United Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival – The Schumann Project – Robert Schumann, Bruch, Liszt: Christoph Prégardien (tenor), Christoph Schnackertz (piano), St John the Evangelist Church, Oxford 22.10.2016. (CR)
Robert Schumann – Fünf Lieder, Op.40; Liederkreis Op.24
Bruch – Lausche, lausche!, Op.15 No.1; Goldne Brücken, Op.15 No.4; Frisch gesungen!, Op.7 No.6; Russisch, Op.7 No.3; Um Mitternacht, Op.59 No.1; Zweites Kophtisches Lied, Op.59 No.3; Kophtisches Lied, Op.59 No.32
Liszt – Freudvoll und Leidvoll, S166; Der du von dem Himmel bist, S279; Es war ein König in Thule, S278; Im Rhein, im schönen Strome, S272; Loreley, S273
To jump straight to the point and get the superlatives out of the way first, this was an extraordinary recital in which both singer and pianist were in one accord not only in establishing a highly charged mood for each song, but also carefully traced the nuances of the texts to telling and moving effect. It was as though each piece grew out of an indefinable, inner vision on the part of both performers, to which each gesture within a performance was related as a unified whole, so that no phrase or verse seemed accidental or disconnected with the surrounding material. Perhaps the most notable example was the schizophrenic contrast between the grateful memory of a past love and the bitterness of a broken heart in ‘Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden’ from the Liederkreis, where Christoph Schnackertz effortlessly passed from one to the other emotion in the piano part, and Christoph Prégardien followed suit. A different case was the way in which the memory of a past love gushed forth ebulliently in Prégardien’s eloquent interpretation of the last of the Fünf Lieder, set off by the brief piano flourish at the song’s outset.
At the root of this recital’s success was Prégardien’s ability to project an intense and powerful atmosphere lyrically without resorting to declamation or sensationalism, but to carry the drama of the moment through purely musical effects. That saw him through the considerable variety of songs contained within this recital, starting with the seemingly guileless lieder setting words by Hans Christian Andersen, going on through settings of Heine, and then to the still more dramatically involving works by Bruch and Liszt which are essentially ballads, or operatic arias on a smaller scale.
Prégardien sustained a suitable lyricism in the Andersen settings to underline their outwardly straightforward themes, but qualified that approach when necessary to express the deeper meaning of the words, for example bringing some wit to the amorous musings of the young man of the first song; a darker, threatening tone to the raven’s contemplation of its potential prey in ‘Muttertraum’ (‘Mother’s Dream’); and a forceful manner at the end of ‘Der Soldat’ which remained free of any strain, despite that and the irrefutable tread of the piano accompaniment, somewhat like that of ‘Revelge’ from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection.
The trajectory of the Liederkreis followed similarly, with a clear musical line always drawn out by Prégardien, even when a particular turn in interpretation might otherwise have counteracted that, such as the hesitant question “will my sweetheart come today?” which the poet asks himself in ‘Morgens steh’ ich auf und Frage’, or in an uncharacteristic moment of insecure vocal tone at one point in ‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen’.
The little-known songs by Bruch gave an opportunity for more vivid musical dramatisation. Appropriately in the case of ‘Frisch gesungen!’ that entailed reflecting upon the ameliorative power of singing, inviting Prégardien to linger artfully and suggestively on “nur frish gesungen” in the final verse. The complete identification between pianist and singer in service to a given song was demonstrated superbly in the eulogy to al fresco dreaming of ‘Lausche, lausche!’: the chords of the piano introduction were dreamily evoked by Schnackertz setting the mood and pace for the song overall, where Prégardien took his time to build upon that state of being further with his slow repetitions on the imperatives “Lausche” and “Ruhe” to conjure a magical sub-conscious world beyond the constraints of objects and the passage of temporal moments. In lesser hands the song would have ground to a halt, but this performance was utterly entrancing.
With their very different demands, Prégardien was equally convincing and moving in the Liszt songs. The strenuous setting of ‘Freudvoll und Leidvoll’ from Goethe’s Egmont was in sharp contrast to Beethoven’s serene realisation of the same words in his incidental music, but it held no terrors for Prégardien. Nor did the wide-ranging emotions surveyed in the lengthy setting of ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’ (despite comparatively few words) which were forged into a compelling unity of expression. For the scheduled final pair of items of this well-devised recital Prégardien instilled a clear narrative sense in two further Heine songs which refer to the Rhine, poignantly and implicitly bringing the programme back to Schumann, who attempted to drown himself in its waters and later died near its banks in Bonn. In the case of ‘Loreley’ its meandering music and chromatic harmonies also pointed ahead to Wagner, another composer whom Schumann influenced, with its pre-emption of the ‘Tristan’ chord. The two encores drew the connection between Schumann and Heine again with alert performances of ‘Dein Angesicht so lieb und schön’, and ‘Belsatzar’; such was the acuity of the performers’ account of the latter (‘enactment’ would be closer to the truth) that a general knowledge of that Babylonian king’s fate alone enabled the audience to follow the import of each section of the song without having the words in front of them.