Archive for July 2012

Photos of Schubertiade tour

July 20, 2012

I used Picasa to post some photos of our beautiful hikes in the Bregenzerwald in conjunction with the Schubertiade.  There are five albums of 5 to 15 photos each, one for each hike, with space for comments on the albums and on individual photos.  The links are:

 

Day 1 (Bezau)

Day 2 (Eidelweisshütte)

Day 3 (Schnepfegg)

Day 4 (Sieben Hügel, near Damüls)

Day 5 (Auer Ried)

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Two Winterreises: Gerald Finley/Julius Drake and Florian Boesch/Malcolm Martineau

July 20, 2012

Gerald Finley and Julius Drake, June 22, 2012, Angelika-Kauffmann-Saal, Schwarzenberg, Austria

Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau, June 24, 2012, Tonhalle, Zurich, Switzerland

Some years ago, I participated in a class for singers and pianists  where we studied Schubert’s great song cycle Winterreise, performing among us the entire cycle one afternoon (my four songs were “Auf dem Flusse”, “Frühlingstraum”, “Letzte Hoffnung”, and “Der Leiermann”).  After the performance, an audience member commented on how challenging it had been to sit through a set of songs that were “all about being depressed”.  While I could see her point, one of my discoveries during the course of the class had been just how varied the songs actually are as the protagonist makes the physical and emotional journey that ends so ambiguously.  Sadness, anger, bitterness, numbness, hope, despair, loneliness, and misanthropic resentment are only some of the emotions that can find expression in these 24 songs, and it is up to the performing artists to make decisions about what path the journey will take.   The juxtaposition of the Schwarzenberg Schubertiade with the Zürich Festspiele allowed us to hear two very different interpretations within 48 hours of each other, as our tour’s final Schubertiade recital featured Gerald Finley and Julius Drake in their second ever performance of the cycle (the first had taken place a few days earlier in Brussels, and their third would follow shortly in London).  After the tour returned to London the next day, we remained in Zürich for two days, allowing us to catch the rare Hindemith opera Mathis der Maler  the first evening, and then to hear Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau’s interpretation of Winterreise.

It took me a while to settle in to Finley and Drake’s performance, as Drake’s highly percussive approach to the accompaniment seemed at odds with Finley’s beautifully warm, legato vocal line with occasional hollow-sounding pianissimos, and highly internalized dramatic presentation (folded hands, frequently  closed eyes, a very sad facial experession  at the end of “Gute Nacht”).  I think now that the piano represented a suppressed emotional turmoil as the singer’s visible emotions essentially ranged from sad to sadder.  The drama picked up at the end of “Auf dem Flusse”, where the persona dares to look beneath his own frozen exterior to see a raging torrent of emotion.  But the torrent flowed remarkably evenly.  Dynamic changes, and movements through the registers were always smooth, admirably realizing the ideals of classical vocal production.  But I confess I was having some trouble getting a real sense of the persona’s attitude.

There are several songs where there are opportunities to move outside the “sad  to sadder” orbit; “Frühlingstraum” offers a range of attitudes as it moves between the happiness of dream and the bleakness of reality, with a sense that the forces of nature mock the dreamer—does he join in the self-mockery, or recoil from it?  Likewise, “Im Dorfe” replays the “Gute Nacht” scene of the wanderer hearing snarling dogs as he passes through a town where others are sleeping—is he bitter or sardonic about the dreams, or simply alienated from them?  In both cases, Finley’s choice appeared to remain within the “sad and alone” approach, or, I should say, expressed but did not emphasize the mood shifts inherent in the music.  They also played up some mood shifts between songs by singing some without pause: the rage of “Der stürmische Morgen” giving way immediately to the wistfulness of “Tauschung”, and the chorale-like beauty with which the persona expresses his final loss of faith in “Die Nebensonnen” leading directly into the spare bleakness of “Der Leiermann”.

