Above: Gerold Huber and Christian Gerhaher
Tuesday February 24th, 2014 - Baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber performing Schubert's immortal masterpiece, Winterreise, as part of Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's Winter Festival, Intimate Expressions. The performance comes to us in the midst of a particularly cold and somber Winter.
Composed in 1827, when Franz Schubert was 30 years old and had less than two years remaining in his life, the twenty-four songs of Winterreise are set to poems of Wilhelm Müller. The poet, who had earlier provided the texts for the composer's song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, was a nearly-exact and equally short-lived contemporary of Schubert. They never met, and Müller died just as Schubert was beginning work on Winterreise.
Winterreise is not a narrative song cycle, but rather a collection of vocal miniatures on themes of solitude and despair, set against a relentless and unforgiving wintry landscape. Though the subject matter is overall quite gloomy, there is some variety of tempo and rhythm among the songs. But in the final twelve of the Winterreise songs, we experience a feeling of darkness gathering about Schubert, and his sense of impending doom. The last Winterreise songs evoke feelings of great beauty overshadowed by death. The composer died in 1828.
Tonight's performance had all the makings of a superb musical experience - which, in fact, it was - yet the overall effect of the cycle was somewhat compromised. In her opening remarks, CMS co-artistic director Wu Han announced that the pianist Gerold Huber was suffering from a heavy cold. He had generously agreed to perform, but we were cautioned that he might be in need of taking a break midway thru the cycle. This was indeed the case; after about a half-hour, pianist and singer walked offstage and the audience took the opportunity to stretch, chat, and check their cellphones. This intrusion of reality broke the spell of the music. When the artists returned, it took a while for the hall to settle in again, and there were further minor disruptions in the second half of the performance, with a corresponding decline in focus.
Mr. Gerhaher has a wonderful lyric instrument capable of both power and shaded nuance; and yet it was the pianist - Mr. Huber - who most thoroughly entranced me with the subtle delicacy of his playing in the cycle's most intimate moments. Together the two gave as fine a rendering of Winterreise as one might hope under the circumstances. The great benefit for me was, it sent my estimation of this cycle, which I have never previously appreciated and have in fact avoided, soaring. Perhaps that is one of the gifts of growing older.
I look forward to hearing Mr. Gerhaher on March 1st singing the Brahms GERMAN REQUIEM at Carnegie Hall. And I will hope to encounter Mr. Huber again at some point for he is an artist of intrinsic expressiveness.