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Christoph Prégardien [Photo © Marco Borggreve]
25 Jan 2012

Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall

Hugo Wolf is a hard sell. Technical expertise isn't enough. The secret to singing Wolf is expressing the unique personality in each song. Wolf, perhaps more than any other composer, creates miniatures that open out into mini-operas when performed well.

Hugo Wolf Songs

Christoph Prégardien, Anna Lucia Richter, Julius Drake. Wigmore Hall, London

Above: Christoph Prégardien [Photo © Marco Borggreve]


Christoph Prégardien started off the Wigmore Hall’s new series of Hugo Wolf Songbooks with Lieder to texts by Mörike and Goethe. Prégardien is one of the best Wolf singers around, with the right combination of timbre and individuality. At his best, he’s brilliant. For whatever reason, on this occasion, he wasn’t his usual self, the voice sounding tired and occluded. Nonetheless, he has years of experience to fall back on. Intelligent phrasing, the right emphases in the right places, accurate intonation. Yet not the luminous, transcendent tones he’s capable of, which lift his performance way above most everyone else. Still, proof that mastery of technique pulls one through. His Feuerreiter was suitably dramatic, though not quite at the demonic level he and some can reach. But he brought real drama to Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt, a strophic ballad that can fall flat in the wrong hands (voice). In Sankt Nepomuks Vorabend, one could hear glimmers of Prégardien’s natural translucence, reflecting his youth as a choirboy. “Lichtlein, schwimmen auf dem Strom”

Listen to Prégardien’s most recent recording of Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch which came out in Spring 2011 on the small label Channel Classics. The soprano on that disc was Julia Kleiter, a fellow Limburger, good for the ensemble work so crucial to the Italian Songbook. But the Mörike and Goethe are much more sharply defined and need great personality. When we heard that Kelier was being replaced ar minimal notice by a singer born in 1990, our hearts dropped. What could any singer that young bring to Hugo Wolf?

Yet Anna Lucia Richter turned out to be the surprise of the evening. Obviously someone aged 21 isn’t going to sound polished but Richter turned her youth to advantage. In Nixe Binsefuß, bright, almost staccato notes sparkle like sharp icicles. But this Nixe is a water sprite with attitude who would like to slash the fisherman’s nets and liberate the fish. Richter’s voice is pure, but has a wild edge totally in keeping with the Nixe’s free spirited anarchy. Then, when she sings about the fisherman’s daughter, her voice warms. Icicles no more! And so the Nixe flies away as the day breaks.

It’s difficult to combine the technical demands of Elfenlied with a true sense of innocence, but Richter manages well. Her elf is genuinely naïve and she describes his accident with droll humour. Similarly, Richter’s Begegnung is turbulent, like the wind and the emotions the young girl experiences. I don’t know how long Richter had to prepare, as the programme was printed before she was hired, but she threw herself into the songs with unselfconscious enthusiasm, so they come over extremely well.

No-one at Richter’s age, or even ten years older, is going to have finesse, but that will come with experience. It’s much better that a singer starts out with enthusiasm, and engages with what she sings, as Richter does. Her voice has colour and range, so she has plenty of potential. Definitely someone to follow. She has dramatic instincts, leaping into some songs in the second part of the programme as an opera singer might, so she will have many options. She’s still studying at the Cologne Conservatory but is scheduled to join the company of the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf from 2012-13. She’s also worked with Prégardien before and recorded Schumann with him.

“We’d better give the poor girl some help” said Julius Drake before the encore (a Mendelssohn duet). He played gloriously, but part of a song pianist’s brief is to work with singers, especially the young.

Anne Ozorio

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