Memorable Accounts of Two Schubert Masterpieces

12/02/2018

Schubert: Christian Tetzlaff, Florian Donderer (violins), Rachel Roberts (viola), Marie-Elizabeth Hecker & Tanja Tetzlaff (cellos), Julien Prégardien (tenor), Martin Helmchen (piano). Wigmore Hall, 11.2.2018. (CC)

Schubert – Schwanengesang, D957; String Quintet in C major, D956

It was quite a day at the Wigmore, what with the Pavel Haas Quartet at lunchtime in Dvořák and Janáček and this instalment of the Christian Tetzlaff Focus in the evening. This programme offered a fascinating coupling of two Schubert masterpieces, adjacent in Deutsch catalogue number and each posing huge difficulties to interpreters.

Back in December 2016, Sir John Tomlinson had given a memorable rendition of Schwanengesang in Jeremy Sams’s English translation (review). Julian Prégardien gave a memorable recital as part of the Schubert song recital series in April of that year (review). That song recital confirmed Prégardien as a major Schubert interpreter. While the repertoire on that occasion concentrated on lesser-known songs, here in Schwanengesang he came in competition with a whole swathe of great interpreters. The opening of ‘In der ferne’ was a case in point, superbly pedalled so the veiled atmosphere was near-palpable, yet every detail sounded.

In 2016, Prégardien had been partnered by James Baillieu; this time it was the superb Martin Helmchen, a pianist who has been featured regularly in the Philharmonia’s programmes. Helmchen proved himself to be in the very top rank of accompanists, finding a perfect combination of clarity and beauty of sound on his Yamaha piano. Complementing this was Prégardien’s superbly clean slurs in the opening ‘Liebesbotschaft’. Yet it was in the ensuing ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ that he shot straight to the heart of the dark side of Schubert, Prégardien’s blanched tone at the opening finding its flip side in the sweet top of his range towards the song’s end.

Prégardien found the impulsiveness of ‘Frühlingssehnsucht’. Some interpreters try to find more depth here – Hotter and Moore in their famous HMV reading, for example –  but Prégardien offered a deliciously fresh alternative. The famous ‘Ständchen’ found a wondrous stasis, almost a numbness, with Prégardien at his most plaintive, especially higher up in his range. Strangely, ‘Aufenthalt’ was more restrained than one might expect at its opening; the intent was to emphasise the huge dynamic range available to both performers within the frame of one song, it appeared.

Both performers left the stage after the last of the Rellstab poems (‘Abschied’, with Helmchen’s staccato a model of it kind). Returning for the Heine poems, Helmchen’s bleak opening to ‘Der Atlas’ underpinned Prégardien at his most powerful. This song appeared to anchor the cycle; at the other end was the tenderness of ‘Die Stadt’, with Helmchen at his most fantastical. Both performers were at the top of their game in ‘Die Taubenpost’, Helmschen’s teasing piano contribution the perfect backdrop for Prégardien’s line.

Another aspect of late Schubert graced the hall post-interval, the great C major String Quintet. Christian Tetzlaff was joined by Florian Donderer (first violinist of the Signum Quartet), violist Rachel Roberts and cellists Marie-Elisabeth Hecker and Christian’s sister, Tanja Tetlaff. The Schubert String Quintet is a piece I have to admit to having something of a block about, something I would not normally confess to were it not for the cure: this very performance. This was glorious Schubert, tender and wonderfully long. The five players acted as five equals, Tanja Tetzlaff’s eloquent and expressive cello singing beautifully. The performance was marked by a whole-spectrum dynamic range. The lower strings exuded such timbral beauty, the upper strings often finding an answering fragility. Control throughout, by all, was simply remarkable. The Adagio, thankfully, moved with exemplary control from all four players, the blanched sustained line moving like a spectre against the lonely pizzicato. The athleticism of the Scherzo held a rawness in the dissonances, the Trio’s beauty balm in the freneticism. Finally, a finale that held a troubled undercurrent throughout no matter how dance-like the surface. Plateaux of pianississimi were full of tension. A remarkable performance.

No doubting that the demands on audience concentration were high with the juxtaposition of these two major pieces, but the rewards were many. A fabulous concert.

Colin Clarke

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