You could argue that madness is never far away in the 19th-century song repertoire, in which baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber have established such a formidable reputation. However, this programme, spanning the 19th to the 21st centuries, placed the idea of insanity firmly centre stage.
Almost all the words Gerhaher sang were by Nikolaus Lenau, the Austrian poet, who died in an asylum in 1850. But we first heard brief words by Georg Trakl, spoken by Gerhaher to introduce Elis, three short piano pieces by Heinz Holliger inspired by that war-damaged poet. These fleeting works broke us gently into Holliger’s uncompromising yet delicate and often pictorial soundworld, Huber’s hands darting from one end of the keyboard to another and occasionally reaching in to the body of the piano to set the strings vibrating directly.
Almost all the words Gerhaher actually sang, however, were by Lenau. In his 2010 song cycle Lunea, a work he later adapted into an opera, Holliger set 23 epigrammatic sentences scribbled by Lenau during his time in the asylum. Taken together, these read like bons mots from The Little Book of Existential Distress – “Time disdainfully brushes your dust from its feet,” reads one I might as well have chosen at random – and yet they inspired Holliger to writing that marries concision to enormous emotional and musical scope. The songs were written with Gerhaher in mind, and you could tell: they fit his voice perfectly from top to bottom, and the piano supported his ferocity rather than eclipsed it.
The club of composers inspired by Lenau includes two near contemporaries who shared his syphilis-induced fate: Hugo Wolf, whose Abendbilder preceded Lunea here, and Robert Schumann. From the latter we heard the four Hussar Songs, delivered with just enough macho snarl, and the Op. 90 Lenau settings, of which Meine Rose sounded understated and lilting and Die Sennin found Gerhaher’s voice opening out airily at the top. In between came six Lenau songs from Othmar Schoeck’s cycle Elegie, completed in 1922. These are simple, sparing and lyrical, and in Gerhaher’s performance, folk-like and almost sotto voce. They were the Holliger’s perfect counterweight.