After a series of recitals where the singers had kept copies of the texts at hand, it was a welcome change that Finley performed Winterreise resolutely from memory.  He also took an interesting approach to the problem of preserving his voice and energy through a program that runs well over an hour without a break.  At the end of the twelfth song, “Einsamkeit”, he retreated behind the acoustical background on the stage (where we had seen a stagehand deposit a bottle of water before the program started), while Drake remained at the piano for a minute or two.   As soon as Finley re-emerged, Drake began the energetic opening of “Die Post” as Finley walked back to his station beside the piano.

Having heard this very beautiful performance that left me feeling not quite as moved as I had hoped to be, I decided to take the opportunity offered by the Zürich Festspiele to hear Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau approach the same song cycle two nights later.  From Boesch’s recital with Roger Vignoles in Vancouver in February, I knew that there was likely to be more emphasis on the drama than concern about preserving the beauty of the music.  And indeed this was the case.  The notes I scribbled on the Finley program were generally comments on beautifully executed lines; here many of my notes delineated emotions: nostalgic, tender, wistful (all within “Gute Nacht”), from “very angry” to “seething” in “Die Wetterfahne”.  “Der Lindenbaum” began as a matter-of-fact description of the tree by the well, and his youthful dreams beside it.  After a longer-than-usual pause, the piano took up the “rustling leaves” theme in the minor key, and, in Boesch’s voice, the tree’s invitation to “come here to me” sounded positively eerie.  By the time we had heard in close succession “Wasserflut” and “Auf dem Flusse”, with mood shifts from quiet to loudly raging, I was looking at Boesch’s closely cropped head and getting images of the emotionally disturbed loners in our society who pick up a gun and kill family members and then themselves.  But there were still moments of great beauty: the legato declamation of “Irrlicht”,  the deep tenderness when he asks whether nature is mocking him in “Frühlingstraum”,  the way in which he made the skip up on “Wein” at  the end of “Letzte Hoffnung” sound like a sob, the wistfulness  in describing the dreaming villagers in “Im Dorfe”. I have to say that, throughout the performance, there was never a moment when I wasn’t wondering what the artists would do next.  Martineau threw in some surprises of his own:  eschewing the invitation to create a magic rustling of leaves in the opening of “Der Lindenbaum”, pausing in some unusual places to underscore a change of mood or to let something sink in, rolling the piano fiercely at the end of “Frühlingstraum.”

As the memory of the lost love was left behind and we journeyed further into bleak alienation, the voice became softer, “Das Wirtshaus” very peaceful, followed by a highly internal moment when Boesch stared at the floor, facing his decision to keep wandering, seeking energy to do so in the denial-fueled bravado of “Mut”, culminating in a very bitter delivery of the unsatisfying statement that “if there is no God on earth, then we must be gods ourselves.”  “Die Nebensonnen” was a dynamic descent from a mezzo-forte remembrance of staring at the three suns to a very soft lament that two of them have set, continuing without break into a dynamically static delivery of “Der Leiermann”, the expression coming from a slight tenuto on the highest pitches of the verses, broken only by a loud penultimate piano line.

The strong collaboration between the singer and pianist was affirmed by their embrace following the pause of silence before the applause, as well as by Boesch’s vigorous pointing toward Martineau as they took their bows on the fourth curtain call.  Afterward, when the artists emerged to sign copies of their Winterreise CD, Boesch was insistent that he not start without Martineau, who had drifted off to talk to someone he knew from the audience.   I have held off on listening to the copy of the CD that I bought that evening so that I would be reviewing the actual performance I saw, rather than something reconstructed from the CD, which, as I gather from an online review, was closely miked and allowed for some very intimate singing that might not carry in a hall.  If that is the case, the artists had certainly adjusted their performance to suit the Tonhalle’s Kleiner Saal, as there was only one place in “Rast” where a few soft notes in a rising vocal phrase were lost in the piano.  I am looking forward now to hearing the studio version.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christoph Prégardien and Michael Gees in recital at Schwarzenberg, Austria, June 21, 2012

