrance) as well as the wry wit of “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!” (Do not look into my songs!). The set closed back on funereal turf, literally, as singer and pianist invoked the ghostliness and the deathly dread of the two Wunderhorn songs, “Revelge” (Reveille) and “Der Tamboursg’sell” (The drummer boy).
Another mystical Wunderhorn setting, “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” (Where the beautiful trumpets blow), with Gerhaher as practiced storyteller and Huber as skilled illustrator, served as preface to a prodigious finale: “Der Abschied” (The Farewell), the crowning movement from Das Lied von der Erde. Nearly equal in length to the first five movements of Das Lied combined, “Der Abschied” is a nocturne that expresses a longing for respite from world-weariness. Gerhaher embraced the music’s lullaby aura of resignation (“The world is asleep!”) as well as the fullness of heart in the parting of friends (“Where do I go?…I will wander in the mountains”).
“Der Abschied” is tone poem and philosophical essay melded into one sweeping musical scenario; midway through, the full weight of thought shifts to the orchestra through an extended interlude as the singer falls silent. Huber converted the assignment into something of a pianistic soliloquy, Mahler’s wordless meditation on the troubled, albeit transitory, nature of life. Where Mahler finally turns back to the specificity of words, Gerhaher answered with eloquent, finely contoured singing that transmuted sorrow to spirituality and shadows to light: the lonely autumn made eternal spring.
Gerhaher doesn’t return to Mahler until a late summer performance with orchestra in Lucerne. Next up is a January star turn in Verdi’s Don Carlo at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, followed by all-Schumann recitals in Paris, Straubing (Germany), Gerhaher’s birthplace, and Stockholm.
Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music critic for The Detroit News and has written for The New York Times as well as several music magazines.