Last night in Herbst Theatre, baritone Christian Gerhaher gave his second San Francisco Performances (SFP) recital in the first of the four recitals in SFP’s 2016–2017 Vocal Series. Gerhaher made his SFP debut in September of 2014, performing with pianist Gerold Huber, who also made his SFP debut that year. Last night Huber also returned to accompany Gerhaher.
The program (including the encore) consisted entirely of music by Gustav Mahler, all of which had originally be written for orchestral accompaniment. However, all of the accompaniment versions for piano were Mahler’s own. This often entailed new points of view, which, presumably, Mahler intended.
The full program was framed by two of the low-voice movements from Das Lied von der Erde (the song of the earth). The major work of the evening was the concluding selection, “Der Abschied,” which is the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde. At the other end the program opened with the first low-voice song from this cycle, “Der Einsame im Herbst” (the solitary one in Autumn). Both of these selections provided new lights under which to consider one of Mahler’s most-performed compositions.
This shift of viewpoint was particularly evident in “Der Abschied,” whose duration is about as long as the total of the five movement that precede it. The original version can easily be taken as epic in its scope, even if the text, two poems by Meng Haoran and Wang Wei, translated into German by Hans Bethge, involves a man encountering a friend who is about to embark on a long journey. Much of the text simply describes the setting in which this encounter takes place, but Mahler’s opening orchestral measures almost transmogrify this detailed account of a natural environment into that dark wood in which Dante loses his way at the beginning of his Inferno. The piano accompaniment, on the other hand, seems more inclined to take Bethge’s words at their face value, allowing each physical detail to register without any interfering connotations.
The result is an almost magical transformation of the epic into the intimate, and Gerhaher knew exactly how to control his voice to maintain that sense of intimacy. Mahler himself was faced with the impending eternity of death while working on Das Lied von der Erde. He even added three lines to Bethge’s text, making his “last word” on the poem “ewig” (forever). Yet, while much of his music is almost obsessed with a fear of death and a determination to fight it every step of the way, this voice-and-piano version of “Der Abschied” may be the closest Mahler ever got to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ concept of acceptance. Much of that sense of intimacy was also evident in “Der Einsame im Herbst;” but in this case Gerhaher was more inclined to let his voice slip too far into forte dynamics, which made his delivery of the text sound unduly forced.
Indeed, it sometimes seemed as if the two halves of the recital were given by two different Gerhahers. In the second half “Der Abschied” was preceded only by “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” (where the shining trumpets sound), one of the many poems from the anthology of folk poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn (the youth’s magic horn) that Mahler set (again, originally for voice and orchestra). The poem, which is about war and death, is structured as a dialog. It is usually interpreted as a woman saying farewell to a young man going off to war; but, given the macabre tone of so many of the Wunderhorn texts, one can just as easily read it as a post hoc encounter of the woman with the ghost of her now departed (in both senses of the word) lover.
There is a good chance that Gerhaher chose this particular selection as an “overture” to “Der Abschied,” preceding the more extended encounter of the latter with that of the shorter Wunderhorn poem. He could thus use “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen" to establish that general framework of intimacy that would serve his interpretation of “Der Abschied” so well. Gerhaher’s rhetorical stance seemed neutral over the question of whether the young man is alive or a ghost, but there were several spooky qualities in Huber’s approach to the accompaniment that showed a bias toward the latter perspective.
Following “Der Einsame im Herbst” the first half of the program was devoted entirely to Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (seven songs of latter days). This is a collection that brings together Mahler’s settings of five poems by Friedrich Rückert with two Wunderhorn texts. The program notes by Eric Bromberger claim that this collection was not published until after Mahler’s death; but all but one of the songs, the setting of Rückert’s “Liebst du um Schönheit” (if you love for beauty), were published separately (in versions for both orchestral and piano accompaniment) in Leipzig in 1905. Indeed, the date of publication, January 29, 1905, is also the publication date in Vienna of Mahler’s other collection of settings of Rückert texts, Kindertotenlieder.
Thus, the songs first appeared during a very dark time in Mahler’s life. As a result it seemed as if Gerhaher chose to approach them with far greater intensity, frequently exaggerating his forte dynamics. One might almost say that he was chewing the scenery, but he may have chosen to take this approach because he felt that Mahler was doing the same. The result made for a sharp contrast to the intimacy that would ensue following the intermission, which is why it almost seemed as if there had been a radical shift in the personality Gerhaher brought to his performance. Indeed, the first half of the evening tended to be unsettling, if not downright unnerving. Those who know their Mahler are used to such encounters in symphonic settings, but the impact was far greater when it involved no more than a vocalist and a piano accompanist.
The encore selection, on the other hand, maintained the intimacy of the second half of the program. This was Mahler’s setting of the Wunderhorn poem “Urlicht” (primordial light), originally the penultimate movement of his second (“Resurrection”) symphony in C minor. This was initially scored for relatively reduced instrumental resources, a lull before the storm of the final movement. Thus, intimacy provided the rhetorical foundation for the original version; and the piano version was just as effective, as was the almost child-like innocence of Gerhaher’s delivery of the text.