24 Jan 2014
Christoph Prégardien, Wigmore Hall
Christoph Prégardien has always been a master of creative, exciting ways with Lieder.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
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.