July 10, 2012

This recital was really fun to attend.  I have admired a number of Prégardien’s recordings, as well as a DVD of this team performing Die Schöne Müllerin, but I had never attended a live performance, so I expected to enjoy this fourth vocal recital on our Schubertiade tour, and I was not disappointed.  The program was a collection of Goethe settings, the first half all by Schubert, and the second half comprising songs by Beethoven, Loewe, Liszt, Wolf, and Grieg with a return to Schubert at the end for “Wanderers Nachtlied II”.

The start of a Schubertiade program is signaled when a gentleman in a suit comes onto the stage to remove the sign reminding us to turn off our cell phones, after gesturing with it to make sure it has caught our attention.  Then the artists take the stage to the applause of the audience.  Nothing unusual there, and I had grown used to the rhythm of this ritual after seeing Mark Padmore, Christian Gerhaher and Bernarda Fink enter in their individual artist personae.  But there was a difference with Prégardien, whose  commanding presence, trimly tailored suit and purposeful energy in taking the stage felt like that of CEO about to give a keynote address, accompanied by the shorter, more fanciful (but equally significant) figure of Michael Gees in Romantic topcoat, spectacles, and greying ponytail.

Prégardien has been performing for several decades, and his voice has lost a little of its youthful glow, but he certainly knows how to present a song dramatically.  While his gestures were not specific, they betrayed no tension, were clearly related to the music and always reinforced the song rather than detracting from it.  Meanwhile, Gees at the piano was a show in himself, playing beautifully articulated figures often with his head cocked to one side, his mouth open, and his eyes perhaps even closed, as if he were literally playing this music, with full sensitivity and artistry, in his sleep (or at least in a rhapsodic dream).   His very articulated accompaniment to “Rastlose Liebe”, the restless effect of coach wheels in “An Schwager Kronos”, continued at a slower (wandering?) pace in “An die Türen will ich schleichen”, gave way to the gentleness of Schubert’s first setting of “An den Mond”.  Meanwhile, Prégardien was holding his own, with a technique that kept the vowels inside his mouth more than I would have thought could be done without constraining the tone (although it got a bit stuck in a few places).  “Ganymed” was particularly satisfying, with Prégardien always spot on the pitches and rhythms, radiating an air of joyous expectation during the piano interludes.

The second half of the program paralleled the first to some degree, opening with Liszt’s setting of “Freudvoll und Leidvoll” and  later we heard his second version of “Wanderers Nachtlied I”, which had  a beseeching quality written into the final “komm, ach komm” that had been missing in the artists’ performance of the Schubert version.  Schubert’s “Ganymed” from the first half was balanced by Wolf’s equally fine setting, Wolf being further represented by “Phänomen” and “Blumengruß”.  A particularly lovely addition was Grieg’s  “Zur Rosenzeit”, whose nostalgic waltztime melody was beautifully brought out by Gees.  (This haunting song, from the Opus 48 set of German lieder, may figure in a recital I’m considering, to be entitled “What I did on my Summer Vacation”).  And I was particularly gratified to hear two songs by Carl Loewe, including the attractive “Lynceus, der Türmer” from Faust, Part II, and Loewe’s dramatic ballad setting of “Erlkönig”, which Richard Wigmore had discussed in the tour lecture beforehand, telling us that Wagner, among others, preferred Loewe’s setting to that of Schubert.  Loewe is best known today for his dramatic ballads, which he himself would perform self-accompanied, acting out the different characters, to produce “one-man mini-operas”.  This text by Goethe was admirably suited to this treatment, as Prégardien demonstrated in his presentation of the song.

