A weekend of outstanding vocal music at Mandel Hall

Pianist Gerold Huber and baritone Christian Gerhaher at Mandel Hall. (Photo by Adrián Mandeville for UChicago Presents)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Mandel Hall was the site of two very different vocal performances last weekend, featuring two spectacular singers.

Baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber performed music by Mahler on Friday night while countertenor Iestyn Davies and Fretwork performed primarily early music on Sunday afternoon.

Both concerts were hosted by University of Chicago Presents and drew large audiences, although Friday night’s concert had the bigger crowd.

Gerhaher and Huber have been performing music together for more than 30 years and have been friends even longer. From the first notes, you could tell that this pair has created a unique and robust collaborative relationship. Each shines individually, but it is the combination of their detailed and dovetailed performances that is masterful and moving.

Their concert featured some of Mahler’s most aching music, lieder which recounts heartbreak and bitter disappointment but where death is also a frequent visitor. Gerhaher and Huber situated themselves in a world where the worst has happened and human suffering has created a new and terrible place where life offers daily terrors.

Gerhaher deployed his voice not as a plucky man who soars above it all, but as an everyman ground down by tragedy. He was musically accurate, but in using his voice to convey the pain, the sounds themselves were often painful. At times his high notes were thin and eerie precisely to communicate the hollowness of a man’s soul at a time of great loss.

The deep and considered interpretations were rooted firmly in the text, with Gerhaher carefully creating not only each phrase with care, but individual words had their own color, their own special inflection. In this way, the German baritone sculpted the words into the music so that each ache and each pain appeared and evolved. Huber met him at every point, so that while the singer wailed, the piano created the blustery wind or the cold, dark night that enveloped the singer’s narrative.

The opening “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” (“Songs of a Wayfarer”) were masterfully done, showing us a man at the end of his rope. For “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer” (“I have a red-hot knife”) Gerhaher nearly hollered the loudest sections, drawing out the raw emotion.

There were several excerpts from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”). The melismas in “Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?” (“Who thought up this little song?”) took you up a mountain to meet a young girl, and the baritone was pleasingly gruff with “Um schlimme Kinder artig zu machen” (“How to make naughty children well-behaved”). There was piercing cynicism in “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm” (Song of the persecuted man in the tower”), where the prisoner now can only bitterly report that “thoughts are free.” Here Gerharer sounded ominous as the prisoner, but gentle as the maiden conversing with him.

The concert closed with “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the death of children”). Here Gerharer was at his very best, drawing out the near-insanity of the living when reflecting on the death of beloved children. There was the desolation of one who can only be happy when dressed in memory of the past.

The concert closed with an encore: a magnificent performance of “Urlicht” (“Primal Light”) from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn.” It was luminous, quiet, and powerfully moving.

Sunday afternoon brought the British countertenor Iestyn Davies to Mandel Hall with the viol ensemble Fretwork. Their concert, entitled “Silent Noon,” featured music primarily from the 16th century and offered a mix of vocal with viols as well as a handful of pieces for instruments only.

Davies, who performs both as an opera singer as well as a song interpreter, was in gorgeous voice. And he made a splash in a program of music that was almost entirely un-splashy. The music drew out pity and sadness and was remarkably quiet. Most of the afternoon never heard a volume over mezzo-forte. Yet Davies was splendid at painting detailed musical pictures even when he was at his most quiet and introspective.

His voice was clear and his top notes had bell-like tone. His storytelling ability is not yet as forceful as Haberer’s, but Davies has an elegance and charm which is irresistible.

He opened with Byrd’s “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is,” and he had an easy sound, making the music seem effortless. His ornaments were light and trilled Rs unobtrusive, all while meaning came streaming out.

“The Sky Above the Roof” by Vaughan Williams (in an arrangement for viols) was given a simple treatment and was more effective for that, while “Silent Noon” was bucolic.

The creamy, dreamy singing was splendid throughout the concert, with the big moments coming at the end. Davies offered bright sound for Handel’s “Già l’ebro mio ciglio” (“This Sweet Potion” from “Orlando”) and began calmly before unleashing passion in “Piangerò” (“I will lament my fate” from “Giulio Cesare”).

The performance ended with a Purcell encore, “An Evening Hymn.” Davies gave a shapely performance and sent folks home happy.