15 Mar 2017
Christoph Prégardien and Julius Drake at the Wigmore Hall
The latest instalment of Wigmore Hall’s ambitious two-year project, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, was presented by German tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Julius Drake.
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The latest instalment of Wigmore Hall’s ambitious two-year project, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, was presented by German tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Julius Drake.
Prégardien and Drake’s November 2015 release Poetisches Tagebuch - which comprises lieder to poems by Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze (1789-1817), followed by settings of poems that are drawn together by their shared imagery of absence, aging, winter and death - received Grammy Award nomination for Best Classical Vocal Solo and received the German Critics Award in 2016. The programme presented at the Wigmore Hall essentially reprised this disc, with the addition of a single extra song in the second half of the recital.
The performers’ consummate musicianship and professionalism was evident throughout. Prégardien cuts a noble figure on stage, immaculately dressed, stylish but unshowy in manner - the embodiment of dignified poise. But, such self-composure, and the singer’s use of a score, at times distanced the tenor from the audience - I do not think that my location at the rear of the Hall was a factor, as I have not previously found this to be an impediment to strong, direct communication.
There were many musical compensations for the occasional absence of dramatic intensity, however, not least Prégardien’s even, dulcet tone and graceful phrasing. The musical details were unfailingly observed but articulated with subtlety. Naturally, the German singer’s diction is excellent, but at times he seemed satisfied to rely upon precise and careful enunciation to convey meaning, and did not use his voice to explore the inferences inherent in textual detail - the sounds and rhythms of the words. And, the soothing evenness, though alluring, can be a limitation: as the recital progressed I longed for more contrast of colour, dynamics and weight.
Technically assured, Prégardien demonstrated impressive vocal control, employing rubato and flexibility with confidence and discernment. He found the higher lying lines more challenging, however, and made more extensive use of the head-voice than I would have expected, with the result that at the top his tenor lacked roundness. Such ethereality may be a fine vehicle for embodying yearning and absence - frequent moods within these texts - but became rather monotonous and, when repeated, the expressive weight of such gestures diminished.
Also, while I admit that it’s a matter of personal preference, I found that the tempi adopted in several songs was a little on the slow side. In the slower lieder there was a danger that unhurried probing or reflective quietude would lapse into dreamy oblivion, and the more agitated items did not acquire the compelling momentum that the diverse, heightened and unpredictable emotions of their dramatic narratives demand.
Perhaps it’s just the case that I prefer the extreme anguish that Ian Bostridge brings to these lieder, or the probing intensity of Mark Padmore. And, it should be noted that Julius Drake was alert to every nuance and suggestion in the piano parts, always astonishing sensitive in supporting Prégardien but also colouring and dramatizing.
Schubert’s nine settings of poems by Ernst Schulze were composed shortly before Winterreise (1827). They form a quasi-cycle of loss and obsessive longing; indeed, when including the songs in Vol.18 of Hyperion’s Complete Schubert Edition, pianist Graham Johnson proposed titling them as a group,Auf den wilden Wegen. The songs have their origin in Schulze’s unrequited passion for two sisters, Cäcilie (who died of tuberculosis) and Adelheid Tychsen. His ‘poetic imaginings’ were brought together in Schulze’s Poetisches Tagebuch, before he himself died of tuberculosis at the age of 28.
Schubert’s Schulze settings are not his best-known lieder, but the first song, ‘Auf der Bruck’ (On the bridge) is one of two - the other being ‘Im Frühling’ - which appear frequently on recital programmes. Drake’s opening bars were stirring and energised. His control and crafting of the dynamic contrasts - the resonant octaves in the bass veer wildly from loud to soft, while fully voiced, quiet chords reiterate in the right-hand - created urgency and agitation. These turned to excitement in the second stanza, as Prégardien imagined the wondrous sights to be viewed from the saddle of his galloping horse, and Drake’s sparkling trill underpinned his ‘joy’.
The evenness of Prégardien’s tenor was an asset in ‘Der liebliche Stern’ (The lovely star), creating a sense of the poet-speaker’s distance from the heavens above, the calm broken only by the slightest enrichening: ‘So wird mir von Wohl und Wehe’ (weal and woe trouble my heart). The major-minor fluctuations of ‘Im Walde’ (D834) (In the forest) brought unrest to the poet-speaker’s journeying and, without ever noticeably quickening the tempo the performers evoked an accelerating force which pushed the frustrated traveller onwards in search of a never-to-be-regained love. Prégardien showed sensitivity to the text here, in the repetition of ‘nimmer’ - ‘Wohl hing ich nimmer so an euch!’ (I never drew so close to you) - and in the subsequent ‘Um Mitternacht’, where his soft head-voice captured the radiance of the night stars which sparkled in Drake’s beautifully delicate accompaniment. Later, an injection of strength conveyed the poet-speaker’s pride and self-confidence as he prepared to brave any storm or tempest to see his beloved’s image once again.
