Indeed, Gerhaher took the neurosis far beyond the measure of Mahler business as usual, from the very first song. “Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht” (When my sweetheart gets married), the start of the cycle “Songs of a Wayfarer,” is a melancholy outburst on the sorrow of losing your beloved, but it’s also a pretty tune and can be sung beautifully. Gerhaher, however, found everything that was jagged in the vocal leaps and verbal repetitions, half-barking out abrupt high notes, and slowing the whole thing down so much that the sense of it as a small lyrical entity was almost lost.
Make no mistake: This was a deliberate approach. Indeed, there’s little that Gerhaher does onstage that isn’t deliberate, apart perhaps from the fluttering of his left hand where it hung by his side, like a repressed plea for even more expression. Around the same time that Mahler began to become popular, so did the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who left a strong mark on the art of German song through the way he gave nuance and attention to every note, every syllable and every shade of a text’s meaning. Gerhaher, who is accounted one of the greatest lieder singers of the present day, takes this approach even further, if possible, offering each word in this first song as a sharp little shard of realization, scarcely cohering beyond their ability to give or convey pain.
At the piano, Huber took the same approach, playing with more fluidity of sound than Gerhaher’s sandy bark but with even more of a spasmodic quality, so that the edge of the musical line became as sharp and steely and bending as a bowed saw. The two artists have been collaborating for more than 30 years, and there is something intimate and personal about such a partnership; in this case, it was expressed in their pushing songs to their limits, carrying waking emotion over into a neurotic dream state, with the subconscious bobbing up in ghastly nightmare vignettes such as “Das irdische Leben” (earthly life), in which a child starves to death while waiting for its mother to bake bread.
The program arced over three Mahler cycles. The Wayfarer songs were followed by 10 songs from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (the boy’s magic horn), settings from a collection of folk-inspired poetry that echoes “Grimms’ Fairy Tales” in their otherworldliness. And the night concluded with “Kindertotenlieder” (songs on the death of children), one of the most powerful and wrenching pieces of music in the repertory, a setting of five texts by Friedrich Rückert written after his children had died of scarlet fever, minutely evoking the anguish of the loss. Searing and keening and surging, the music mirrors and expands the texts’ turbulence and beauty.
Gerhaher’s voice is not beautiful these days — not at all. The singer is 50 this year — still in his vocal prime — and has excellent technical command, but he’s so resolutely focused on meaning rather than aesthetics that beauty of sound is not among his priorities. Sometimes a bleaty quality crept in, sometimes a dry high note was rasped or snarled, sometimes an ornament emerged with the bite of a buzz saw. This wasn’t a performance about nonessentials, certainly not about prettiness when deeper meaning was there to be probed. I found the relentless hammering and emotional intensity a little wearing; others were powerfully moved. Certainly one could argue that the recital was as raw and stark and jarring as the music of Mahler originally was, before it was swathed in a mantle of familiarity.