If renown were a matter of artistic worth and not hucksterism, Christian Gerhaher might be among today’s most lionized vocalists. Instead, with a career based in Europe and centering on song, oratorio and charily selected operatic roles, the cultivated baritone is a connoisseur’s singer. A new Sony release featuring conductor Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, as well as a Park Avenue Armory repeat (on September 29 and October 1) of a Liederabend that won raves at Salzburg, promises to raise Gerhaher’s local profile.
The Gerhaher-Nagano collaboration stands out among many excellent accounts of Mahler’s orchestral songs for its limpid textures and brisk tempos: Classic recordings by José van Dam and Thomas Hampson sound soupy and lumbering by comparison. Still, these apparently sober performances carry a sting in the tail: in the raw, resinous tone of the oboe d’amore that bores through “Um Mitternacht,” and in Gerhaher’s abrupt shift to a shadowy, bone-dry sound for the final words of the Schubert-haunted “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz.”
Most compelling is his muted way with “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.” He seems truly “lost to the world,” darkening and lingering on the final iteration of gestorben (“died”) seemingly out of pity for the living, but otherwise serene and apart from earthly turmoil. Nagano and the Montreal players second Gerhaher’s eloquence.—Marion Lignana Rosenberg