“It has to permeate you”

The baritone Christian Gerhaher

(Photo: Gregor Hohenberg / Sony Classical)

The baritone Christian Gerhaher is one of the most outstanding singers of our time. Since his Philharmonie debut in 2003, he has appeared frequently with the Philharmoniker.

When the little word “I” appears in a poem, the poet is not necessarily talking about himself. German teachers could tell you a thing or two about that. And it is extremely important to Christian Gerhaher that lieder singers never forget this fact. All four – namely the poet, the composer, the singer and his partner at the piano – say “my soul” in different ways. All four contribute to the meaning and sound of these words. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, none of these four actual persons are speaking. When their artistry succeeds completely, in the end it is us, the listeners, who are transformed in mysterious ways. The “lyrical I” is thus not identical with the actual I of the author. On the other hand, can one express feelings that one never had?

“One can naturally show private feelings very well. Some people do that. For me personally, that is simply not a possibility.” Christian Gerhaher hates false biographical conclusions. “I want to avoid identification – at least, in the sense that I can only interpret and understand a work on the stage by making it dependent on its relationship to my personal emotional state and my personal life. I don’t want that!” Compared to lieder singers who come from an operatic background and want to interpret the text dramatically, his performance style may seem almost a bit reserved. His guiding principle is: “Songs are not minioperas.”

Intimate and discreet at the same time

A lieder recital with Christian Gerhaher is intimate and discreet at the same time. Perhaps he grips us all the more intensely for precisely that reason. With Gerhaher, feelings speak for themselves, as it were – without any affectation. Not voyeuristically private and above all not artificial or sentimental. And because of that, all the more moving. It is not surprising that false conclusions about the experience a work of art describes and the personal experiences of the interpreter are so persistent. We adhere to them even against our better judgement: when we read a poem, and particularly when we listen to a song, we intuitively want to believe that the person who says “I” actually feels what he is talking or singing about. At least for the moment in which the sound of the words and the language of the music captivate us.

For Gerhaher, that is more the result than a prerequisite of his interpretation. He does not put his personal feelings into the song but instead lets himself be moved by it while singing. First of all, he says, he has to try to understand a piece in a certain way during the preparation. Such an interpretation is always only temporary, however, and is never more than an approach – that is important to him. His own feelings and experiences remain outside to begin with, as far as that is possible. “But then, regardless of my past realm of experience, I actually want to develop a momentary, deeply emotional relationship to this piece. Just like the listener. That means I don’t want to go onstage with emotions but instead leave the stage with emotions that are my own, felt personally, but only evoked by the piece.”

Inseparable: Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber

Gerhaher doesn’t make it easy for himself. As a matter of principle. And not with anything. His pianist Gerold Huber is somewhat less scrupulous in these matters. Or perhaps simply more realistic? The two are inseparable, but also a little like an old married couple. When Gerhaher talks about Huber’s typical reaction to his rather complicated aesthetic ideas, a sharp tone of self-irony suddenly comes into his voice. And the tinge of his Lower Bavarian dialect comes through somewhat more strongly: “Because I always try to handle this whole thing more or less aseptically, my pianist, who is much cleverer than I, says: ‘Well, for once you can stop all your distance nonsense. It has to permeate you.’”

Gerhaher likes this image: “You pour hot water into a coffee filter and the coffee simply comes out below – but without the grounds. In the same way, the ability of the person interpreting a work is limited by his own realm of experience.” The music has to permeate him. Other artists enjoy that, experience themselves more intensely by merging with the inspired work of a composer and project this intensified “I” experience to the audience. Gerhaher, on the other hand, almost seems to regret that the music must permeate him. He would prefer to be a kind of medium – without the random boundaries of his own experiences and his own biography.

