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Review: Mahler, Distilled by Classical Music’s Greatest Duo

Mahler’s music wouldn’t be possible without peace and quiet.

During the summer, he escaped urban life — and his career as a conductor — to compose in nature. When he wasn’t hiking or swimming, he would labor over songs and symphonies inside a small lakeside hut. In this environment, he is said to have remarked, “everything that is base and trivial vanishes without trace.”

Lincoln Center is aiming to approximate such serenity, in a way, by offering a digital detox during performances of its White Light Festival. Through the service Yondr, audience members can lock their phones in pouches for the duration of a concert; like smokers at an airport, they can also check Twitter and make calls in a designated “phone use area” of the lobby.

But Yondr is optional, and the dream of a phone-free concert shall remain, well, yonder. In a recital by the baritone Christian Gerhaher and the pianist Gerold Huber on Tuesday evening, not even 10 minutes had passed before a ringtone ricocheted off the wooden walls of Alice Tully Hall.

Yet the moment was worth only a passing smirk at the irony, barely a blemish on an otherwise awe-inspiring recital of Mahler songs distilled for piano and voice, and delivered with the trademark thoughtfulness and grace of what may be the greatest duo in the world of art song.

Mr. Gerhaher and Mr. Huber opened with the early “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” (“Songs of a Wayfarer”), and continued with selections from “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”) and the cycle “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs on the Death of Children”). All may be most familiar in their fully orchestrated forms, but Mahler wrote versions for piano as well.

As performed by just two musicians, these songs are naturally more intimate, but not any smaller. Their focus can blaze with white heat; breathing more freely, the music can take on the expansiveness of an alpine vista. And Mahler’s painterly depictions are no less vivid, the piano chirping in “Ging heut’ morgen übers Feld” and storming in “In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus.”

Or perhaps this is just how the songs come off in the masterly interpretations of Mr. Gerhaher and Mr. Huber. Their partnership is a phenomenon not just for its longevity — three decades and counting — but also its peerless synchronicity. They seem to behave as a single instrument, sculpting exquisite phrases with the kind of finesse that comes only from mutual comfort and confidence.

No syllable or measure is left unconsidered. Yet their artistry isn’t mannered or overly studied; it’s cerebral — but casually so, lived-in and unshowy. Mr. Gerhaher’s sensitivity to text, at its most directly stated, can even reveal musicality within the German language itself.

There is operatic intensity in such command and restraint. It’s what has made his Amfortas in Wagner’s “Parsifal” unconventional yet arresting: searing clarity that scales down melodrama to something more rendingly human. And it’s what makes the rare outburst so shocking.

There is a holiness, too, in Mr. Gerhaher’s plain-spoken dignity and pillowy upper range. After “Kindertotenlieder,” he and Mr. Huber returned to the stage for bows three times before offering an encore, which wasn’t expected and didn’t seem possible after a work about the death of children.

But then it began: “Urlicht,” the fourth-movement song of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, stripped down and sublime. If “Kindertotenlieder” ended with laying children to rest, then this encore gave them to God.

Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber

Performed on Tuesday at Alice Tully Hall, Manhattan.

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