MAHLER: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. 5 Lieder nach Texten von Friedrich Rückert. Rheinlegendchen. Ich ging mit Lust. Frühlingsmorgen. Ablösung im Sommer. Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? Zu Strassburg auf der Schanz. Das irdische Leben. Nicht wiedersehen. Phantasie. Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen. Urlicht.
Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano).
RCA Victor Red Seal 756773 TT: 75:52

Scary good. For me, Mahler represents the ne plus ultra of the Romantic German Lied, as well as -- along with Mussorgsky and Debussy -- one of the progenitors of the Modern song. He didn't write all that many, compared to Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, but you don't find a lot of deadwood in his output, either. Before I listened, I thought I would dedicate most of this review to Mahler. Then I heard the first track and now can't think of anything but Gerhaher and Huber.

From the first notes out of Gerhaher's mouth, I said, "Holy crap! This is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in his prime." It's the same, clear, focused sound -- not similar, identical. What? Did he sell his soul to the devil? Once I got over that shock, I actually began to listen to the singing. His technique amazes me. He has huge breath capacity and control over it. With its super-long 10-measure run at the end, "Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?" (who thought up this little song?) has long stood out as a hurdle for singers. Many cheat and sneak a breath somewhere in the middle. Gerhaher not only takes the phrase in one go but actually crescendos at the end. To some extent, it's a stunt, but Gerhaher routinely joins separate phrases, where he could breathe and no one would think less of him (or even notice), into longer ones. If I have find any fault (and this really nit-picks), it's that his diction occasionally goes south. Whether it's because he sings in some German dialect I don't know or a simple memory lapse, I have no idea. Believe me, it's a small nit.

Most extraordinary, however, is the way he shapes each song. Mahler's songs, while usually based in folk modes (like Schubert), nevertheless significantly depart from folk ballad. Even something like "Rheinlegendchen" (a little Rhine legend), which follows its strophic text pretty closely, takes a bunch of harmonic left turns and explores structural bypaths to the main road. Again like Schubert, Mahler doesn't write a song so much as build a dramatic scene -- notably in songs like "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen" (where the beautiful trumpets blow). A singer can easily get lost in the "action's" momentary twists and turns, but not Gerhaher. I've never heard these songs presented as entire mini-dramas to the extent that Gerhaher pushes them. Not even Fischer-Dieskau -- Gerhaher's spiritual ancestor in this approach -- offers them so clearly. The highpoint in a range of Sierras comes with Gerhaher's account of "Um Mitternacht" (at midnight) from the Rückert-Lieder -- absolutely shattering.

Pianist Gerold Huber matches the singer. Their ensemble differs from that of others, who strive for a unified, overarching "identity" between singer and accompanist. It differs because Mahler's songwriting differs. The piano doesn't merely support or accompany but contributes equally to the song. Mahler orchestrated many of these items, and I can pay Huber no greater compliment than to say not only don't I miss the orchestra but, in certain cases, I prefer his piano. For one thing, I hear little bits that often get lost in the orchestra. For another, in some cases, the orchestra "regularizes" the radical nature of Mahler's piano writing. I think especially of the opening to the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and to "Wo die schönen Trompete blasen." Furthermore, Huber has mastered piano color. I don't need actual clarinets or trumpets.

Gerhaher and Huber emphasize the songs' intimacy. Both operate primarily at low dynamic, something difficult for both voice and piano, especially at extremely low dynamic, a neighborhood in which they often find themselves.

An exciting Lieder team in great repertoire in a recording that beautifully captures one subtlety after another. What more could you ask for?

S.G.S. (January 2011)