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19 Apr 2010

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‘Come sweet death … for I am weary of the world’: thus, the opening lines of Bach’s aria, ‘Komm Süßer Tod’, from the Schemelli Liederbuch, led us into the realms of the afterlife, and encapsulated the central sentiment of this evening of songs meditating on, and calling for, release from toilsome human cares.

Between Life and Death: Songs and Arias

Christoph Prégardien, tenor; Michael Gees, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Friday 16 April, 2010.

Above: Christoph Prégardien


In the programme notes, Christoph Prégardien calls for a more realistic and trusting attitude towards death: “Today death has been pushed out of our life almost completely … this is the reason we have compiled our programme: so that people become a little more aware that death is always in our midst. That we cannot ignore it, but have to accept it.” If one feared that this programme — comprising a striking variety of styles and attitudes — ranging from the baroque certainties of Bach to the dark dreaming of the Romantics, from the hinteryears’ resignation of Brahms and Mahler to the existential Gothic terrors of Loewe and Weber — would be a melancholy and bleak affair, such concerns were allayed by Prégardien and his pianist, Michael Gees, for their commitment, consistency and composure throughout this recital was in itself consoling and reassuring. Through this meticulously constructed sequence of lyric songs, narrative ballads and operatic melodramas which ensued, the performers (who have spent two years selecting the songs which best portray man’s ‘quest for the infinite’) offered a unified and supremely controlled exploration of contrasting psychologies, situations and dramas of human existence.

Prégardien immediately established a mood of confident certainty in Bach’s aforementioned aria; his total control of line and nuance, complemented by a warm, secure tone, perfectly conveying the unshakeable convictions of the baroque age. The veiled quality of the second verse, delicately ornamented by the piano, suggested the composer’s awe and love in the face of the majesty of heaven; indeed, one of Prégardien’s most absorbing qualities is the gentle warmth of his pianissimo utterances — in particular, his tender but tangible mezza voce—which never stray into affectation or whimsy.

The Romantics had a very different relationship with death: and following such certainty of salvation came spiritual transcendence, in the form of Mahler’s ‘Urlicht’ (‘Primordial Light’) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and symbolised by the quiet clarity of Prégardien’s pianissimo floating octave arcs which suggest the desire for heavenly rest, where God ‘will light my way to eternal blessed life’.

For the wanderers who populate the songs of Schumann and Schubert, death is often not a welcome meeting with one’s God, but rather a blessed release from the unrequited torments of earthly love. Schubert’s ‘Schwanengesang’ (‘Swan Song’) allowed us to appreciate the rich baritonal range of Prégardien’s voice, while ‘Auflösung’ (‘Dissolution’) offered Gees the opportunity to explore turbulent realms in disturbing, deep arpeggio sweeps, underpinning the earnest colourings in the vocal line with which the tenor emphasised the ‘fires of rapture’ and bitter disappointment of the protagonist. ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud’!’ (‘Die, love and joy!’) by Robert Schumann, tells of a young man’s anguish as his loved one chooses the hand of Christ over his own mortal hand; here Prégardien and Gees impressively inhabited the speaker’s spirit: the flowing regularity of the accompaniment disrupted by surprising modulations; the destruction of dreams conveyed by poignant contrasts between upper and lower registers; rubatos and syncopations revealing the painful yearning and despair of the speaker.

In contrast, Brahms’s ‘Feldeinsamkeit’ (‘Alone in the Fields’) presents a more soothing acceptance of human mortality. However, the same composer’s’ ‘Wie rafft ich mich auf in der Nacht’ (‘How I leapt up in the night’) reminds us that such tranquillity is the preserve of those who are unburdened by guilt — and here the piano and voice were true partners in the drama, for although Prégardien tenderly reassured us with a vision of the white clouds serenely passing across the ‘deep blue, like lovely silent dreams’ (‘Durchs tiefe Blau, wie schöne stille Träume’), Gees’s between-verse paraphrases powerfully conveyed the torment of the troubled soul. The enlarged dramatic canvas in this song initiated a passionate sequence which closed the first half, in which the sheer terror and ‘nothingness’ present in Loewe’s ‘Edward’ and Max’s recitative and aria from Weber’s Der Freischütz, which followed on without a breath, brutally swept aside the certitudes of salvation with which we had begun. Gees relished the challenge of capturing the orchestral sound-scape, producing a kaleidoscope of textures and timbres; and while Prégardien powerfully conveyed the tense anger of the protagonists, the more focused context, and his own intense concentrated delivery, prevented these Gothic dramas from straying into melodrama or bombast.

In the second half of the recital the figure of Death itself stepped onto the stage, summoned perhaps by the piano’s tolling invitation in the introduction to Hugo Wolf’s ‘Denk es, I Seele!’ (‘O soul, remember!). At first, all was calm and reassuring; Gees describes Wolf’s setting of Goethe, ‘Anakreon’s Grab’ (‘Anacreon’s Grave’) as ‘the heavy made light, in the simplicity of a serenade’ — and indeed, his gentle piano postlude echoed the touching sweetness of Prégardien’s evocation of the ‘turtle-dove calls, where the cricket rejoices’. Similarly, in ‘Der Jüngling under der Tod’ (‘The youth and death’) and ‘Das Tod und das Mädchen’ (‘Death and the Maiden’), Schubert envisages Death as an authoritative but gentle presence; but here the deep baritonal monotone of Prégardien’s enticement, ‘Give me your hand, you lovely, tender creature’’ inferred the ominous gravity of the invitation, and perhaps suggested the repressed violence which was abruptly released in Loewe’s ‘Erlkönig’ (‘The Erlking’). In Loewe’s dark, disturbing song, the performers enacted a truly Gothic visitation by a malevolent force which snatches life from its powerless victim: the final lines, describing the swift homeward journey of a bereaved father, his child ‘dead in his arms’, were simultaneously emotively nuanced in detail and chillingly dispassionate in stance.

Another dramatic triptych closed the second half. An impassioned rendering of Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin was followed by Schubert’s ‘Kreiger’s Ahnung’ (‘Warrior’s foreboding’). The emotional tension of the latter was poignantly revealed: for while the dead warrior yearns for the imagined comfort of his lover’s arms—his earnest conviction ably conveyed by the deep resonances of Prégardien’s lower range — Gees, hesitantly manipulating the cadences, tellingly emphasising the final ponderous rhythms, intimated the ambiguity which underlies the apparent certitudes of the text’s conclusion. It was Mahler who was allotted the final word: ‘Revelge’ (‘Reveille’) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn presents a desperate charge to an end which brings no redemption, transcendence or consolation — in the words of Gees, ‘This is real death, when no one recognises you any more’.

Twenty-two visions of death might seem a dispiriting and emotionally exhausting concept. But the masterful control of pace and mood, colour and nuance exhibited here by Prégardien and Gees, made this an evening to rejoice in human creativity and artistry, not to despair at its transience.

Claire Seymour

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