Christian Gerhaher: bashful baritone

Hugo Shirley
Friday, September 1, 2017

He took the lead role in the 2017 Gramophone Opera Award-winning production of Berg's Wozzeck, but Christian Gerhaher prefers the focus to be on the music rather than himself, finds Hugo Shirley

Christian Gerhaher and Gun-Brit Barkmin in the Gramophone Award-winning Zurich Opera production of Berg's Wozzeck
Christian Gerhaher and Gun-Brit Barkmin in the Gramophone Award-winning Zurich Opera production of Berg's Wozzeck

Christian Gerhaher meets me in the foyer of a smart Berlin hotel by Potsdamer Platz, just down the road from the Philharmonie. He arrives late after what has clearly been a difficult rehearsal for a performance of Das Lied von der Erde with the Berlin Philharmonic under Bernard Haitink the following evening.

The wait had me wondering what to expect from the encounter. After all, this is a man whose artistry seems for many to exist on a different plane from that of other mere mortals – a baritone who has critics dusting off long-dormant superlatives (the Daily Telegraph has dubbed him ‘the most moving singer in the world’) and opera and song lovers queuing for returns. One thing that’s clear right from the start, though, as he offers the most profuse and genuine apologies, is that he’s an artist to whom prima donna tendencies couldn’t be more alien. At one point in our conversation the topic touches briefly on celebrity. ‘If you’re a “classical star”, you are still anonymous’, he says, before immediately qualifying his statement: ‘A classical star like me, that is. There are bigger stars, like Jonas Kaufmann and Simon Rattle, and they have bigger problems.’

It’s an unremarkable statement, but seems in some ways to sum up the tenor of the interview. Throughout, Gerhaher speaks with quiet passion and a mixture of realism and modesty – the modesty never false, the realism never merely modest – that is disarming. I feel a sense of relief as I realise how little difference there seems to be between Gerhaher the man and Gerhaher the singer.

As regards the singer, we can take as read the voice’s beauty, even if its special qualities are difficult to pin down – a firmly projected mellifluousness and beguiling purity of tone are a major part of its arsenal, plus a clarity of enunciation that never seems to undermine the smooth legato line. But the voice is allied to an approach defined by a firmly held belief that the artist’s job is to be servant to the music. Plenty of musicians claim to put the music first; not all make one believe it as fully as Gerhaher does.

In a brief interview in these pages in December 2004, when he was beginning to garner a reputation as one of the finest Lieder singers of his generation, Gerhaher expounded a little of that philosophy: ‘There are singers who use Lieder for their own purposes – changing the dynamics as they want, imposing their own psychology – and the result is too intimate. It should be more objective, being a bit in awe of the art of the composer.’ It doesn’t seem as though much has changed in that regard, and it’s an approach that has brought him legions of avid admirers, not to mention armfuls of accolades. In 2015 alone, he won a Gramophone Award for his Schubert recital ‘Nachtviolen’ (his disc of Mahler orchestral songs was runner-up in the same category) as well as the Royal Philharmonic Society’s prize for the year’s best singer. The last dozen years have seen him collect an impressive clutch of further Editor’s Choices and Awards nominations.

While Lieder has always been central to Gerhaher’s career, he has complemented such work with oratorio performances and carefully rationed opera roles, including Wolfram in Tannhäuser (heard memorably at the Royal Opera House in London), Pelléas, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Don Giovanni, and Rodrigo in Don Carlo. The latter he unveiled away from the spotlight in Toulouse in 2013 and is due to be repeated at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich a few months after our October meeting – more Verdi, he has hinted, might lie in the future. Two operatic recital discs, of German Romantic arias and Mozart, have been well received, while his Wolfram is preserved on the recording of Tannhäuser in Pentatone’s anniversary Wagner cycle. His performance in another new role, Wozzeck, in Andreas Homoki’s Zurich Opera production, won him German magazine Opernwelt’s Singer of the Year for 2016 – and the DVD release earned him yet another Gramophone Editor’s Choice in November. [The DVD has also won the 2017 Gramophone Opera Award]

His newest recording, however, takes him back to song, continuing the carefully planned series of releases to have come out on Sony Classical, and before that on associated labels RCA and Arte Nova. It harks back to his early Arte Nova discs in two ways: in featuring just a single cycle, and in returning to Brahms – then it was the Vier ernste Gesänge; now it’s Die schöne Magelone.