Schulze, recognising that his obsession was pathological, occasionally issued a poetic cry for ‘courage’, and ‘Lebensmut’ calls for a renewal of youthful strength - a bold defiance of mental frailty which Drake’s springing rhythmic counter-forces duly delivered, confirming the voice’s firm assertion ‘O, wie dringt das junge Leben/Kräftig mir durch Sinn und Herz! (How vigorously young life pulses through my mind and heart!). The piano’s insouciant postlude suggested, however, that the poet-speaker’s confidence was self-deceiving. ‘Lebensmut’ was written one day after ‘Im Frühling’, and one cannot think of a greater contrast than between the former’s surging vigour and the latter’s wistful introspection. Indeed, initially I found ‘Im Frühling’ almost too meditative, in danger of slipping into a dream in which the gleams of spring that the poet describes would lose substance and presence. But, the unusual harmonies which accompany the poet-speaker’s thoughts of strife and sorrowful solitude created greater movement towards the end of the lied, making place and mood more palpable.
The ‘deep sorrow’ of ‘Tiefes Leid’ was followed by the ‘dark delusions’ (‘dunklen Wahn’) of ‘Über Wildemann’ but in the latter Prégardien’s tenor had neither the strength nor range of colour to suggest a Byronic embracing of the roaring winds and wintry snow such as characterises Schulze’s frenzied poem. Moreover, prudence perhaps led Prégardien to pull back from the slightly faster tempo that might have conjured the desperate urgency of the vocal lines as the phrases crescendo to their climactic peaks.
The three Rückert settings that opened the second half of the recital introduced a fresh and absorbing complexity. ‘Daß sie hier gewesen’ (That she was here) demonstrated the sheer sweetness of Prégardien’s tenor, evoking the fragrant scents with which the wind teases the poet-speaker. In ‘Greisengesang’ (Old man’s song) the singer used the text more effectively and moved well between registers. The poignant simplicity of Drake’s introduction to ‘Du bist die Ruh’ captured the poem’s blend of peace and longing. Prégardien shaped the melody with poise and constancy, but, while the voice was secure at the challenging rise in the final stanza, ‘Dies Augenzelt/Von deinem Glanz/Allein erhellt’ (This temple of my eyes is lit by your radiance along), he held back from delivering the crescendo of ardour for which Schubert asks.
At this point, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ interrupted the sequence of recorded Poetisches Tagebuch songs, following almost segue; were Drake and Prégardien suggesting that the maiden summoned by the poet-speaker in ‘Du bist die Ruh’ rejects her obsessive admirer, ‘Vorüber! Ach, vorüber!/ Geh, wilder Knochenmann!’ (Away! Ah, away! Away, fierce man of bones!’), or that he will lose her to Death?
After the lingering pathos of these opening songs, the surging ripples of ‘Im Walde’ (D708) were a welcome rush of vigour and the narrative structure of this lied was well articulated. ‘Nacht und Träume’ was fittingly reverential and pensive, but again the slow tempo and Prégardien’s prioritising of melodic lyricism lessened the impact of the inferences carried by the sounds of the words themselves. The tenor was an engaging story-teller in ‘Fischerweise’ but this brief window of lightness was rapidly pushed aside by the angry despair of the grave-digger in ‘Totengräbers Heimweh’ (Gravedigger’s longing) - a powerful monologue of existential yearning. The final lied, ‘Winterabend’ (The winter evening), seemed to return us to the spirit of Schulze’s fervent poet-speaker, assured that he will attain his heart’s desire and thus content to ‘Denk’an sie, an das Glück der Minne,/ Seufze still, und sinne und sinne’ (Think of her and love’s happiness, sigh in silence, and muse and muse).
This was not a lieder recital to leave one feeling emotionally wrought, having shared the pain and wretchedness of Schubert’s lovers and wanderers, but it was a recital to prompt reflection. Returning home, my conversation with my German-speaking guest turned to diverse concerns: the skill with which Rückert manipulates language; the disturbing image of the grave-digger’s self-destructive denial of the world; the German concept of Bildung - the cultivation of the ‘self’. So, this was a recital to inspire one to muse.
Christoph Prégardien (tenor), Julius Drake (piano)
Franz Schubert: ‘Auf der Brücke’ D853, ‘Der liebliche’ Stern D861, ‘Im Walde’ D834, ‘Um Mitternacht’ D862, ‘Lebensmut’ D883, ‘Im Frühling’ D882, ‘An mein Herz’ D860, ‘Tiefes Leid’ D876, ‘Über Wildemann’ D884, ‘Dass sie hier gewesen’ D775, ‘Greisengesang’ D778, ‘Du bist die Ruh’ D776, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ D531, ‘Im Walde’ D708, ‘Nacht und Träume’ D827, ‘Fischerweise’ D881, ‘Totengräbers Heimweh’ D842, ‘Der Winterabend’ D938.
Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 14th March 2017.