As had been the case with Christian Gerhaher and Bernarda Fink, Prégardien had a music stand at his side, with copies of the texts, which he was able to consult occasionally without breaking the dramatic concentration.  The necessity for this aid was shown in the first of the three encores, Philine’s  “Singet nicht in Trauertone” from Schumann’s collection of Wilhelm Meister lieder.  The encores had apparently not been included on the stand, because Prégardien did indeed forget the words to one of the verses, to which Gees cheerfully prompted him from the piano and the song continued without interruption.  This illustration of the respectful and highly comfortable relationship between Prégardien and Gees, and indeed between the artists and  the Schubertiade audiences,  echoed a similar moment near the end of the first half of the program, where Gees accidentally turned two pages of music and launched into “Jägers Abendlied” when Prégardien was expecting to sing “Die Liebe”.   Prégardien turned to him with a quizzical expression, Gees stopped playing, and the omission was rectified.  It’s possible that there was some further unexplained confusion, as, after the final song listed on the program, Prégardien turned to the pianist again as if to ask “isn’t there another song”, and Gees gestured in the negative, indicating that the first half was over.

Unfazed by the slipup on “Singet nicht”, the artists presented two more encores.  The first of these was Liszt’s setting of “Es war ein König in Thule”, which would almost certainly have annoyed Goethe, who preferred more folklike settings of his poetry to begin with, and would especially have disliked such a dramatic version of Gretchen’s folk song from Faust.  The final encore was begun after a curtain call at which the pianist carried no music, creating a bit of a surprise when he sat down to play—so  the opening measures of Schubert’s  “Erlkönig”, were at once startling and highly logical.  Once again Prégardien created the three characters, the Elf King being delineated by Schubert’s switch into major key, as contrasted with Loewe’s use of a nursery-rhyme-inspired melody to speak the boy’s language.  And Gees—well, it was as if he were out to show us that he could play Schubert’s “Erlkönig” with his eyes closed, which he proceeded to do (there was one spot that sounded a little different to me than what I’ve heard before, but he carried it off).  After this exceptionally high quality party piece, we knew better than to expect anything to top it, so the applause, while appreciative, lost the urgent quality that hopes to wring another song from the performers, bringing the evening to a happy close.

Program:

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797–1828)

Wandrers Nachtlied I, D 224; Rastlose Liebe, D 138; Am Flusse, D 160; An Schwager Kronos, D 369; An die Türen will ich schleichen, D 479; An den Mond, D 259; Ganymed, D 544

Willkommen und Abschied, D 767; Schäfers Klagelied, D 121; Versunken, D 715; Erster Verlust, D 226; Die Liebe, D 210; Jägers Abendlied, D 368

– Pause –

FRANZ LISZT Freudvoll und leidvoll (2. Fassung); CARL LOEWE Lynceus, der Türmer, auf Fausts Sternwarte singend, op. 9/VIII/3; LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Wonne der Wehmut, op. 83/1; HUGO WOLF Phänomen; BEETHOVEN Neue Liebe, neues Leben, op. 75/

WOLF Blumengruß, Ganymed; EDVARD GRIEG Zur Rosenzeit, op. 48/;  LISZT Der du von dem Himmel bist (1. Fassung); LOEWE Erlkönig, op. 1/3; SCHUBERT Wanderers Nachtlied II, D 768

Zugaben:

ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810–1856) Singet nicht in Trauertönen, op. 98/7; LISZT Es war ein König in Thule; FRANZ SCHUBERT Erlkönig, D 328

Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber in Schwarzenberg

July 3, 2012

Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber, June 18, 2012

Angelika Kauffmann-Saal, Schwarzenberg, Austria

I fell under Christian Gerhaher’s spell in May of this year when Vancouver was one of a few North American cities lucky enough to experience  him in recital with András Schiff.  Readers of the Lieder-L mailing list will recall my delight in the collaboration between what I called Gerhaher’s  “plain style” of singing  in service to the texts and Schiff’s highly detailed readings of accompaniments by Beethoven, Haydn, and Schumann.  So I was pleased that Gerhaher was one of the artists I would hear in recital at the Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg, this time with his usual accompanist, the very able and sensitive Gerold Huber.  (Schiff performed there too, in a solo recital of variations by Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Mozart.)

