Christian Gerhaher rides a white horse and causes a few damsels to joyously faint (Wigmore Hall, 15 July 2017)
Chatty mature lady: have you seen Gerhaher before?
dehggi: yes, but not in recital, only in Tannhauser.
Chatty mature lady: he was the only reason I went to see Tannhauser!
So it came to pass that I saw Gerhaher at Wiggy. I suppose had I hunted for returns I could’ve seen him earlier but for all my traipsing around I really am not the type to hang around for returns (or anything else). If they happen organically… you’ve heard me say that before. My current ticket was such an organic occasion – Baroque Bird couldn’t go and we had talked ahead of time that I would gladly take the ticket given those circumstances.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Die schöne Magelone Op. 33
Christian Gerhaher baritone
Gerold Huber piano
Ulrich Tukur actor
The beautiful Magelone is the story of a young knight who goes out on a maturity quest, which provides many occasions for exceptional feats of arms, proofs of great courage and wise choices for someone so young. Also, a seemingly endless opportunity to sing. His name is not Magelone – that’s the princess who falls madly in love with his jousting skills and singing chops. He is more modestly named Pierre. I’ve learned all this with the help of Tukur, who provided the (English) cliff notes to what happens in between the singing bits. Although he scared us all non German speakers when he did the introduction in German.
I’ve not seen a song cycle done this way before but it sure helps those on an erudition spectrum 😉 I saw on operaramblings that Soile Isokoski just had a recital with surtitles in Toronto, so perhaps this trend is catching. (Now that I dug a bit, here’s further proof of my sliding down the spectrum: this cycle seems habitually done this way; Goerne performed it the same way at Wiggy, 11 years ago!)
As you know I’m not the kind to spend a performance with my nose stuck in the programme (if it comes into my possession organically I will peruse it beforehand but unicorns are surprisingly rare at Wiggy). Surtitles = please bring them on. An actor reading it = even better, if all parties can afford the addition.
The story as read by Tukur proved hilarious. My fave part was this: a random nosy raven shows up just when our hero finds his three rings inside the locket of his conveniently asleep beloved – after he’d “eased off her dress”. Wait, what??? What kind of noble knight behviour is that? No wonder a raven showed up and flew away with the ring(s). Moral conundrums aside, our hero dashes off after the raven and, long story short, he falls into the Mediterranean, gets caught by moorish pirates and ends up sold into slavery to the Ottoman sultan (quite historically accurate, no?).
This is the type of story that ends well, so the two lovebirds find each other again – also by chance, after we understand that each of them has gained their gender required knowledge in the ways of the world (Magelone picks herself up, realises that he has not left of his own volition and waits for him whilst doing assorted au-pair duties for a farmer family in the Naples countyside – obviously back then even rich families didn’t enlist the help of local law enforcement to look for their missing damsels).
You might be wondering by now but dehggi, what happened to the raven? No? What about Gerhaher on his white horse? Oh, yes! He waited gamely for the cliff notes to unfold and then launched into Pierre’s mood-illustrating songs. Gotta love the Romantics, they were really confident in their genius. All these songs on a medieval theme sound absolutely nothing like one would imagine medieval music. No matter, though, because they are very fine indeed, and cover a wide range of moods. You can say that Pierre’s basic nature is jolly but, of course, what with loving and then losing (thanks for nothing, raven!), some somber tunes found their way within as well.
With this format there is inevitably a break in the mood, because reading a Romantic story in a 21st century English translation is one thing and singing Brahms in German is another. Sometimes I really wanted to find out what happened next and hear the music separately at a later time, Gerhaher or no Gerhaher. But his phrasing is really gorgeous and when he was singing I didn’t want us to go back to reading. I also really like his top (as well as his tie), as showcased by these songs. He’s the kind of singer whose fach affiliation you don’t have to question – he has the density and just enough weight – but who has heart flutter inducing notes up and down the range. So I gently fainted with the rest of the damsels (the hall was packed) and sighed behind my veil.