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Performances

Christoph Prégardien [Photo © Marco Borggreve]
18 Jul 2012

Christoph Prégardien, Wigmore Hall

Seriousness, elegance and insight characterised this recital of nineteenth-century German song in which Christoph Prégardien and his accompanist, Julius Drake, conducted a moving musical dialogue, perfectly matching each other in the depiction of unbending obsession and unfulfilled aspiration.

Christoph Prégardien, tenor; Julius Drake, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 17 July 2012.

Above: Christoph Prégardien [Photo © Marco Borggreve]

 

The sequence had been carefully chosen to form a circular progression of emotions, from pained lamentation to delusory hope, returning to bittersweet despair; and the songs were delivered with a sure sense of musical relationships and overall form to create a naturally flowing narrative and musical whole.

Drake’s role in shaping the pace and overall form was not inconsiderable. This was apparent from the opening bars of Schubert’s graveside lament, ‘Tiefes Lied’ (‘Deep Sorrow’), in which the squalling roars of wind which gust through the piano texture, suggesting the speaker’s turbulent soul, were tempered by soothing diminuendos bringing calm at the end of each verse.

The six texts by the tormented, unstable Ernst Konrad Schulze explore the poet’s unrequited passion for two sisters, Adelheid and Cäcilie Tyshcen; they may employ many a poetic cliché to depict Schulze’s self-absorbed longing and delusions, but Schubert’s responses are often anything but predictable.

Roaring winds also burst “across the pine slopes” in ‘Über Wildemann’ (‘Over-looking Wildemann’), the voice now in octaves with the bass, ominously dark and suggesting a repressed violence within. Desperation turns to rueful consolation, as the poet regards the beauty of the mountain landscape, and Drake and Prégardien shaped a thrilling climax, the tenor’s forthright, ringing line ecstatically declaring his fleeting elation, “O love, O love,/ O breath of May!”

The contrast with the tenor’s soft, dreamy tone at the conclusion of the preceding ‘Um Mitternacht’ (‘At Midnight’) — as the singer calls for the “Sweet echo” of his beloved’s words to lull his head to gentle rest” — was startling, and made still more dramatic by the unceasing movement from Drake’s tender postlude into the opening bars of the next song. Rhythmic nuance was also used to expressive effect, the apparent simplicity of the sentiments and idiom deepened by the subtle rhythmic variations of the main melodic motif, shared by voice and piano, at times calm and stable, then enlivened, even agitated.

Even the poetic limitations of ‘An mein Herz’ (‘To my heart’) were overcome by Drake’s fierce chain of restless ostinato chords, first loud then soft, with major and minor tonalities interchanging, to suggest the futility of Romantic obsession. Initially echoing this reckless agitation, the singer finally turns to a quieter introspection, and here Prégardien employed a wonderful half-voice to suggest brief, if illusory, solace — “Let us bravely endure/ as long as tears still flow”.

The Schulze texts concluded with ‘Auf der Brücke’ (‘On the bridge’), Drake’s moto perpetuo and a sequential rising motif in left hand providing forward momentum as the poet-speaker’s horse gallops “briskly on without restraint”, away from his beloved, through darkness towards the “bright eye of longing”. With an exhilarated tone, Prégardien conveyed the protagonist’s initial bold confidence, before doubt entered and a momentary shadow veiled the close.

Schumann’s settings of Nikolaus Lenau deepened the melancholic mood still further, only the opening ‘Lied eines Schmiedes’ (‘Blacksmith’s song’) portraying peace and contentment; here, Drake conjured a suitable brassy tone to evoke both the clang of the anvil and the rhythms of the “little steed’s” journey, while Prégardien brought a soft sweetness to the peaceful closing ruminations.

The control and modulation of sentiment which both performers achieved was striking, both between and within songs, perhaps most remarkably in ‘Requiem’, where Prégardien’s dramatic projection of the poet’s elation, “when he beholds his Lord/ in Heavenly glory”, faded moments later to a more subdued quietude as he hears the “lovely song” of the angel’s harps.

Most affecting of the Lenau songs were ‘Meine Rose’ (‘My rose’) and ‘Der schwere Abend’ (‘The oppressive evening’). In the former, Schumann’s doleful chromaticisms and appoggiaturas, and unpredictable harmonic progressions, prompted thoughtful and deeply expressive responses from singer and pianist. The sudden change of harmonic direction at the close of the first stanza of ‘Meine Rose’ — evoking the sombre mysteries of the ‘deep, dark well’ from which the poet draws water to revive the waning flower — were enhanced by Drake’s eloquent shaping of the piano’s falling motif; similarly, Prégardien’s restrained, introspection deepened the poignant longing of the repetition of the opening verse.

The Eb Minor tonality, dark register and repetitive circular motif of ‘Der schwere Abend’ conveyed the brooding insularity of the poet’s (and perhaps the composer’s) depression, punctuated only by the singer’s rhetorical exclamations. The culminating angry cry, “I wished us both dead/ in the anguish of my heart”, and the sustained tolling of the final piano chord, left one in no doubt of the self-destructive fury and despair of the poet-speaker.

After the interval came Dichterliebe. The performers moved swiftly from song to song, creating excitement and energy but also intimacy. Prégardien’s attention to the details of the text was superb, from the fragile dissolution of the voice in the final lines of each stanza in the opening ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ (‘In the wondrous month of May’), to the pointing of individual words. Thus a rich, earnest timbre highlighted the unique perfection of she who is “small, fine, pure and rare” (“Die Kleine, die Feine, die Reine, die Eine”) in ‘Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube’ (‘Rose, Lily, Dove’); while the tenor’s dark cloudy tone at the conclusion of ‘When ich in deine Augen seh’ (‘When I look into your eyes’), underpinned by the following tumbling piano gestures, conveyed the poet’s torment: “but when you say: I love you!/ I must weep bitter tears.”

Prégardien revealed a round baritonal warmth in ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’ (‘In the Rhine, the holy river’) to evoke his sincere fervour, as sacred and sexual love coalesce - the eyes, lips and cheeks of the cathedral’s beloved Lady becoming “the image of my love’s”. A simple clarity, complemented by Drake’s sparse accompaniment, characterised “Hör ich das Kiedchen klingen” (‘When I hear the little song’), perfectly capturing the unaffected nature of the remembered song, and the unmovable, unalleviated grief which ultimately erupts in a profound piano postlude.

The performers’ focus and control never wavered, but in ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’ (‘I wept in my dreams’) heights of expressive affect were reached. Nearing the end of the cycle, after a consequential pause Prégardien restrainedly commenced the unaccompanied opening line, the steadily controlled monotone darkened by a semitonal ‘sob’, the poet’s almost suffocating grief intimated by Drake’s dry punctuating chords. The repetitions of the refrain and the confined contours of the almost drone-like melodic line stress the self-consuming nature of the poet’s obsession; and the piano languorously echoed the voice in the interlude between stanzas two and three, Drake movingly heightening the repeating plagal cadences, thereby weakening any hint of solace that the poet’s dream of continuing love may offer. In the final stanza, Prégardien allowed the vocal line to dissolve, his fragmented repetitions of a single pitch disturbed by restless dissonant harmony.

Self-regarding obsession, disillusionment and self-delusion may have remained unrelieved at the end of this recital, but such an intelligent interpretation by a perfectly attuned partnership, performing with such eloquent beauty, was more than enough recompense.

Claire Seymour


Programme:

Schubert

Tiefes Leid (Im Jänner 1817)
An mein Herz
Um Mitternacht
Über Wildemann
Im Frühling
Auf der Brücke

Schumann

Lied eines Schmiedes
Meine Rose
Kommen und Scheiden
Die Sennin
Einsamkeit
Der schwere Abend
Requiem
Dichterliebe

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