In the 1770s the gloomy, mist-shrouded musings of the Gaelic bard ‘Ossian’ – later revealed as the century’s greatest literary fraud – fuelled a Europe-wide craze for Celtic primitivism. Haydn, Beethoven and others duly cashed in on the insatiable demand for folksong arrangements, adorned and ‘civilised’ for the salon, in what, kreutzer per hour, was surely the most lucrative work of their careers. Using the early-20th-century cod-folk German poems attached to Haydn’s folksongs, Christian Gerhaher sings them with the same care for colour and verbal detail he would bring to a Schumann or Mahler song. His acerbic pointing of the text minimises the incongruity between words (doleful and/or embittered) and music (jolly) in ‘Im Schlummern’ and ‘Ich stehe auf der Heide’. In a brief booklet-note Gerhaher pays homage to Fritz Wunderlich’s recordings of Haydn folksongs (DG, 1/89). His impeccable enunciation and, where apt, tenderly spun legato – say, in ‘Rose weiss, Rose rot’ – are indeed worthy of the great, short-lived tenor.
Whereas Haydn’s trio accompaniments are gracefully decorative, Beethoven, true to form, can’t resist touches of motivic development in his more elaborate Scottish folksong settings. Encouraged by alert and witty playing from Gerold Huber and his string colleagues, Gerhaher sings these – in virtually flawless English/Scottish – with a delightful and unforced sense of character. He vindicates a surprisingly slow tempo in a fervent, yearning ‘Faithfu’ Johnie’, and suggests rollicking inebriation without coarsening his tone in ‘Come fill, fill, my good fellow’ – a performance duly relished by the Munich audience.
Best of all are the bittersweet, sometimes disturbing Britten arrangements that form the recital’s centrepiece. In beauty of tone and sensitivity to text and mood, Gerhaher’s vividly ‘lived’ performances are a match for any of his baritone predecessors, British or German. You barely need the booklet texts to follow the words – always something of a litmus test. Shorn of any hint of heartiness, ‘The Miller of Dee’, with its distorted echoes of the Schubertian mill stream, acquires a strange, brooding defiance. Gerhaher is at his most dulcet in ‘Ca’ the yowes’ (with a haunting use of head voice) and the lulling nocturne ‘O can ye sew’ uses the ‘blade’ in his high baritone to fine dramatic effect in ‘Avenging and bright’ (properly ‘fast and ferocious’, as Britten asks), and brings a sly sense of comic timing to ‘Sally in our alley’. Gerold Huber’s playing is in the Britten class (in his recordings with Pears) for colour, point and wry inventiveness. Enough said.