In aesthetic terms, the greatest antipodes

The baritone Christian Gerhaher can be heard in two works at the 2023 Easter Festival: Firstly in the Choral Concert and secondly in Wagner's »Tannhäuser«. In the interview he talks about his role of Wolfram, the art of growing older and the differences between Brahms and Wagner.

© Marie Rolland

Christian Gerhaher, you will be singing in two different works at the Easter Festival. Do you see any connection between the »German Requiem« by Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner’s »Tannhäuser«?

That’s a tricky question. Actually, I find very few points of overlap between them. Brahms was extremely averse to Wagner’s art of declamation and vice versa. In aesthetic terms, the two of them were among the greatest antipodes of the 19th century. But there are two things that overlap a little, for me personally: On the one hand, a singer needs a great dynamic range for the Brahms Requiem, and for a performer, this is what links this work with »Tannhäuser«. And on the other hand, you might say that the second movement in the Requiem, »For all flesh is as grass« has a certain dramatic component that isn’t otherwise so well known in Brahms.

The Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick was highly enthusiastic, writing:»Bach’s b-minor Mass and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, nothing has been composed in this field that might be placed alongside it«. Would you agree?

No, not at all. But I would like to point out that I don’t dislike Brahms – on the contrary, I wouldn’t want to live without his music. He doesn’t feel very close to me personally, but neither does Wagner. Hanslick, however, is for me one of the most unpleasant figures of the 19th century. He was an unbelievably pretentious and smug critic who condemned so many people. And apart from a few striking phrases and (of course) its basic thrust, I find his essay in aesthetics, »On the beautiful in music«, extremely vexatious in its lack of logic and its artistic bigotry. I also think that the assessment of his that you quote here is fundamentally wrong. He leaves out many works such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Mass in c Minor and his Requiem, then Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s »Elijah«, Robert Schumann’s »Faust« and »Peri« – there’s simply a lot of music that he’s either forgotten about or was perhaps simply unable to appreciate sufficiently. Then there’s the fact that I find such statements stupid in themselves: “Since ... nothing better has been composed …”. Such comparisons treat the arts as if they were sports. But they’re not. They’re not about being faster, higher, stronger, but about the momentary fulfilment that can arise in or through certain works. Of course, this is also the case in a special way with the Requiem by Brahms.

If you listen, say, to your own recording from the year 2011, would you interpret things differently today, as you gain ever more life experience? How has your interpretation changed over the years?

One’s art of interpretation naturally changes constantly, and those changes can be considerable over a longer period of time. It does have to do with one’s life experience, but I wouldn’t really want to instrumentalise that. I don’t try to understand a piece from my own perspective in life or with my own horizons; I try to do the exact opposite, leaving out my own person and my own life’s reality. I don’t want to overload the piece with things for which it is not responsible.
However, there is a certain intersection point. At about my age, it is normal for one’s vocal and physiological abilities to begin to decline. But this can also allow things to emerge, in singing terms, that I simply couldn’t manage before, whether it’s in a sense of drama or grandeur, or just managing a certain arc that was physically beyond one until now. And the experience that one gains over the years also encompasses ideas about singing itself. That can actually lead to a tragic situation in which one knows much better today how something should sound, but is less and less able to realise it.

In Salzburg, you are going to perform the work with the orchestra that gave its world première – in its final, 7-movement version, of course. What is special about the sound of the Gewandhaus Orchestra?

My connection with the Gewandhaus Orchestra lies in the fact that I have been privileged to sing with it for a very long time now. It started with Herbert Blomstedt in the early 2000s, and since then I have had the opportunity to sing under him many times with this orchestra. There are two things that have especially impressed me. One is its unique sound. I don’t know any orchestra that can sound so phlegmatic in the best possible sense and that brings together so many warm, dark colours. The other is the Gewandhaus hall itself, which has such an incredibly wonderful acoustic. For symphonic music it is one of the five best halls that I know in the world. I have to say that this orchestra played a fundamental role in shaping my early listening experiences. However, I have never sung an opera with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, so I am particularly looking forward to »Tannhäuser«.

At this Easter Festival, you will once more be singing the role of Wolfram von Eschenbach in Wagner’s »Tannhäuser«. What makes this role interesting for you – would you like to have known the character himself?

I find him a very difficult, tragic figure. At least as tragic as Tannhäuser himself. Wolfram is the great intellectual, he’s sensitive; but with his intellect he also comes up against boundaries that his emotionality imposes on him. This becomes clear in his great, unbelievably successful song in the singing contest, which he would certainly win if things didn’t descend into the scandal that means the contest is broken off. In »Blick’ ich umher in diesem edlen Kreise ... « he sings about platonic love in a way that idealises it unrealistically. Tannhäuser then says – I think it’s in his second reply – something like: Yes, that sounds all well and good, but it won’t work without physical contact, because humanity would otherwise die out. It won’t work without sex, and this sexuality is of course exactly what’s on Wolfram's mind. This is because he doesn’t want simply to admire Elisabeth from afar, but to be her lover. He’s probably much more in love with her than Tannhäuser is. But he also knows that she doesn’t love him. He isn’t a realistic lover, he’s a romantic lover. This discrepancy, namely that he turns this unhappy love into an intellectual concept that is not truly cogent – albeit in a brilliant way that delights everyone else – this suddenly becomes clear to him during the singing contest. And this is why he has this brief outburst: »Oh heaven! Let me now implore you!«, in which he basically copies Tannhäuser and says, »Well, of course passion has to exist«. This only provokes Tannhäuser all the more, up to the point where he finally admits that he was with Venus. This then leads to the utter éclat that is the ruin of everyone. You might say that Wolfram is jointly responsible for the whole mess on account of his presumption and his intellectual deficit – his inability to question his own rash judgements.

