Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Christian Gerhaher and András Schiff Vancouver BC

From Barbara Miller, who was at the Chan Center in Vancouver BC:

"I don’t know where to begin to explain how special this recital was. I had admired Christian Gerhaher on recordings and heard András Schiff live in solo recitals, as well as on recordings of marvelous collaborations with great singers. So I didn’t think twice about making the three-hour drive to Vancouver to hear them perform together. The program included Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte” and Schumann’s “Dichterliebe”, as well as Schumann’s Opus 98a Harfner songs from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, and a set of songs by Haydn that tended toward the spooky or melancholy: The Spirit’s Song, Content, Trost unglücklicher Liebe, Geistliches Lied, and The Wanderer. Beethoven’s lovely “Adelaide” ended the program, with Schumann’s “Mondnacht” sung as an encore.

The biggest revelation for me in this recital was how effective it is when a very capable singer is thoroughly committed to communicating the words of the songs, concentrating his energy and putting all his vocal technique in the service of the texts. Gerhaher had a very contained stance, and I don’t remember a single hand gesture, although he was never stiff. While he moved his head and upper body, and his face was quite expressive, his hands remained at his sides, or one hand was holding the piano. Rather than create a character who felt the emotions, he so thoroughly inhabited the songs in his own persona that we had to pay attention. Meanwhile, András Schiff, who is one of the great solo pianists of our time, brought his own genius for detail to the accompaniments, authoritatively and unforgettably leaving his mark on his solo passages, while always keeping the sound of the fully opened Steinway D piano underneath the singer when they were together. Gerhaher had a music stand with the texts of the songs, to which he referred occasionally with a quick glance to the side, except during the Haydn songs, when he put the stand in a position where he could look down at it directly in front of him, perhaps wanting to get the English words exactly right.

Looking through the notes I scribbled during or between songs, there is little that is really useful, since I really wanted to watch the performers and listen to the music rather than write coherent comments, so this will be a disappointing review for anyone who wants details of the songs. Gerhaher’s baritone voice was smooth through the registers, showed a good dynamic range, and never suffered flaws in intonation or breath support. He has recorded all these pieces with his usual accompanist, Gerold Huber (the Beethoven and Haydn will be on the recording coming out in June), and I refer anyone who is unfamiliar with him to these recordings (or to the slightly quirky Youtube videos of them performing An die ferne Geliebte in a rehearsal studio) to judge for yourself the nature of Gerhaher’s style.

But, as fine as Huber is as an accompanist, Schiff’s accompaniment was amazingly sublime and complemented Gerhaher’s “plain style” with a refined sense of detail and consummate technique that made for a truly rare and memorable Liederabend. The two artists performed this program in New York and Toronto, as well as Vancouver, and I can only bless my luck, and thank the Vancouver Recital Society, for the fact that one of their performances was close enough that I could attend it. Christian Gerhaher’s bio mentions that “while completing his medical training he perfected his musical training in master classes given by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau” among others. I never heard Fischer-Dieskau live, but, in lamenting the passing of the great singer, I am grateful to experience his legacy: another generation of singers with deep artistic commitment to the Lied, and a cultural climate in which Lied recitals can take place around the world. Rather sadly, the hall was not completely filled for this world-class performance. The Vancouver Recital Society’s Artistic Director Leila Getz made an appeal at the beginning for subscription renewals, saying that, while the concerts are growing ever more wonderful, the audiences are diminishing. (Since most of their programs are instrumental recitals, one assumes that it is more than just art song that is drawing fewer people). I hope that there is still a future for this kind of intimate performance by the world’s great musicians in places other than the music capitals of the world, and I encourage everyone who loves these forms to attend live performances and make donations to the organizations that bring them to us."

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