Friday, 24 January 2014

Magic and mayhem : Christoph Prégardien Wigmore Hall

Christoph Prégardien has always been a master of creative, exciting ways with Lieder. He and Michael Gees gave a recital at the Wigmore Hall, London, which showed how vigorous the Lieder tradition continues to be.

Prégardien and Gees created a programme that illuminated the liveliness of the Romantic imagination. Nature spirits abound, and fairy tales and ghostly figures of legend. Lulled into fantasy, one might miss the hints of danger that lurk behind these charming dreamscapes. The Romantics were intrigued by the subconcious long before the language of psychology was coined.

The recital began with one of the most lyrical songs in the whole Lieder repertoire, Carl Loewe's Der Nöck (Op129/2 1857)  to a poem by August Kopisch. A Nix, a male water sprite who plays his harp by a wild waterfall. Its waves hang suspended in mid air, the vapours forming a rainbow halo around the Nix. Circular figures in the piano part suggest tumbling waters. Prégardien breathed into the long vowel sounds so they rolled beautifully We could hear what the text means when it refers to a nightingale, silenced in awe. Suddenly the magic is broken when humans draw near. The waves roar, the trees stand tall, and the nightingale flees, until it's safe for the Nöck to reveal himself again. Prégardien and Gees paired Loewe's song with Franz Schubert.s Der Zwerg (D771, 1822) to a poem by Matthäus von Collin. A queen and a dwarf are alone on a boat on a lake. Love, murder and possible suicide haunt the idyll. The Id is released, violently, in a blissful setting.

Franz Liszt's Es war ein König in Thule (S278/2 1856) sets a poem from Goethe's Faust.  Schubert's setting is more folkloric, reflecting the innocence of Gretchen sings in  the novel. Liszt's setting is more elaborate. Lovely, falling diminuendos describe the way the King drinks one last time from his chalice, before throwing it "hinunter in die Flut". Perhaps the queen who gave him the chalice was herself a nature spirit  who lived beneath the lake?  Prégardien intoned the line "Trank nie einen Tropfen mehr" solemnly : the King has died.

Prégardien has championed the songs of Franz Lachner (1803-1890), who knew Schubert, Loewe, Schumann and Wagner, and worked in court circles in Munich, where he learned only too well what the Romantic imagination could do to real kings like Ludwig II. Lachner's Die Meerfrau  was written in Vienna,  comes from early in his career and sets a poem by Heinrich Heine. A  water spirit appears and drags a mortal to a watery grave. The song comes from Lachner's magnum opus,  Sängerfahrt op 33 (1831) where there are numerous songs on  similar themes of supernatural seduction and death. Ironically, Lachner wrote the collection on the eve of his own marriage, dedicating it to his bride. One wonders what modern psychoanalysts might make of that. Prégardien and Gees also performed Lachner's Ein Traumbild from the same collection. Tjhe final strophe is particularly luscious: The cock crows at dawn, and the vampire seductress flees. 

Prégardien and Gees also performed Liszt's Die Loreley (S273/2 1854-9), whose long prelude contains the Tristan motif in germ, before it was developed by Wagner. As Richard Stokes writes in his programme notes, it "begins with a leap of a diminished seventh : the voice however begins with a fourth ...and then soars a sixth - identical in harmonic terms with the piano's diminished sevenths".  In the context of  these feverish succubi,  Hugo Wolf's Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt (1888) made an interesting contrast.  On the way to his wedding, the Knight meets many temptations that almost throw him off course, including a mystery nursemaid who claims that her charge is his child. Yet it's quite a cheery song with cryptic in-jokes that refer to the music of Wolf's friend, the composer Karl Goldmark, who lent Wolf money, knowing he wouldn't be repaid.

Prégardien's unique timbre and ability to float legato has inspired several composers, most notably Wilhelm Killmayer (b 1927). Killmayer's  Hölderlin Lieder were written for Peter Schreier and are, I think, the most exquisite songs of the last half of the last century. Prégardien has recorded them too.  Killmayer wrote his Heine Lieder for Prégardien, setting 35 songs by Heine. Killmayer's songs don't imitate Schumann's. They engage with the meaning of Heine's texts in a highly original style, with pauses, and piano resonances that float in the air. The effect resembles speech, yet also inner contemplation. Killmayer revisits the poets of the past, and writes music for them in  a new, refreshing way.

 In this Wigmore Hall recital, Prégardien and Gees performed Killmayer's Schön-Rohtraut (2004).  The poem is Eduard Mörike, from 1838. Rohtraut is King Ringang's daughter. She doesn't spin or sew, but hunts annd fishes like a man. Mörike was inspired by the strange sound of the names, which he found in an ancient book, but the princess could be a reincarnation of the wild and elusive "Peregrina" who might have led Mörike astray. The lines are simple and repetitive, which suits Killmayer's abstract, almost zen-like purity. As Rohtraut leads the boy into the woods, his excitement mounts. Killmayer's delicate, fluttering note sequences suggest a heart beating with nervous anticipation. We feel we are at one with the boy, as enthralled as he. 

Michael Gees is himself a composer, and Prégardien has performed and recorded his songs several times. This time, we heard Gees's Der Zauberlehrling (2005) where he sets Goethe's poem about the sorcerer's apprentice who uses magic to wash the floor and conjures up a flood. Gees setting is delightful. Rolling, rumbling figures to suggest the rising waters, and a stiff march to suggest the legions of broomsticks.  Syncopated rhythms and zany downbeats, used with great flair. The audience burst into spontaneous applause. Gees and Prégardien were taken by surprise. Gees was thrilled, and beamed with happiness. It's heart warming to see a composer get respect like that.

The recital ended with old favourites like Loewe's Edward (Op1/11818) Tom der Reimer (Op 135a 1860), Schumann's Belsazar (Op57 1840) ans Wolf's Der Feuerreiter (1888).  Schubert's Erlkönig made a rousing encore, Since Prégardien and Gees had done Loewe's Erlkönig (Op 1/23 1818)  earlier in the evening, it was good to reflect on the differences between the two settings. Loewe's real answer to Schubert's Erlkönig is his Herr Oluf, which is another song of prenuptial anxiety, murder and mayhem, . Prégardien and Gees could be doing recitals like this over and over and not exhaust the  Lieder repertoire. 

A more formal version of this review appears in Opera Today.

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