Christian Gerhaher review: Mahler in miniature

Singer's survey of smaller scale works shows the composer's more intimate side


Mention Gustav Mahler to any classical music fan (and many who aren’t), and chances are they’ll think “big” – concert-length symphonies for massive orchestras, or superstar conductor and opera director. Less well known is his “small” side: several dozen exquisitely crafted songs with piano that range from the subtle and concentrated to numbers that wouldn’t have been out of place on the pop charts of his day, had there been any.

Huber and Gerhaher performed Mahler at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

Acclaimed German baritone Christian Gerhaher and accompanist Gerold Huber brought the most subtle and most concentrated ones to Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, Sunday afternoon December 11, as part of Friends of Chamber Music’s cherished Vocal Arts Series. Only two of the eleven songs they performed rose to rafter-rattling volume, and the audience was so rapt that they couldn’t bring themselves to applaud between songs even when the printed program indicated a break. The two musicians must have been reassured, though, by the enthusiastic ovation they got at intermission and at program’s end. For the most part, it was richly deserved.

“Don’t look at my songs!” “I breathed in a gentle scent,” “At midnight,” “If you love for beauty,” and “I’ve become lost to the world,” five songs on Friedrich Rückert poems that Mahler wrote later in life, were like perfectly formed pearls, warm to the touch from being worn close to the heart. Voice and piano melded as one, even though Huber did not obviously hold back and the piano lid was fully open. Likewise, expression was well balanced – an effortless intimacy, even vulnerability, that never became affected.

Gerhaher appears to be firmly allied to the “stand and sing” school of performance, with no attempt to act in character, but at the same time he wisely refrained from distracting and meaningless hand gestures. I wished for a more blissed-out rendition of the most well known song of the set, “I’ve become lost to the world,” but on the other hand “At midnight” was a revelation. The poet’s simple expression of faith at the end risks sounding corny, but Gerhaher and Huber presented it with absolute conviction. They also made me forget for the duration that much of the song sounds like a study for the far more poignant “Alone in Autumn (Der Einsame im Herbst)” from Mahler’s later cycle, The Song of the Earth.

Which was all the more remarkable, since they opened the concert with that very song! In symmetry, they closed with the last song from that massive symphony of orchestral songs, “The Farewell.” These two were less convincing, not so much for the obvious reason – a piano simply can’t match Mahler’s deliciously multifarious orchestral sound world – but more because Huber simply wasn’t as assured as in the Rückert set. From time to time he almost sounded like he was sight-reading, making mistakes in the harmony and leaving out evocative details. Gerhaher kept singing his heart out behind his formal pose, but not even he could rescue the final fade-out of “The Farewell,” which normally is a miracle of subtly recurring strokes, seemingly reflecting Debussyan impressionism and achieving a hypnotic effect one might find in a Steve Reich work. Huber’s version was threadbare, even omitting standard transcriptions’ entire celesta part, without which the magic is simply impossible.

Gustav Mahler

Since the concert, I’ve become aware that these two piano parts were the composer’s preliminary piano scores, which may partly explain why they didn’t always sound like I expected, and particularly why some parts were missing. Performers are understandably avid to discover a composer’s original intentions, but Mahler was a habitual reviser, and more to the point, his contract with his publisher (see the last paragraph of the expanded “Work Introduction”) specified that the piano version would be derived from the orchestral score. Performers who go back to any preliminary piano score would thus appear to be working contrary to Mahler’s wishes, and if they also already know one of the extant orchestral transcriptions, may even be setting themselves up for confusion under the pressure of public performance.

I sensed a more subtle absence in “Reveille” from The Youth’s Magic Horn, one of four from that collection the duo performed. Granted, armies march all through the ballad, but the almost metronomic tempo trampled the gradually developing strangeness of the story, in which a wounded drummer, left to die, raises an army of his dead comrades to rout the enemy. Their final surreal march is back to their village in triumph, so their sweethearts can see them… as row upon row of skeletons. It should have become spine-tingling, but instead it felt two-dimensional, as if Gerhaher and Huber were still nailing down the overall arc and hadn’t yet worked out the expressive details that would have brought the narrative to life.

However, they performed two other Magic Horn songs at the same high level of artistry as the Rückert songs. “The Drummer Boy” chillingly and touchingly evoked the last moments of another such unfortunate recruit, who for some unstated reason has been sentenced to be hanged. Finally, though it seemed no encore could possibly be appropriate after the nearly half-hour part dirge, part embrace, and part ecstasy that is “The Farewell,” the duo came out and performed “Primal Light (Urlicht),” more familiar to audiences as the alto solo movement in Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony.

It turned out more than appropriate. It was one final pearl; the magic was back. Gerhaher and Huber presented this delicate evocation of a personal entreaty to God, part longing, part petulance, and part faith, with such finesse and such tenderness that it seemed to glow in my memory as I walked out into the near-winter twilight.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist who is just as awed by Mahler’s shortest song as he is by his longest symphony.

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