There is a new frontrunner in the field. Over the past six months, the bravest or most determined of the world’s concert halls and opera houses have been struggling to offer some kind of performances, mostly heavily pruned versions of their original programmes.
Now here is Wigmore Hall going into the new season firing on all cylinders. Starting last weekend, the hall is presenting an autumn season of 100 events, including 28 lunchtime concerts in association with BBC Radio 3, and not just solo recitals, but also chamber groups and larger ensembles.
The season kicked off with a splendid song recital by Christian Gerhaher, the leading German recitalist of his generation. There were 112 in the audience, the maximum number allowed under current restrictions, but every event is being relayed live online on the Wigmore Hall website and its YouTube channel. All are free to view, but donations are invited. Only if viewers give generously will the sums add up.
Although Wigmore Hall has it easier than a full-scale symphony orchestra or an opera house, this remains an impressive commitment. Even if the worrying uptick in coronavirus cases continues and audiences in the hall become impossible, the complete season will continue online.
The online relays also remain available for 30 days after the event. This immediately has its uses, as Gerhaher’s recital was good enough to watch twice. A neatly symmetrical programme dovetailed groups of songs by Schubert and Berg from near the beginning and end of the central period of German Lieder.
Gerhaher’s eloquence as a recitalist is well known — the beautiful enunciation of the words, the warm depth of his baritone voice, the scrupulous attention to detail. He has never been an insistently searching interpreter of the songs like the leading lights of the postwar German generation, such as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, but his hands-off approach brings equal rewards.
His Schubert choices fell among high-quality songs that do not get performed as often as they deserve. The three settings of Petrarch, D628-630, are unusual for Schubert, episodic like miniature Italian operatic scenes, even in German translation. The three Harper songs, D478-480, taken from Goethe, are Schubert at his most profound. Who else but Gerhaher could sing with such simplicity and plumb such depths?
The link through to Berg felt logical, when the music is sung with the same naturalness, no Freudian hypersensitivity. The high point here was the Altenberg Lieder, settings of the texts of postcards, where the singer stretches out to remote regions of the voice and the accompaniment suggests an orchestral universe of sound, exquisitely detailed by pianist Gerold Huber.
The best news is that there are still 99 concerts to come. There will be a special focus on composers Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Mieczyslaw Weinberg. Performers will include pianists Igor Levit and András Schiff, and the Doric and Pavel Haas String Quartets. Do not ask where the action in the musical world is for the rest of this year.
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