Christian Gerhaher as Wolfram von Eschenbach © Wilfried Hösl

»The purest essence of love« : Your role, that of Wolfram von Eschenbach, is quite a romantic. How do you convey this romanticism, this sensibility in your voice?

Wolfram is a multi-layered, contradictory figure who is very interesting to sing. You can see this in his immense dynamic volatility. His songs are very well known and are purely lyrical. There is an extreme quietness in his well-nigh essayistic contribution to the singing contest, when out of nowhere he gets people on his side through his extremely presumptuous intellectual power. The »Evening Star« is also incredibly quiet. It’s always called the »Song to the Evening Star«, but I feel it’s actually more of a brief aria, just very quiet. There’s a lot that emerges out of this quietness, which is then punctuated by his outbursts. This is also true of the transition from the »Evening Star«, in which sound almost completely disappears, into the return of Tannhäuser, where Wolfram also pretty quickly becomes aggressive, and thence to the Rome narrative. Wolfram’s inner conflict, his lack of equilibrium, become evident everywhere in his quiet notes with their many tone colours and in the massive strength that he also develops. He is a character full of contrasts; one might even call him immature, this Wolfram.

Wolfram’s »Evening star« is surely one of the two most popular numbers in the work, along with the Pilgrim’s Chorus, and the whole audience is always waiting for it. Is this a curse or a blessing?

Something like that is naturally always difficult, to a certain extent. But you’re not the only person responsible for what happens in the »Evening Star«. You still have the conductor, who has to choose the tempo, and you also have the cellos with whom you vary the line, so you are not alone.
But I have to admit that it is rather exciting. Act 2 is actually very exhausting and long – for everyone, not just for Tannhäuser. The finale of this act is a kind of monster – I hardly know any other operatic finale that is so exhausting from start to finish. To be sure, there are longer finales – such as the 2nd act of Mozart’s »Figaro«, but these continuous, constant demands on everyone are truly intense. Act 3 up to the Rome narrative is very quiet, and singing it is also challenging. Of the many roles that I’ve been singing for a long time, I have to say that this particular role is nevertheless perhaps the one that I feel has been most consistently close to me.

Wagner’s music isn’t always easy; how would you try and make it appetising to someone who is new to it? What makes it worth their while getting to grips with Wagner and his »Tannhäuser«?

Getting into Wagner is something that can take a little time – but I believe, paradoxically, that his is the kind of music that even newcomers can find particularly inspiring. There are people who are completely absorbed by Wagner, but who otherwise don’t listen to classical music at all. In my opinion, there are two reasons for this. First, there is Wagner’s unfathomable dramatic and dramaturgical talent. How he is able to expand a piece, making it so elastic and able to captivate you – this is something that I believe only very few other music dramatists have succeeded in doing. Secondly, he has a quite extraordinary manner of declamation that only few composers have attained. The way he treats a text, making it come alive, is something that in Wagner can develop an incredible ability to pull you in. There are few composers I would place alongside him in matters of declamatory power; perhaps only Schumann.
Incidentally, if I may return to your first question, this is the principal difference between Wagner and Brahms. With Brahms, matters of form are really always decided by the musical context. In my view, the language is never the origin of his musical invention or his musical intuition; instead, he tends to adjust a text after the fact to fit what is already a tangible formal unit. Sometimes he takes this so far that a text is afterwards no longer properly comprehensible – by which I mean that the musical form causes syntactical relationships to disintegrate. But I don’t want this to be understood as a criterion of quality; it’s just that these two approaches are simply quite different in their conception.
There are two reasons why I find »Tannhäuser« especially attractive. First, because it’s so unfinished. Wagner once said: “I still owe the world a Tannhäuser”. In my opinion, this wasn’t just because his Paris version had introduced sounds to the score that don’t really fit this work, being more closely related to »Tristan und Isolde«. It’s also because the dramaturgy of the work is occasionally less than entirely coherent. And yet it’s this “unfinished” aspect, this difference between the three acts (which is extreme in the case of Tannhäuser), that really attracts me because it is artistically incredibly thrilling.
This might be an early work by Wagner, but it remains an opera that possesses an incredibly explosive power. What fascinates me in particular is that it is one of a few operas whose topic is singing itself – such as »Die Meistersinger«, but also »L’Orfeo« by Claudio Monteverdi. These masterpieces reflect on stage what they themselves are about. The way they thematise the possible meanings of singing always makes them especially appealing to me.

What comes to mind when you think of Salzburg – what impressions or images do you associate with the city?

Salzburg is closely related to my own homeland. I come from Lower Bavaria, which isn’t so far away. Salzburg has something mediaeval and bucolic about it, which is something that has felt very close to me since childhood, and that I find immediately understandable. Perhaps that’s why what the world sees as Salzburg’s special charm doesn't affect me as much as it would someone who hadn’t experienced it in their childhood. To me it’s nothing special, because in a way it’s simply home.