Though the program had its oddities and performances could be tentative, Christian Gerhaher left no doubt Thursday at his Philadelphia debut recital that he possesses a Stradivarius among voices and is one of the most cultivated singers in the new generation of German art-song interpreters. You could have guessed that by the Andras Schiff stamp of approval: The in-demand pianist only occasionally accompanies singers, but there he was, playing a secondary role to this Bavaria-born baritone, so little known in the United States.
Having studied under the twin pillars of the old guard, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Gerhaher has found his own artistic way, one that (unlike Schwarzkopf's) neglects visual presentation and doesn't really depict the characters within the songs. In his many excellent recordings over the last 12 years, Gerhaher is his own protagonist, going past external matters and straight to the heart of any given song's emotional state with conversational word projection. Even without niceties of stage deportment, his communication is extremely direct.
The surprise of hearing him live (presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society at the Kimmel's Perelman Theater) was his sound. It's that of a mainstream baritone with all registers beautifully integrated, though each crescendo, diminuendo, and region of his vocal range opened up an arresting new avenue. That's partly what made his performance of Schumann's great song cycle, Dichterliebe, so distinguished: The vocal colors employed for the piece's huge emotional range never felt premeditated, but sprang spontaneously from the text. Less happily, tempos were deliberate, with each song treated as an individual entity, taxing the piece's superb overall pacing.
In selections from Schumann's Gesange des Harfners, which operates at a lower creative pitch than Dichterliebe, I loved the way Gerhaher made his voice all but buzz at the end of the darkest selection, "He who never ate his bread with tears," about how mankind is born into misery. Schiff had eloquent moments in "I will steal from door to door" with a haunting, four-note ostinato.
Elsewhere, the program curiously didn't play to Gerhaher's strengths. The unbroken form of Beethoven's song cycle An die ferne Geliebte was important in its time, but the songs themselves are only intermittently interesting and lay a bit low for Gerhaher. By using a more pale voice quality, he projected the illusion of half-speaking the songs. In five seldom-heard Haydn songs, Gerhaher struggled with English texts and found little worthwhile content. Seldom did he truly relax into what he was singing. So he's going to have to come back soon and show what he can really do.