A Stimulating Schubert Recital by Julian Prégardien and James Baillieu

19/04/2016

Schubert: Julian Prégardien (tenor); James Baillieu (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 17.4.2016. (CC)

Romanze, D114. An Laura, als sie Klopstocks Auferstehungslied sang, D115. Der Geistertanz, D116. Stimme der Liebe, D187. Naturgenuss, D188. Totenkranz für ein Kind, D275. An mein Klavier, D342. Grablied auf einen Soldaten, D454. An den Tod, D518. Die Forelle, D550.

Morgenlied, D685. Frühlingsglaube, D686b. Der Jüngling auf dem Hügel, D702. Der Blumen Schmerz, D731. Der Wachtelschlag, D742. Schwanengesang, D744. Todesmusik, D758. Schatzgräbers Begehr, D761. Wandrers Nachtlied II, D768. Der Musensohn, D764.

It was a shame that the audience level was so low for this concert – the hall was a third to a half full, perhaps – as there was plenty to enjoy here, including some of Schubert’s better-known offerings.

If, as the Wigmore booklet annotator claims in passing, Schubert’s choral music remains an unappreciated wonder, the same could surely be said for the extended Ballads that have been surfacing during the course of the Wigmore’s Schubert Lied cycle. Julian Prégardien kicked off with one of these, the D114 Romanze of 1814, a tale of an imprisoned young girl, Rosalia of Montanvert.

The title page of the booklet subtitled this recital as “introducing James Baillieu”, a young pianist whose CV is already impressive, having worked with the likes of Padmore, Te Kanawa and John Mark Ainsley. Perhaps he misjudged the acoustic a little at the opening of D114 – his only misjudgement of that ilk of the entire evening, as far as I could tell – yet as soon as the second stanza, a telling countermelody was judiciously and beautifully placed. Julian Prégardien’s delivery of the tale was gripping throughout. This was the first of six consecutive settings of poetry by Friedrich von Matthisson, and the next song was actually the very next Deutsch number also: An Laura, als sie Klopstocks Auferstehungslied sang, D115, a hymnic setting also from 1814. At the louder dynamic levels, Prégardien exhibits a clarion and heroic tenor voice, which surfaced here briefly in this predominantly sweet song.

It was Baillieu who triumphed in Schubert’s flighty, quirky accompaniment to Der Geistertanz, D116, while the folksy, gentle swing of Stimme der Liebe (of the next year, 1815) held a melody that seemed to be remarkably close to that of the famous Heidenröslein. It was a song to showcase Prégardien’s full high register, too, before the restrained wonder of Naturgenuss (‘Delight in Nature’) transported us to holier plateaux.

In this performance, Totenkranz für ein Kind, D275 emerged as perhaps not one of Schubert’s better songs, despite Prégardien’s superb diction. Yet a quick listen to Fischer-Dieskau acts as a corrective; perhaps Prégardien just did not resonate with this one?

To mark the change of poet, the performers left the stage before returning for An mein Klavier. This set a poem by Christian Friedrich Schubart, the first of four consecutive songs to his verse. This gently playful song was beautifully done and it included some simply lovely textures, thanks to Baillieu. Hard contrast came in the form of the lesser-known Grablied auf einen Soldaten (‘Dirge for a soldier’), D454. A death march of the starkest type, it was tellingly given here, with Prégardien’s voice attaining full flight. An den Tod, D518 was another take on death, opening with a properly defiant cry (“Tod, du Schreken der Natur”; ‘Death, terror of Nature’); there could hardly be a starker contrast to the final song of the first half, the eternally-loved Die Forelle, with a beautifully shaped accompaniment from Baillieu.

The simplicity of the opening of Morgenlied, a simple doubled melodic line, beautifully stated by both, led into a fresh delight of a song that deserves more frequent outings. The idea of Frühlingsglaube that followed was perfectly judged, a more famous song, perhaps slightly spoilt by Baillieu’s rather excessive rubato in the  opening. Prégardien’s line was marked by the requisite simplicity, though. Baillieu redeemed himself with the dark piano opening of the next song, Der Jüngling auf dem Hügel, D702, an extended setting of Heinrich Hüttenbrenner. Baillieu impressed again later in that song with the half-lit, low-pedal invocation of the text’s death-knell (“Grabgeläute”). If charming innocence pervaded Der Blumen Schmerz (D731), it was wit that shone from the lovely bird imitations in the piano during Der Wachtelschlag, D742, a tremendous song, characterfully done. Maximal contrast came with the dolorous chordal opening of Schwanengesang, D744 and the dramatic Selige Welt, D743 (both to poems by Johann Chrysostomos Senn).

The shadow of death was cast over the recital with the six-minute Todesmusik, D758, again bringing contrast and, from Prégardien in particular, some beautiful phrasing. It was in the next song, Schatzgräbers Begehr, D761 (‘The treasure-hunter’s desire’), that Prégardien hardened his tone, while it was his stunning breath control that triumphed over Wandrers Nachtlied II, D768 (“Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’”), with Bailleau wonderful in his deep accompaniment. The close was glowing and gorgeous.

The final song is one of Schubert’s most loved, Der Musensohn, D764. The unexpected sense of accelerando over the opening was rather strange, and it did not lead to any sense of the impetuous; by the fourth stanza, it sounded rushed. It was a strange end to a recital that had been otherwise so stimulating. There was one encore, a delicious one: An Sylvia, D891.

Colin Clarke

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