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