Christoph PrÈgardien and Julius Drake at the Wigmore Hall

PrÈgardien and Drake’s November 2015 release

Poetisches Tagebuch

– which comprises lieder to poems by Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze
(1789-1817), followed by settings of poems that are drawn together by their
shared imagery of absence, aging, winter and death – received Grammy Award
nomination for Best Classical Vocal Solo and received the German Critics
Award in 2016. The programme presented at the Wigmore Hall essentially
reprised this disc, with the addition of a single extra song in the second
half of the recital.

The performers’ consummate musicianship and professionalism was evident
throughout. PrÈgardien cuts a noble figure on stage, immaculately dressed,
stylish but unshowy in manner – the embodiment of dignified poise. But,
such self-composure, and the singer’s use of a score, at times distanced
the tenor from the audience – I do not think that my location at the rear
of the Hall was a factor, as I have not previously found this to be an
impediment to strong, direct communication.

There were many musical compensations for the occasional absence of
dramatic intensity, however, not least PrÈgardien’s even, dulcet tone and
graceful phrasing. The musical details were unfailingly observed but
articulated with subtlety. Naturally, the German singer’s diction is
excellent, but at times he seemed satisfied to rely upon precise and
careful enunciation to convey meaning, and did not use his voice to explore
the inferences inherent in textual detail – the sounds and rhythms of the
words. And, the soothing evenness, though alluring, can be a limitation: as
the recital progressed I longed for more contrast of colour, dynamics and

Technically assured, PrÈgardien demonstrated impressive vocal control,
employing rubato and flexibility with confidence and discernment. He found
the higher lying lines more challenging, however, and made more extensive
use of the head-voice than I would have expected, with the result that at
the top his tenor lacked roundness. Such ethereality may be a fine vehicle
for embodying yearning and absence – frequent moods within these texts –
but became rather monotonous and, when repeated, the expressive weight of
such gestures diminished.

Also, while I admit that it’s a matter of personal preference, I found that
the tempi adopted in several songs was a little on the slow side. In the
slower lieder there was a danger that unhurried probing or reflective
quietude would lapse into dreamy oblivion, and the more agitated items did
not acquire the compelling momentum that the diverse, heightened and
unpredictable emotions of their dramatic narratives demand.

Perhaps it’s just the case that I prefer the extreme anguish that Ian
Bostridge brings to these lieder, or the probing intensity of Mark Padmore.
And, it should be noted that Julius Drake was alert to every nuance and
suggestion in the piano parts, always astonishing sensitive in supporting
PrÈgardien but also colouring and dramatizing.

Schubert’s nine settings of poems by Ernst Schulze were composed shortly
before Winterreise (1827). They form a quasi-cycle of loss and
obsessive longing; indeed, when including the songs in Vol.18 of Hyperion’s Complete Schubert Edition, pianist Graham Johnson proposed titling
them as a group,Auf den wilden Wegen. The songs have their origin in Schulze’s unrequited passion for two
sisters, C‰cilie (who died of tuberculosis) and Adelheid Tychsen. His
‘poetic imaginings’ were brought together in Schulze’s Poetisches Tagebuch, before he himself died of tuberculosis at the
age of 28.

Schubert’s Schulze settings are not his best-known lieder, but the first
song, ‘Auf der Bruck’ (On the bridge) is one of two – the other
being ‘Im Fr¸hling’ – which appear frequently on recital programmes.
Drake’s opening bars were stirring and energised. His control and crafting
of the dynamic contrasts – the resonant octaves in the bass veer wildly
from loud to soft, while fully voiced, quiet chords reiterate in the
right-hand – created urgency and agitation. These turned to excitement in
the second stanza, as PrÈgardien imagined the wondrous sights to be viewed
from the saddle of his galloping horse, and Drake’s sparkling trill
underpinned his ‘joy’.

The evenness of PrÈgardien’s tenor was an asset in ‘Der liebliche Stern’
(The lovely star), creating a sense of the poet-speaker’s distance from the
heavens above, the calm broken only by the slightest enrichening: ‘So wird
mir von Wohl und Wehe’ (weal and woe trouble my heart). The major-minor
fluctuations of ‘Im Walde’ (D834) (In the forest) brought unrest to the
poet-speaker’s journeying and, without ever noticeably quickening the tempo
the performers evoked an accelerating force which pushed the frustrated
traveller onwards in search of a never-to-be-regained love. PrÈgardien
showed sensitivity to the text here, in the repetition of ‘nimmer’ – ‘Wohl
hing ich nimmer so an euch!’ (I never drew so close to you) – and in the
subsequent ‘Um Mitternacht’, where his soft head-voice captured the
radiance of the night stars which sparkled in Drake’s beautifully delicate
accompaniment. Later, an injection of strength conveyed the poet-speaker’s
pride and self-confidence as he prepared to brave any storm or tempest to
see his beloved’s image once again.