True to the implication of the “Schubertiade” series title, this recital consisted of 23 Schubert songs, of which I was very familiar with about three, recognized several more, and was hearing many for the first time that I could remember.  The first song, “An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht”,  describes the many aspects of life that the moon can see in its wandering through the night sky.   A rather long and somewhat episodic song, it not only introduced the Romantic themes of many of the succeeding songs: wandering, nostalgia, death, happiness in and loss of love, but it also showed the expectation on the part of this serious singer that the audience would immediately be able to concentrate and did not need to be gently led into the program by a shorter, livelier piece.  The hallmark of Gerhaher’s singing style was the same here as in the previous recital: a voice  that moves easily and consistently through registers and dynamic  levels, dedicated to  the clear expression of the texts.  I also admired the sheer beauty of the voice itself, the smoothness with which he executed the ornaments written into the song.  The one slight technical flaw was that I couldn’t hear the last note, which is fairly low compared with the overall tessitura.

While I was highly satisfied with the recital as a whole, not all my companions on the tour felt the same.  It was pointed out that Gerhaher’s face had remained very serious throughout the performance (except at the outbreak of a rather alarming coughing fit from the audience during a break between songs, at which the singer gave a shrug and a somewhat rueful smile—he does have a medical degree but was not in a position to help at that moment), to the point where some felt no emotional connection with him at all.  I found this interesting, as I had not been bothered by that and I am normally quite sensitive to a singer’s physical presentation.   Admittedly, the performers had chosen a rather melancholy set of songs, which may say something else about them, so I didn’t necessarily expect to see smiles.   But I may also have been tuning in to aspects of Gerhaher’s performance that, to me, at least, make him a singer’s singer: his stage presence is contained but not stiff, and his voice, which has been described by detractors as monochrome, is so freely produced and unforced, that the color is beautiful enough to listen to all evening as he demonstrates his deep understanding of and commitment to the poetry.   Not only can he spin one of Schubert’s melodies, but when he sings a somewhat declamatory piece like “Totengräberweise”, I feel that he’s talking directly to me.  While a singer like Florian Boesch actively works to create a character in a song, Gerhaher’s persona is essentially that of a serious and committed singer presenting a song to the best of his formidable ability.  Obviously, this doesn’t work for everyone, but I am surprised at how well it works for me.

As had been the case in Vancouver, Gerhaher had a music stand beside him, at which he occasionally glanced, presumably to check words.  This seems to be a more common practice than I might like, as three of the five lieder recitals I saw at Schwarzenberg included stands, presumably with the texts (since the singers never turned pages, it was almost certainly not the scores).   Depending upon the singer and how noticeably they rely upon it, this device may detract from their connection with the audience.  I noticed it more with Bernarda Fink, for instance, than with Christoph Prégardien, whose dramatic connection with the songs was much more intense and made up for the downward glances.  In Gerhaher’s case, since his style is reminiscent of oration, the occasional glance at notes seemed to fit with it.

I don’t have many notes about the songs themselves.  While the artists have not recorded them, they will be presenting this program at various U.K. and European venues this year, including  the Wigmore Hall in November:

An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht, Hoffnung (D 295), Im Jänner 1817, Abschied (D 475);

Herbst, Über Wildemann, Der Wanderer (D 649), Der Wanderer an den Mond, Der Zwerg, Abendstern, Im Walde;

[Intermission]

Nach einem Gewitter, Der Schiffer (D 694), An die Nachtigall, Totengräber-Weise, Frühlingsglaube, Nachtviolen, Abendlied für die Entfernte;

Wehmut, Der Strom, Der Hirt, Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren, Nachtgesang, Der Sänger am Felsen

The two encores, also by Schubert, were
Seligkeit, Im Abendrot