United Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival – The Schubert Project. Christoph Prégardien (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano): St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford 19.10.2014
Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin, D795
Whatever the merits of any individual song by Schubert – and there are many masterpieces – his genius is most likely to be appreciated in the three great song cycles, where his ability to sustain a particular mood and continuity of expression are paramount. It certainly also helps where, as in this case, two performers of Christoph Prégardien’s and Roger Vignoles’s stature are involved.
As would be expected of such a line-up, this performance of Schubert’s first song cycle was no mere succession of nicely turned songs, but a compelling emotional trajectory, ranging from optimism and lyrical joy, through to frustration and, not so much despair and tragedy as resignation and catharsis. This is surely apt for this cycle since it does not exactly plumb the dark psychological depths of Winterreise, but maintains a spontaneous and rhapsodic character through its twenty songs. Admittedly the cumulative impact of Die Schöne Müllerin’s expressive force is as much of a challenge to bear as the later cycle.
The sense of a narrative was evident in Prégardien’s performance where the presence of a consistent poetic voice in his sustained lyricism – certainly appreciated and much to be savoured in the higher tenor range which Schubert often calls for in these songs of often aching love – delineated a real character with a personality and psychology. Furthermore Prégardien offered telling little nuances in the music to round out this realisation: for instance a yearning emphasis on the all-important word ‘wandern’ (‘wandering’) in the opening song, a grittier, frustrated delivery for Am Feierabend, and a defensive, insecure urgency to the exclamations of ‘Mein!’ in the song of the same name. As the dream of requited love became a nightmare in which the poet jealously notes the maid’s attention to a hunter, Prégardien sang the phrase ‘my love is so fond of hunting’ in Die Liebe Farbe with a sardonic emphasis, and he then addressed the hated colour of green (‘so stolz, so keck, so schadenfroh’) with disgust in Die Böse Farbe.
Prégardien and Vignoles were at one in creating a clear musical development. For example, it made good dramatic sense to follow the first three songs almost instantly, one after the either, to set up the momentum that would be continued through the rest of the cycle. Likewise, the first, ominous sight of the huntsman in Der Jäger was followed through immediately with the poet’s expression of jealous torment in the succeeding song, Eifersucht und Stolz.
For much of the time Vignoles’s accompaniments were admirably discreet and supportive – though not servile or passive. When necessary he provided cogent and insightful details, furthering the cause of the drama. The arpeggio flourishes in Halt! matched the excitement and tension in Prégardien’s singing; the first low single note on the piano before any other music in Des Müllers Blumen subtly, but ominously, forewarned of the coming tragedy; and the repeated octaves in Die Liebe Farbe rang out like the deathly toll of a bell, rather reminding one of ‘Scarbo’ from Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit.
As indicated above, the final sequence of songs was resigned and cathartic, not at all histrionic or sensational. The lulling repeated phrases of the final Des Baches Wiegenlied sounded as though they could, indeed, carry on forever, and it was a testament to this performance that it felt that the only answer to the longing invoked by Schubert’s music was more music, rather than silence. Fortunately Prégardien and Vignoles obliged with a poised and tender performance of Liebesbotschaft from Schwanengesang.