But Gerhaher knows exactly where his sources of strength lie. And he is extremely grateful to them for what they have revealed. The realm of experience of Gerhaher’s youth was the sky over Straubing. In his new book (already his second, entitled Lyrisches Tagebuch [Lyrical Diary], published by C. H. Beck in March), he describes an experience that made a deep impression on him. As a boy, he helped out on the farm of his friend, which was several kilometres outside the city. Afterwards, they talked to each other on the telephone. And because it was during the cold war and the Iron Curtain was not far away, low-flying aircraft regularly flew over the area. While he was talking on the phone, he heard the deafening sound of an approaching jet plane on the telephone first. And a few seconds later, he felt it first-hand. It was suddenly clear to him that his friend was now hearing it through the telephone – exactly as he just had. It was the same low-flying plane that had first flown over his friend’s farm and then over his own house. Gerhaher draws a surprising parallel between this experience and the lyrical images in Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte [To the Distant Beloved]. The entire cycle is about the fact that the lovers feel the same emotions despite their physical separation: connectedness from a distance.

“I’m rhythmically incompetent, but fortunately I have my pianist.”

He began singing in a choir. He actually joined it primarily because girls he was interested in also sang in it. But then the choir director noticed him. It was Gerold Huber’s father, Gerold Huber senior – they both have the same name. He became Gerhaher’s mentor and at first gave him smaller, then larger solos. He also introduced him to his son, who accompanied him on the piano. The two have been a duo for more than 30 years now. They both studied in Munich; Gerold Huber went to the Conservatory immediately. Christian Gerhaher began studying philosophy, then completed his study of medicine with a doctorate (but during that time always took voice lessons and practiced with his piano partner every day) before taking up his vocal studies.

When the two talk about and with each other, a humorous tone almost always prevails. Gerhaher often says things like: “I’m rhythmically incompetent, but fortunately I have my pianist.” The mutual teasing cannot, however, obscure the fact that when making music together they both know almost instinctively in advance how the other will interpret the next note. Their rapport is so close that Huber sometimes heard a change in his own voice when he noticed that his song partner was not in such good form vocally. Telepathy? In any case, an extraordinarily strong connection.

The two also had lessons with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Gerhaher still admires his art song father figure and considers him his most important teacher. Fischer-Dieskau was the first to recapture the true lyrical character of the lied – with radical seriousness, in which he focussed the interpretation on the relationship of text and music. Songs are not “minioperas” but poems set to music. One can lend his voice to a poem, but one does not personify it the way an actor does his role.

He can act as well

Gerhaher can act as well, however, and he does it with passion. On the opera stage he prefers to play sceptics and broken characters. Wolfram im Tannhäuser, who loves in vain. Wozzeck, who is turned into a murderer by the psychological and physical violence of the world around him. As the mortally wounded Amfortas in Munich’s Parsifal, under the static direction of Pierre Audi with sets by Georg Baselitz, Gerhaher was the only one who brought any life to the production, a scenic bright spot with his powerful dramatic performance, staggering across the stage with a walking stick. And he illuminates even roles that do not seem to suit him at all in a surprising and coherent way. As Count Almaviva im Figaro, he stumbled charmingly from one awkward situation to the next in Christof Loy’s production. It was a portrayal of the character that was as unconventional as it was convincing. In his very nature, Gerhaher is nearly the exact opposite of a superficial rogue. Rarely has the Count been depicted with such sympathetic playfulness, and someone who sings this splendidly and with such refinement doesn’t come along every day either.

His supple and light baritone, which only during the last few years has gradually become somewhat darker, develops astonishing power on the operatic stage. One does not have to worry about this voice. Despite all his self-doubts, Gerhaher’s career progressed rapidly and steadily. His professional start came in 1996, when a BR [Bavarian Broadcasting] editor, Oswald Beaujean, heard him at the Munich Conservatory. Beaujean, today the head of BR Klassik, spontaneously offered the young baritone a small production in a BR studio. As a result, Gerhaher was able to apply to an agency, with which he still collaborates today. He also works with the BR sound engineers with whom he recorded all his CDS. Most recently, a cyclical complete recording of all Robert Schumann’s lieder: 299 songs on 11 CDs, a gigantic project. And a “gift for the world”, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote. A gift – that sums it up well. A gift is an offer. Gerhaher gives us, the listeners, the freedom. He doesn’t impose his personal feelings on anyone; he never puts himself in the limelight.

Bernhard Neuhoff

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