Gerhaher’s own personal hierarchy of song composers, in which the trinity of Schubert, Schumann and Mahler holds sway, hasn’t changed – one future project will be a survey of the complete Schumann songs, masterminded, if not all performed, by Gerhaher and his long-term collaborator, Gerold Huber; his next Sony project is a new recording of Die schöne Müllerin. But Brahms holds a special place in his affections. ‘He’s certainly one of the major Lieder composers. His music is so very special: so round, dark and so full of…not tiny notes, but rounded, nearly operatic sounds.’ Gerhaher is a calm and unrushed communicator with excellent English, but this is one of several instances during our conversation when he has taken time to seek out the right words only to seem faintly disappointed with the result. Later on I get the sense he’s more satisfied with his description of some favourite Brahms songs: ‘Very, very dark green, fat songs which I adore are “Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht”, “Meerfahrt”, “Auf dem Kirchhofe” or “An eine Äolsharfe”. They are really world-moving.’

‘When you sing Brahms it is astonishing: you feel like an instrument. You don’t just feel like you’re playing a viola, you feel like you are a viola! And this is a wonderful feeling. It is very, very sensual; your whole person is made to vibrate, not only the brain.’ There are puzzling aspects to the composer, too, Gerhaher notes. ‘Brahms was so educated and had read so many books of his time, but he very often chose – seemingly on purpose – rather weak poems to put to music.’

Die schöne Magelone is intriguing in other ways. Brahms took his text from a Romantic novella by Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853). The poems adorn a medieval shaggy-dog story – a collection of ‘inconsequential events and amazing coincidences’, in Eric Sams’s phrase – that tells of the noble Peter of Provence falling in love with the beautiful Magelone in the face of family opposition, of their elopement, their unlikely separation and their even more unlikely reunion many years later. As a song-cycle, however, it’s unusual. ‘It is an epic song-cycle’, says Gerhaher. ‘But it’s not like Dichterliebe, or even the Eichendorff Liederkreis or Winterreise, where there’s a kind of accumulation of songs with a common image or common theme, even if they’re not telling a specific story. The poems of Die schöne Magelone don’t tell a story at all – they’re just descriptions of certain moments in this very odd tale by Tieck, which is a little…’ Once more he pauses to choose his words, but this time changes tack. ‘A friend of mine is a very important literature professor and he says, “No, no, it is not kitsch, it is a special kind of irony”. But I can’t see that. It is odd, and weak and kitschy.’ The songs themselves show Brahms the song composer at his most sophisticated, though: ‘They are incredibly powerful and intense and heavy.’

As the conversation develops, the depth of Gerhaher’s knowledge of the repertoire and the thoughtfulness with which he approaches it become clear. The broader issues of the poetry that composers set is one subject, with Gerhaher noting – in contrast to a view often put forward – how many great poems Schubert chose, and emphasising, in particular, the importance of Wilhelm Müller, the poet of Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin and ‘Heine’s predecessor’. But he’s no apologist: Richard Strauss’s early songs he finds ‘musically fantastic, but I can’t stand some of them’. He quotes the text of ‘Zueignung’: ‘“Liebe macht die Herzen krank / Habe dank – Love makes hearts sick / Be thankful”. What kind of text is this? I don’t think a text can be more awful!’

Gerhaher’s gentle manner belies his uncompromising honesty, which shines through again when the conversation moves on to how art song, and classical music in general, are presented. ‘People are always confronting me with the theory that the art song is disappearing. I just can’t agree. I have to admit that the audiences that fill halls for song recitals are maybe not as big as they were in the time of Fischer-Dieskau and Hermann Prey, for example. But I have the feeling that many more young singers are singing this repertoire. Just look at the Schubertiade or Wigmore Hall programmes. It is amazing how many young singers are singing a wide repertoire, and how well received this is.

‘Certainly, it is not easy to listen to this music, but many conclude that we must gain young audiences through “edutainment”, and this is one of the most horrible things I can imagine – to make it all easier and to make it all flat and trivial, to make it easily digested, like a hamburger. I’ve got nothing against hamburgers, but only when they are in their place. It is not necessary for this vocal chamber music to be easily understood – there should always remain a kind of gap between the work and the audience. It is like a crystal, where the light comes in but a different light is coming out. Depending on where you’re sitting, it’s always different.’

I ask him about his own recordings and how such a view can be reconciled with the interpretative snapshot a recording inevitably represents. Here he is a little evasive: he just does all he can, it seems, to make that particular snapshot as good as possible, while trying not to think about the comparisons people make between performances on record and those they hear in the flesh: ‘I try to avoid that pressure, because I have a life as well!’ And do his own recordings help encourage a wider public engagement? He doesn’t like to say: ‘Honestly, I have to be reasonable. I don’t think there are tens of thousands buying my recordings. It’s just a small part of the population.’ He mentions his recent book of conversations, Halb Worte sind’s, halb Melodie (Henschel: 2015): ‘I mean, it was well received, but by how many people?’

