United Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival 9 – Mendelssohn, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler: Christoph Prégardien (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano): Holywell Music Room, Oxford 25.10.2013
Mendelssohn: Reiselied, Op 34 No 6
Morgengruß, Op 47 No 2
Allnächtlich im Traume, Op 86 No 4
Auf Flügeln des Gesanges, Op 34 No 2
Gruß, Op 19a, No 5
Neue Liebe, Op 19a, No 4
Schubert: Im Jänner 1817 (Tiefes Leid), D876
An mein Herz, D860
Um Mitternacht, D862
Über Wildemann, D884
Im Frühling, D882
Auf der Bruck (Auf der Brücke), D853
Brahms: Dein blaues Auge, Op 59 No 8
Von ewiger Liebe, Op. 43 No 1
Feldeinsamkeit, Op 86 No 2
Wie rafft ich mich auf, Op 32 No 1
Auf dem Kirchhofe, Op 105 No 4
Mahler: Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn:
Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?
Lob des hohen Verstandes
Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen
With yet another recital pairing internationally renowned performers, the Oxford Lieder Festival’s offerings may nearly be felt to be an embarrassment of riches. What Christoph Prégardien and Roger Vignoles had to show, however, were no mere gilded lilies but a typically imaginative selection of lieder, ideally realised by Prégardien’s refined, lyrical singing. In contrast with the more dramatic musical gestures demonstrated by Wolfgang Holzmair in his recital a few days previously, Prégardien achieved variety among songs and within them, by a closer range of tonal shadings, perhaps in such a way as to create a more intimate and personal atmosphere. That is not to prefer one approach above the other, as both are equally valid, and each can work perfectly well in the Holywell Music Room, especially when delivered with the expertise which both singers showed in their respective recitals.
Mendelssohn’s songs are not often given as much attention as they probably deserve, and in this selection – all setting words by Heinrich Heine – Prégardien made an excellent case for them, revealing them to be as delightfully melodious and lyrical as many songs by Schubert, even if the themes do not quite remain in the mind in the same way. Prégardien’s radiant and ringing tone was evident from the first song, Reiselied, with a rather buoyant melody, though he held back in expectation at the words “I fly into her arms” and there was a mock solemnity when he gave out the words of the oak tree “foolish rider, what do you want with your foolish dream?”. He imparted a more yearning quality to the music, expressing love, in Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (though by no means cloying or quivering) and conveying the charming lilt of the melody too. Neue Liebe was coloured by anxiety as the poet reflects on whether the vision of riding elves in the night forest betokens new love or death. Although there were clear affinities with the Fairies’ music in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Mendelssohn’s fluttering scherzos, such as in the Octet, this was altogether more serious and troubled.
Both Prégardien and Vignoles exhibited a lightness of touch in the way they approached much of the Schubert selection, as indeed they did in this recital generally. Although Prégardien’s performances were marked by an essentially controlled legato articulation and graceful tone (even on high notes), they also encompassed a more sonorous, expressive depth. He demonstrated this in Um Mitternacht and Im Frühling, whilst he then laid on a darker edge when necessary, as in Über Wildemann, or greater vehemence in An mein Herz. Despite the subject of Im Jänner 1817 (subtitled ‘Deep Sorrow’), there was a surprising levity in tone and motion (though tallying with Schubert’s restless, nimble setting), but Prégardien wound down to a wistful conclusion in this song.
On the surface, Brahms’s songs often appear as serene and lyrical as many of those by Schubert, but Prégardien drew out of them something more inscrutable and emotionally complicated so as to distil the unique character of this composer’s music. Prégardien achieved this with a timbre that was just a shade richer in Dein blaues Auge, and a touch darker at the beginning of Von ewiger Liebe as the melody grew out of the voice’s low range. It also helped that he and Vignoles maintained a steady, thoughtful tempo, and Prégardien’s alternation in the last three verses between a more impassioned tone and a refined one was masterly. His slight emphasis of the open vowels in the second verse of Wie rafft ich mich auf in der Nacht (the rhymes subsequently made with the word “Schacht”) created a mellow sound, and in Auf dem Kirchhofe he captured something of the brave resolve also expressed by Brahms in the German Requiem, as the poet reflects over the graves of the dead in a churchyard that they have been released from worldly care.
It is surely an intriguing programme in which emotional relief is offered by Mahler, and yet the first three selections from Des knaben Wunderhorn served that purpose. Singer and pianist enjoyed the liveliness of the music in Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? and Prégardien executed effortlessly the Bachian melismas on “Heide” and the final “Ja!”. The irony of Lob des hohen Verstandes gave plenty of scope for witty, musical acting, including the depiction of a donkey’s braying. The final two songs turned to the horror of war, though in Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen Prégardien tenderly evoked the love between the soldier and his beloved before following the sound of the trumpets, hauntingly interpreted by Vignoles on the piano. In Revelge Prégardien caught the menacing character of the unceasing march (of the living and dead soldier) with a deliberate coarsening of tone, and Vignoles gave a threatening edge to the apparently upright, dignified march music. The “Tralali, tralaley, tralalera” refrain became increasingly alarming and sinister, while Vignoles rounded off the song with a devastating coda.
Prégardien sang Mahler’s Urlicht for the first encore. Although it was the original version, I am never quite sure that the percussive sounds of the piano create a mystical, otherworldly mood as well as Mahler’s orchestral transcription in the Symphony No. 2. Nevertheless Vignoles still brought about a due solemnity and Prégardien the requisite sense of vulnerability. There followed Schubert’s Nacht und Träume, D827, which seemed as though it had been composed with such a voice as Prégardien’s in mind, where his careful control of melody and vibrato rendered the lines seamlessly – just that much more beguilingly than Toby Spence had a few days earlier when he also sang this as an encore at this Festival.