Christian Gerhaher is a real superstar. Not the luxury-endorsed, coiffured PR-hungry lemming of awards ceremonies and enhanced photos, but a truly unique singing talent, bringing fresh interpretations to familiar repertoire as well as enlivening less celebrated works. Romantische Arien, his latest disc for Sony, features party pieces from Tannhäuser alongside operatic rarities by Schubert, Schumann, Nicolai and Weber. Tender, thoughtful and occasionally tempestuous, this is singing of the very highest calibre.
When Gerhaher made his Royal Opera House debut as Wolfram in Tannhäuser in late 2010, critics tripped over themselves to praise his performance. The Arts Desk described the 'gauzy, flickering, Lieder-like [...] sensitivity' of his voice, while the Telegraph relished Gerhaher's 'quiet poise, gentle warmth and sincere musicianship.' Boulezian's Mark Berry said that 'the sheer beauty of his tone was breathtaking, but even more so were his vocal shading and verbal acuity.' This latest recording proves that these are the hallmarks of Gerhaher's career.
The two passages from Tannhäuser on this new disc - 'Blick' ich umher in diesem edlen Kreise' and 'O du, mein holder Abendstern' - are definite highlights, but by no means isolated glories. Accompanied throughout by the superb Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks - sonorously and sympathetically directed by Daniel Harding - Gerhaher brings winning candour to all of these operatic scenes. So direct are his performances that he breaks through formulaic barriers such as recitative and aria, making these works sound almost late Romantic in their fluency.
But there's steel here too. In a particularly gripping scene from Schumann's Genoveva - yes, you did read that right - Gerhaher seizes the bull by the horns. Similarly, Lysiart's stand from Euryanthe brings previously untapped ire to the surface. Throughout, whether strident or soft, Gerhaher has an innate ability to tell stories through music. Just as on his recent sublime Ferne Geliebte disc, you never miss a syllable in favour of sound, though the voice is consistently ravishing to behold. Gerhaher is a very special performer, the true successor of the immediacy, musicality and warmth of the late great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
It is by now trite that Gerhaher is among the best current German male singer (not limited to any particular fach). His articulation is immaculate, and he has a tremendous musical sense. The tone is light but can become powerful if required. The dynamic range is good, and listening to this album, one can appreciate why he, in 2010, was chosen the best operatic performer in his country in the place of the likes of Jonas Kaufmann. Having said that, I do not consider this operatic debut album by Gerhaher a complete success. The excerpts from some much lessor known arias from late 18th to early 19th century German operas are not just arias, but operatic scenes. While CG has done a very fine job in his vocal depictions, the orchestra is hardly in sync dramatically most, if not all, the time. It is better in the Schumann opera excerpt, but in the Schubert excerpts as well as the Nicolai excerpts, the orchestra sounds totally clueless. The reason of course is that of the conductor's. Harding is unable to grasp the dramatic elements involved in those scenes. Such sort of orchestral 'accompaniment' hardly served the sung texts, and the singer is all too often left to a solo stand. This happening in most of the tracks leave the listeners to dramatic and eventually musical frustration, for nor is the conductor able to discern the musical 'styles' in the various composers' works!The various pieces from different operas sound as though they are Daniel Hardings own 'arranged' versions, not the composers': Nicolai, Schubert, Weber ...they all sound alike in style without any sense of individual musical nuances or inflections. Nor was the orchestra under Harding capable of depicting the different dramatic moments called for all too urgently in the texts themselves. The major distinction between opera and lieder, alas has not been fully realised by the entire ensemble, despite highly polished singing by CG.
Having been deeply impressed by Gerhaher's Wolfram when performed at Covent Garden, I must confess to having been rather disappointed by this disc. The repertoire is quite unusual, which often can be very refreshing; here it is just not that interesting. Many other reviewers seem to put this down to Harding and the orchestra, whilst reserving unremitting praise for the singer. I think this a little unfair, and have to conclude that it is Gerhaher's style itself that tends to the monochrome, however beautiful it may be. It turns out that the very still and concentrated way that he phrases "Blick'ich umher" in Tannhaeuser, whilst marvellously effective there, is how he approaches much else that he sings. It is sadly not a disc that I have returned to often.