United Kingdom Schubert, Christoph Prégardien (tenor); Michael Gees (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 15.6.2015 (CC)
A Winter’s Journey in the heat of mid-June. This was a fascinating performance – one might almost call it re-think – of Schubert’s great cycle. Jonas Kaufmann recently reminded us, in his Sony Classical recording with Helmut Deutsch (review), of the efficacy of the tenor voice in this epitome of German Romanticism. Great singers have given unforgettable Winterreisen – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau of course, but perhaps the black-voiced Hans Hotter is the most memorable of all.
Christoph Prégardien’s take may well split critics, but taken as a blistering whole this may well be one of my concerts of the year. The performance was unsettling, with no sense of lightening of intensity of emotion by the use of a higher voice. While both Fischer-Dieskau and, particularly, Hotter seem the incarnation of the Hermit from the Rider-Waite Tarot, Prégardien offered a version with more openings for light. Only with ‘Der Leiermann’ did we feel assured of the complete hopelessness of the protagonist’s situation, an arrival that made it all the more effective.
Prégardien and Gees – the inclusion of both is significant, as they acted as one – gave us a traversal across a landscape more varied than most. The deliberately clipped phrases of ‘Gute Nacht’, the first song of the cycle, spoke of a stark yet dramatic approach that was on occasion to confound expectation. Michael Gees’ contribution was similarly fresh, projecting the storminess of the opening of ‘Erstarrung’ to perfection; both performers gave us a ‘Lindenbaum’ that contained stillness and peace.
What Prégardien may no longer have technically – particularly, perhaps, in the upper reaches – he makes up for in musicality and experience. The exceptionally pure intervals of ‘Frühlingstraum’ were perfectly judged, but it was the surprisingly extended pause before the final stanza of this song (“Der Augen schliess’ ich wieder”) that spoke from an interior space that reminded us that Spring was a mere dream passed.
Within the constraints of Schubert’s great voyage, pianist Michael Gees found a multitude of shadings. When he and Prégardien projected a proto-Webernian sparseness in ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ coupled with finding hints of lines that could have been by Schoenberg in the vocal line, it felt like the pair had laid bare the heart of Winterreise; it is just that their way there had been along an alternative pathway to the norm. The prolongation of this emptiness in ‘Im Dorfe’ with its pared-down textures and silences that whisper the nothingness of Death and in the near-stasis of ‘Das Wirtshaus’ brought us to a place of disturbed stillness. The blanched tone Prégardien found for ‘Die Nebensonnen’ resulted in a real soul-cry, and it was left to the lonely piano gestures and the stabbing accents of ‘Der Leiermann’ to take us to the borders of life itself.
The Challenge Classics recording of these two artists in this piece is available on CC72596 (Prégardien also recorded it with Andreas Steier on fortepiano in 1995). If this performance lacked the dark radiance of Hotter’s various traversals, its own way to the hurdy-gurdy man was no less valid. A magnificent, thought-provoking, and moving performance.