24 Jan 2014
Christoph Prégardien, Wigmore Hall
Christoph Prégardien has always been a master of creative, exciting ways with Lieder.
On August 1, 2015, Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Cold Mountain, a brand new opera composed by Pulizer Prize and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon.
Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
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.