Schulze, recognising that his obsession was pathological, occasionally
issued a poetic cry for ‘courage’, and ‘Lebensmut’ calls for a renewal of
youthful strength – a bold defiance of mental frailty which Drake’s
springing rhythmic counter-forces duly delivered, confirming the voice’s
firm assertion ‘O, wie dringt das junge Leben/Kr‰ftig mir durch Sinn und
Herz! (How vigorously young life pulses through my mind and heart!). The
piano’s insouciant postlude suggested, however, that the poet-speaker’s
confidence was self-deceiving. ‘Lebensmut’ was written one day after ‘Im
Fr¸hling’, and one cannot think of a greater contrast than between the
former’s surging vigour and the latter’s wistful introspection. Indeed,
initially I found ‘Im Fr¸hling’ almost too meditative, in danger of
slipping into a dream in which the gleams of spring that the poet describes
would lose substance and presence. But, the unusual harmonies which
accompany the poet-speaker’s thoughts of strife and sorrowful solitude
created greater movement towards the end of the lied, making place and mood
more palpable.

The ‘deep sorrow’ of ‘Tiefes Leid’ was followed by the ‘dark delusions’
(‘dunklen Wahn’) of ‘‹ber Wildemann’ but in the latter
PrÈgardien’s tenor had neither the strength nor range of colour to suggest
a Byronic embracing of the roaring winds and wintry snow such as
characterises Schulze’s frenzied poem. Moreover, prudence perhaps led
PrÈgardien to pull back from the slightly faster tempo that might have
conjured the desperate urgency of the vocal lines as the phrases crescendo
to their climactic peaks.

The three R¸ckert settings that opened the second half of the recital
introduced a fresh and absorbing complexity. ‘Dafl sie hier
gewesen’ (That she was here) demonstrated the sheer sweetness of
PrÈgardien’s tenor, evoking the fragrant scents with which the wind teases
the poet-speaker. In ‘Greisengesang’ (Old man’s song) the singer
used the text more effectively and moved well between registers. The
poignant simplicity of Drake’s introduction to ‘Du bist die Ruh’ captured
the poem’s blend of peace and longing. PrÈgardien shaped the melody with
poise and constancy, but, while the voice was secure at the challenging
rise in the final stanza, ‘Dies Augenzelt/Von deinem Glanz/Allein erhellt’
(This temple of my eyes is lit by your radiance along), he held back from
delivering the crescendo of ardour for which Schubert asks.

At this point, ‘Der Tod und das M‰dchen’ interrupted the sequence of
recorded Poetisches Tagebuch songs, following almost segue; were
Drake and PrÈgardien suggesting that the maiden summoned by the
poet-speaker in ‘Du bist die Ruh’ rejects her obsessive admirer, ‘Vor¸ber!
Ach, vor¸ber!/ Geh, wilder Knochenmann!’ (Away! Ah, away! Away, fierce man
of bones!’), or that he will lose her to Death?

After the lingering pathos of these opening songs, the surging ripples of
‘Im Walde’ (D708) were a welcome rush of vigour and the narrative structure
of this lied was well articulated. ‘Nacht und Tr‰ume’ was fittingly
reverential and pensive, but again the slow tempo and PrÈgardien’s
prioritising of melodic lyricism lessened the impact of the inferences
carried by the sounds of the words themselves. The tenor was an engaging
story-teller in ‘Fischerweise’ but this brief window of lightness was
rapidly pushed aside by the angry despair of the grave-digger in
‘Totengr‰bers Heimweh’ (Gravedigger’s longing) – a powerful monologue of
existential yearning. The final lied, ‘Winterabend’ (The winter evening),
seemed to return us to the spirit of Schulze’s fervent poet-speaker,
assured that he will attain his heart’s desire and thus content to ‘Denk’an
sie, an das Gl¸ck der Minne,/ Seufze still, und sinne und sinne’ (Think of
her and love’s happiness, sigh in silence, and muse and muse).

This was not a lieder recital to leave one feeling emotionally wrought,
having shared the pain and wretchedness of Schubert’s lovers and wanderers,
but it was a recital to prompt reflection. Returning home, my conversation
with my German-speaking guest turned to diverse concerns: the skill with
which R¸ckert manipulates language; the disturbing image of the
grave-digger’s self-destructive denial of the world; the German concept of Bildung – the cultivation of the ‘self’. So, this was a
recital to inspire one to muse.

Claire Seymour

Christoph PrÈgardien (tenor), Julius Drake (piano)

Franz Schubert: ‘Auf der Br¸cke’ D853, ‘Der liebliche’ Stern D861, ‘Im
Walde’ D834, ‘Um Mitternacht’ D862, ‘Lebensmut’ D883, ‘Im Fr¸hling’ D882,
‘An mein Herz’ D860, ‘Tiefes Leid’ D876, ‘‹ber Wildemann’ D884, ‘Dass sie
hier gewesen’ D775, ‘Greisengesang’ D778, ‘Du bist die Ruh’ D776, ‘Der Tod
und das M‰dchen’ D531, ‘Im Walde’ D708, ‘Nacht und Tr‰ume’ D827,
‘Fischerweise’ D881, ‘Totengr‰bers Heimweh’ D842, ‘Der Winterabend’ D938.

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 14th March 2017.

image_description=Christoph PrÈgardien (tenor), Julius Drake (piano) at the Wigmore Hall
product_title=Christoph PrÈgardien (tenor), Julius Drake (piano) at the Wigmore Hall
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product_id=Above: Christoph PrÈgardien

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve