24 Jan 2014
Christoph Prégardien, Wigmore Hall
Christoph Prégardien has always been a master of creative, exciting ways with Lieder.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Christoph Prégardien has always been a master of creative, exciting ways with Lieder.
He and Michael Gees gave a recital at the Wigmore Hall, London, which showed how vigorous the Lieder tradition continues to be. Prégardien and Gees created a programme that illuminated the liveliness of the Romantic imagination. Nature spirits abound, and fairy tales and ghostly figures of legend. Lulled into fantasy, one might miss the hints of danger that lurk behind these charming dreamscapes. The Romantics were intrigued by the subconcious long before the language of psychology was coined.
The recital began with one of the most lyrical songs in the whole Lieder repertoire, Carl Loewe's Der Nöck (Op129/2 1857) to a poem by August Kopisch. A Nix, a male water sprite who plays his harp by a wild waterfall. Its waves hang suspended in mid air, the vapours forming a rainbow halo around the Nix. Circular figures in the piano part suggest tumbling waters. Prégardien breathed into the long vowel sounds so they rolled beautifully We could hear what the text means when it refers to a nightingale, silenced in awe. Suddenly the magic is broken when humans draw near. The waves roar, the trees stand tall, and the nightingale flees, until it's safe for the Nöck to reveal himself again. Prégardien and Gees paired Loewe's song with Franz Schubert.s Der Zwerg (D771, 1822) to a poem by Matthäus von Collin. A queen and a dwarf are alone on a boat on a lake. Love, murder and possible suicide haunt the idyll. The Id is released, violently, in a blissful setting.
Franz Liszt's Es war ein König in Thule> (S278/2 1856) sets a poem from Goethe's Faust. Schubert's setting is more folkloric, reflecting the innocence of Gretchen who sings in the saga. Liszt's setting is more elaborate. Lovely, falling diminuendos describe the way the King drinks one last time from his chalice, before throwing it "hinunter in die Flut". Perhaps the queen who gave him the chalice was herself a nature spirit who lived beneath the lake? Prégardien intoned the line "Trank nie einen Tropfen mehr" solemnly : the King has died.
Prégardien has championed the songs of Franz Lachner (1803-1890), who knew Schubert, Loewe, Schumann and Wagner, and worked in court circles in Munich, where he knew only too well what the Romantic imagination could do to real kings like Ludwig II. Lachner's Die Meerfrau was written in Vienna, comes from early in his career and sets a poem by Heinrich Heine. A water spirit appears and drags a mortal to a watery grave. The song comes from Lachner's magnum opus, Sängerfahrt op 33 (1831) where the are numerous songs on similar themes of supernatural seduction and death. Ironically, Lachner wrote the collection on the eve of his own marriage, dedicating it to his bride. One wonders what modern psychoanalysts might make of that. Prégardien and Gees also performed Lachner's Ein Traumbild from the same collection. Tjhe final strophe is particularly luscious: The cock crows at dawn, and the vampire seductress flees.
Prégardien and Gees also performed Liszt's Die Loreley (S273/2 1854-9), whose long prelude contains the Tristan motif in germ, before it was developed by Wagner. As Richard Stokes writes in his programme notes, it "begins with a leap of a diminished seventh : the voice however begins with a fourth ...and then soars a sixth - identical in harmonic terms with the piano's diminished sevenths". In the context of these feverish succubi, Hugo Wolf's Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt (1888) made an interesting contrast. On the way to his wedding, the Knight meets many temptations that almost throw him off course, including a mystery nursemaid who claims that her charge is his child. Yet it's quite a cheery song with cryptic in-jokes that refer to the music of Wolf's friend, the composer Karl Goldmark, who lent Wolf money, knowing he wouldn't be repaid.
Prégardien's unique timbre and ability to float legato has inspired several composers, most notably Wilhelm Killmayer (b 1927). Killmayer's Hölderlin Lieder were written for Peter Schreier and are, I think, the most exquisite songs of the last half of the last century. Prégardien has recorded them too. Killmayer wrote his Heine Lieder for Prégardien, setting 35 songs by Heine. Killmayer's songs don't imitate Schumann's. They engage with the meaning of Heine's texts in a highly original style, with pauses, and piano resonances that float in the air. The effect resembles speech, yet also inner contemplation. Killmayer revisits the poets of the past, and writes music for them in a new, refreshing way.
In this Wigmore Hall recital, Prégardien and Gees performed Killmayer's Schön-Rohtraut (2004). The poem is Eduard Mörike, from 1838. Rohtraut is King Ringang's daughter. She doesn't spin or sew, but hunts annd fishes like a man. Mörike was inspired by the strange sound of the names, which he found in an ancient book, but the princess could be a reincarnation of the wild and elusive "Peregrina" who might have led Mörike astray. The lines are simple and repetitive, which suits Killmayer's abstract, almost zen-like purity. As Rohtraut leads the boy into the woods, his excitement mounts. Killmayer's delicate, fluttering note sequences suggest a heart beating with nervous anticipation. We feel we are at one with the boy, as enthralled as he.
Michael Gees is himself a composer, and Prégardien has performed and recorded his songs several times. This time, we heard Gees's Der Zauberlehrling (2005) where he sets Goethe's poem about the sorcerer's apprentice who uses magic to wash the floor and conjures up a flood. Gees setting is delightful. Rolling, rumbling figures to suggest the rising waters, and a stiff march to suggest the legions of broomsticks. Syncopated rhythms and zany downbeats, used with great flair. The audience burst into spontaneous applause. Gees and Prégardien were taken by surprise. Gees was thrilled, and beamed with happiness. It's heart warming to see a composer get respect like that.
The recital ended with old favourites like Loewe's Edward (Op1/11818) Tom der Reimer (Op 135a 1860), Schumann's Belsazar (Op57 1840) and Wolf's Der Feuerreiter (1888). Schubert's Erlkönig made a rousing encore, Since Prégardien and Gees had done Loewe's Erlkönig (Op 1/23 1818) earlier in the evening, it was good to reflect on the differences between the two settings. Loewe's real answer to Schubert's Erlkönig is his Herr Oluf, which is another song of prenuptial anxiety, murder and mayhem, . Prégardien and Gees could be doing recitals like this over and over and not exhaust the Lieder repertoire.