Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber could not have timed their Wigmore Hall Winterreise more poignantly, and with temperatures meteorological, spiritual and temporal dipping ever lower, the work and their performance of it only sharpened the existential desolation. Gerhaher must have sung Schubert’s and Wilhelm Müller’s great song-cycle hundreds of times, and of the several live accounts I’ve heard, it is clear that his turning over new nuances and hidden meanings will remain a work in progress.
From the start, it was as though he was singing to himself as much as to the audience, a detached observer of his misery-driven dysfunction and of his resigned awareness that this winter’s journey is a one-way ticket. Just a flash of courage and authority in ‘Gute Nacht’ – “I must find my own way in this darkness” – followed by Huber’s exquisitely placed turn into the major – a delusion that all will be well – gave a clue as to how completely things will unravel throughout the next twenty-three settings.
Sometimes I think Gerhaher’s craft is all smoke and mirrors. In ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ he manages to suggest that the song needs vocal weight in a particular passage but then withholds it, which destabilises our perceptions, and these minute vocal inflections proliferate as the lover’s wretched crisis gathers in stature. He used fortissimo rarely and to shocking effect, and he has an extraordinary facility to drain colour from his crooning head-voice to consummate effect – but these subtleties must be as natural to him as speaking. There were a few non-musical gestures, such as some anxious movements from the hand resting on the piano, but otherwise he is the least histrionic of performers.
In ‘Der Lindenbaum’ he persuaded us that memory and habit were just about keeping him on track, only for his state to fragment even further in a freezingly bleak ‘Auf dem Flusse’, which became a point of no return, leaving the ghosts of a skewed reality to gather strength in the biting irony of ‘Frühlingstraum’ and the black hole of ‘Einsamkeit’. After the delusory optimism of ‘Die Post’, Gerhaher fearlessly fell into the increasingly hallucinatory final songs, including a finely judged ‘Mut!’, an exhausted vestige of spirit before his voice slid away on the freezing harmonic plateau of ‘Der Leiermann’, the disintegration of soul and reason complete.
Gerold Huber’s role in every way matched Gerhaher in vision and imagination. The aimless flapping of ‘Die Krähe’ or the piano’s spectral flight in ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ were just two examples of how perfectly these two great artists complement each other.