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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Concert Review: Mahler's Bones

Christian Gerhaher sings Gustav Mahler's lieder.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Gerold Hubner (left) and Christian Gerhaher in recital at Wigmore Hall.
Photo by Simon Jay Price © 2014 Wigmore Hall.
The name Gustav Mahler conjures up mighty images. Enormous choral forces, battling huge orchestras as they shouti in terror or triumph. A giant hammer, slamming out a crushing blow of fate at the close of his Sixth Symphony. Or the terrors of the nursery and the grave, present in equal proportion in his Fourth. None of those elements were present on Saturday night, as the longtime pair of baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber played a program of Mahler's lieder for a rapt audience at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall.

The concert was held under the aegis of The Art of the Song, a yearly series that is itself part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series. It confined Mahler's works to voice and piano. It showed that stripping away huge orchestral arrangements does not rob Mahler's music of its power: rather it shows the intimacy, detail and careful construction that the composer gave to each lied.

Mr. Gerhaher opened with "Die Einsame im Herbst," a single movement from Das Lied von der Erde, the sweeping seven-movement song cycle that, but for the composer's superstition and a quirk of numbering, would "count" as his ninth symphony. Das Lied is based on a set of German translations of Chinese poems from a book Mahler had, titled The Chinese Flute. "Die Einsame" is a bitter tale of isolation and the closing of the year. Here, it was stripped like a tree in the wind, its leaves fallen to provide a carpet of notes for the singer to navigate over.

Next were the Seven Songs of Latter Days, more familiar to Mahlerites as the five Rückert-Lieder and two excerpts from that other favorite collection of the composer's: Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Here, the theme of loneliness and isolation continued, starting with "Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!" and the intoxicating "Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft."  The cycle reached its  first dramatic peak with "Um Mitternacht." The cycle peaked again with ch bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, Mr. Gerhaher's voice caressing the vocal line with elements of sympathy and sorrow in every note.

The first half ended with the two Wunderhorn songs that fall into this set. "Revelge" is a story of soldiers marching off to die, its blithe "tra-la-leys" eventually turning into a dreadful funeral march. The stench of the gallows hangs over "Der Tambourg'sell," accentuated by Mr. Huber's right hand as he made the piano growl forth with a dry, funereal drumbeat. The first half ended with thunderous applause.

The second was even more compelling. It started with another Wunderhorn lied, "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen." This however was only an appetizer for the main dish that followed, a long slow walk through "Der Abscheid", the seventh and final movement from Das Lied von der Erde. Mr. Huber's piano picked out every note of the spare orchestration, accompanying Mr. Gerhaher in this twenty-five minute song. The singer would yield to the piano, playing that haunting, descending set of chords that form this work's musical signature, the whole performance building with shimmering power. Only the long, slow fade-out on the words "Ewig, ewig" were spoiled by the trumpet-blast of some oaf's cell phone, but Mr. Gerhaher sensibly ignored the offender and finished the work in serenity.

This massive song should have satisfied the listeners but their applause demanded one more encore. This was "Urlicht", a Wunderhorn song known best as the fourth movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, the "Resurrection." Its upward course and sortie into the cosmic realm provided the evening's ending with glorious lift, reminding the assembled that the genius of Mahler is that he can be transcendent as well as tragic, often at the exact same time.

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