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Lieder Concert Review

NYC Lieder Concert Brings Schumann to Life

by Jessica Tremblay
 October 2013

Robert Schumann.

Christian Gerhaher, baritone
Gerold Huber, piano
All-Schumann Lieder Program
September 29, 2013  
Park Ave Armory Recital Hall

At the Park Avenue Armory in the heart of Manhattan, on September 29, 2013, an extraordinary concert of German Lieder was presented by baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerhold Huber. What a beautiful way to inaugurate a new recital hall in New York City! In the painstakingly and beautifully restored Armory's recital room, this Sunday afternoon Lieder concert brought composer Robert Schumann to life, and set the stage for all the concerts which will follow it.

Every human being has some kind of mission in life; some of us struggle to find that purpose, and some struggle to fulfill the mission they have been able to identify for themselves. This artistic duo, who have known each other like brothers since early childhood, are now fulfilling their life’s work: to keep one of the most wonderful art forms, the German Lied (Art Song), alive and accessible to international audiences, nearly two hundred years after the pinnacle of Lied composition. The Lieder art form may seem foreign to many people, especially Americans who are unfamiliar with the German language, but in reality, it is one of the most passionate and intimate art forms that exists. Lieder are very accessible to everyone. They are, in many ways, a more developed, or higher form of story telling. The Lied composer takes a poem-- some masterful poems, some mediocre -- and transforms them into a new, more refined form, through setting it to music: the duet of one singing voice in dialogue with the fortepiano.[1]The Lied carries you through people’s stories, or their own thought process, on matters, some of which are seemingly everyday affairs, and some of greatest profundity. The artists presenting these works must be able to take their hearers along through that story. Beyond this, the singer must be such a technical master of their voice, that the audience no longer hears a singing voice and pianoforte, but instead, the haunting beauty of the poetic idea.

Photos by Stephanie Berger.

The Lieder artist must allow the poetry itself to come alive, which not only demands incredible proficiency for both singer and pianist, but more importantly, it requires the ability to “step back” from focus on the voice or the accompaniment per se, in order to truly "sing the music." Certainly Mr. Gerhaher is a master at this. As the enthusiastic fellow member of the audience sitting next to me put it, "He is the best singer I have heard in 40 years! Not the best voice, but the best SINGER!"

Mr. Huber has obviously dedicated himself to Lieder accompaniment, and mouthed nearly every word of every poem that Mr. Gerhaher sang. I left the concert with a haunting sense of the genius of Schumann. And what better thing can you say of a musician? Mr. Huber, who made his piano sing, brought to life the beautiful, rich tones of Schumann.

The demanding program presented by Mr. Gerhaher and Mr. Huber included songs and song cycles (Liederkreis) by composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) whose compositions are rich in irony and imagery. They performed Myrthen op. 25, Liederkreis op. 39 (poetry by Eichendorff), Die Löwenbraut op. 31/1 (poetry by Chamisso), and Zwölf Gedichte op. 35 (poetry by Kerner).

Rather than go into a long analysis of the various songs, since it is necessary to hear them sung live, suffice it to say that, Could I see the witch in Waldesgespraech! Yes! Could I see the whole dramatic scene of Die Loewenbraut unfold in front of me? Again, yes. Was my imagination transported to the heavens during Mondnacht? It was.

The high point of the concert for me was the encore, Der Einsiedler (The Hermit) which brought the entire concert together, and which I have translated here:

Der Einsiedler

Komm, Trost der Welt, du stille Nacht!
Wie steigst du von den Bergen sacht,
Die Lüfte alle schlafen,
Ein Schiffer nur noch, wandermüd',
Singt übers Meer sein Abendlied
Zu Gottes Lob im Hafen.

Die Jahre wie die Wolken gehn
Und lassen mich hier einsam stehn,
Die Welt hat mich vergessen,
Da tratst du wunderbar zu mir,
Wenn ich beim Waldesrauschen hier
Gedankenvoll gesessen

O Trost der Welt, du stille Nacht!
Der Tag hat mich so müd' gemacht,
Das weite Meer schon dunkelt,
Laß ausruhn mich von Lust und Not,
Bis daß das ew'ge Morgenrot
Den stillen Wald durchfunkelt

The Hermit

Come, comfort of the world, you still night!
How you gently climb from the hills!
The breezes are all asleep,
only one sailor, weary from travel,
still sings his evening song over the sea,
to praise God in the harbor.

The years go by like clouds
and leave me standing here alone;
the world has forgotten me.
Then, amazingly, you stood in front of me
when I was sitting here by the rustling wood,
lost in thought.

O comfort of the world, you still night!
The day has made me so weary;
the wide sea is darkening already.
Let me rest from joy and suffering
until the eternal red dawn
shines throughout the still woods.


—translation by Jessica Tremblay 

Gerhaher and Huber’s performance of this Lied brought together both the story in the poem and the genius of Schumann, taking each member of the audience first to a level from which they could see our mortal existence here on earth with irony – in the highest sense of that word – and then hinting at what our immortality will be like. We are transported into the realm of imagination, the place where you can get the sense, that there is a bigger meaning to our short existence here on earth.

The beauty of this duo’s performance, was that they made these deep and strong emotions uplifting. It was a joy to go to all those places named in the poem, and wonder about the multifaceted meaning of the poetry that Schumann transforms.

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Photos by Stephanie Berger.

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[1]  Editor’s note: Since a poem is already a musical score, much more than the simple addition of a musical embellishment is required to transform it into a classical composition. A classical Lied composed by such masters as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, will add an entirely new dimension to the poem, often even changing the original meaning. Through the interplay of the voice and piano, the idea of the composition is heard in the mind, rather than just the ear, thus “transporting” the audience and the performers to “a better world.”