The recordings of others, however, were important to Gerhaher while he was growing up in the small Bavarian town of Straubing, birthplace of Emanuel Schikaneder, librettist of Die Zauberflöte and the first to perform another Gerhaher role, Papageno. ‘I listened to recordings very intensively when I was young, but not too many. Some I found very fascinating, like Schumann, Bach and some Stravinsky.’ He still listens selectively to recordings today: ‘I have to understand some repertoire and I have to understand some colleagues.’

Gerhaher’s own path towards singing was famously a roundabout one. As a schoolboy, he played the violin and the viola at first – but, he says, ‘not in a very good way: I was not very gifted’. Although his dexterity on these instruments was limited, his teacher noted his impeccable intonation and encouraged him to continue with music more generally. He sang in the local oratorio choir and occasionally took on some solos. That the violin teacher in question was the father of Huber gives an idea of how inextricably Gerhaher’s musical life is linked with that of his pianist. They left school and moved to Munich at the same time, Huber to study music and Gerhaher to embark on a philosophy degree, initially at least: ‘I was too dumb, so swapped to medicine, which was better.’

There, he and Huber decided to start tackling some Lieder together, beginning, inspired by hearing Prey in recital, with Dichterliebe. He spent a year away from medical studies, which allowed him to attend the Munich Conservatoire, as well as undertake guest studies with Fischer-Dieskau in Berlin. The great baritone hovers over our whole discussion, although Gerhaher’s relationship with him was in some ways not easy – which primarily came down to the difficulty of finding time for singing once his medical studies recommenced. ‘I would call him’, Gerhaher says, remembering a typical exchange. ‘He’d say, “Ja, come this week”. “I’m very sorry, I have an exam then.” “Ach, well come this week.” “Very sorry, another exam!” And he’d say, “OK then, leave it!”. These frustrations culminated in a stern bit of advice: ‘Look, Mr Gerhaher, maybe you should become a doctor – that’s OK – and sing as a hobby.’

Looking back, Gerhaher is not critical of the older baritone, whom he describes as his idol. ‘Maybe he didn’t think I was serious enough, or perhaps he was worried about my technique – whether my voice was big enough and all that.’ It was hard to take at the time, he tells me, but also represented a challenge, and some years later, once the medical studies were behind him, he sent Fischer-Dieskau a copy of his first disc, Schwanengesang on Arte Nova. ‘He was so nice: “Oh my God! I didn’t expect that”, he said. “Sorry I misinterpreted your gift.” He was a kind man with Gerold and me.’ They met him again for a lesson on Winterreise before recording that cycle. As Gerhaher sees it, it was at this point that his professional singing career really started.

Other encounters early in his career were less happy, and Gerhaher recalls a summer course where a teacher told him his singing was beyond salvaging. ‘There’s the saying, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But I don’t like this sentence. It’s not necessary to develop by not being killed. It’s a macho thing. This is maybe part of an artist’s life, to be woundable, and in the end to be a wreck of many wounds – exterior wounds as well as wounds of your self, your own expectations, and your neuroticism.’

It becomes clear that his manner on the concert stage, somewhat nervous, timid and unsettled, is no act: it seems that Gerhaher takes his art too seriously, asks questions about it too constantly, to be able fully to relax. Those awards crowding his mantlepiece, he admits, are welcome, but he’s learnt to ‘leave them behind and move on; they are something that mean the past’. Nor do they bring a greater sense of security or self-confidence. ‘It doesn’t help you one bit’, he insists. ‘If you’re not already self-confident enough, you won’t become so through an honour or award.’

It’s maybe no coincidence that Gerhaher has recorded Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust twice, for as an artist he seems to embody Faustian striving in his artistic endeavours, to share that character’s acute awareness of what’s still unknown and unachieved. As such, he seems particularly close to his regular collaborators: ‘I learnt a lot from Harnoncourt. Herbert Blomstedt, Simon Rattle, Daniel Harding and Bernard Haitink – I adore all of them. They are really what I want: not only baton-possessors, but intellectual guides.’ Yet it’s the relationship with Huber that has been the most central and constant throughout his career. ‘Gerold is for me the most important musical thing, and then maybe, after my wife, he’s the most important thing overall…or possibly after my children too’, he laughs.

‘The main difference between me and these people is that they are real musicians and understand music. I am kind of between a musician and an actor. I’m more text related. In terms of my education, I’m just a physician. I’m not able to explain music.’ I make a final attempt, however, to get him to elucidate his own approach to what he performs. Is it largely instinctive for him, then, I ask? ‘Yes, originally. But I have certainly, after so many years of singing, developed a kind of regularity of possible connections, which are kind of rules.’ He pauses for a second. ‘But they are private.’

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to the world's leading classical music magazine, visit:

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