Last night in Herbst Theatre, The Art of Song Series presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP) began with a return visit by German baritone Christian Gerhaher. This was his third visit. The first, organized around the poems of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was in September of 2014, followed by a program consisting entirely of music by Gustav Mahler in December of 2016. As had been the case with the first two recitals, Gerhaher’s accompanist was pianist Gerold Huber.
While many of Mahler’s vocal compositions were conceived as orchestral music, most of last night’s selections began as piano-accompanied vocal parts. The earliest of these, and the first on the program, was the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (songs of a wayfarer), composed for medium voice and piano and completed in 1885. A version for orchestra would not appear until the 1890s after the score had been considerably revised. Mahler wrote his own texts for these four songs; and they have long served as a “first volley” of intensely emotional texts set to equally intense music. Indeed, the wayfarer’s “journey” is one beginning with disappointment (the one he loves has married another), then proceeding through increasing madness, culminating (probably) in death.
Gerhaher is very much a “full body” singer. The dramatic qualities of the music emerge not only through his vocal work but also through his entire physical bearing. That “stance” is then underscored by what are likely to be scrupulously calculated facial expressions that reflect just how fine a line separates the rational mind from stark raving lunacy. Thus a cycle such as the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is as much an intensely compact drama as it is a musical account of a narrative thread, and Huber’s accompaniment was consistently there to enhance the theatrical side of Gerhaher’s account of these songs.
Frontispiece and title page from the third (and final) volume of Des Knaben Wunderhorn (from a Leipzig catalog of antiquities, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany license)
The major portion of the program was devoted to settings of poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (the youth’s magic horn) collection of German folk poetry, six before the intermission and another four following it. While Mahler conceived of these in orchestral settings, those versions for all of the songs were first prepared in publishable voice-and-piano versions. (This is why the Thomas Hampson recording refers to these as “Original Piano Versions.”)
In this case each of the poems is a narrative unto itself, and the distillation of that narrative into a mere handful of stanzas consistently makes for heady brew. One might almost say that the presentation of the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen provided a “warm-up” (for listeners, as well as performers) of the dark and occasionally ironic tropes that would follow. Nevertheless, each song distills its own narrative impact. As a result, the individuality that Gerhaher brought to his interpretations insured that the listening experience would never devolve into “one damned thing after another.”
If things were not dark enough after Gerhaher finished his Wunderhorn selection, he concluded his program with the Kindertotenlieder (songs on the death of children) collection of settings of five poems by Friedrich Rückert. These were composed in 1904, by which time Mahler was entirely comfortably with composing directly for orchestra. Nevertheless, a vocal score with piano accompaniment was subsequently published in 1905. These were the most introspective selections on the program, and Gerhaher modulated his physical bearing with the same attentiveness given to scaling down the musical delivery. While there was no shortage of darkness in his rhetorical delivery, there was also some sense of death as the resolution of an agonizing journey, possibly reflecting on the personal struggles Mahler had endured, if not foreboding struggles to come.
For his encore, Gerhaher chose the same selection he had made for his 2016 recital. “Urlicht” (primeval light) is a Wunderhorn poem, best known for its appearance as the penultimate movement of Mahler’s second (“Resurrection”) symphony in C minor. However, it began as one of the voice-and-piano settings for his original Wunderhorn collection, getting “promoted” into the second symphony the same way that “Es sungen drei Engel” (three angels were singing) got “promoted” into the third. The edges of the “Urlicht” poem are not as sharp as those of the other Wunderhorn poems Gerhaher had selected, allowing the evening to end with the sense of an intense journey having found resolution upon reaching termination.