Wigmore Mondays – Julian Prégardien & Éric Le Sage: Schumann ‘Liederkreis’ & Fauré ‘La bonne chanson’

Julien Prégardien (tenor), Éric Le Sage (piano)

Schumann Liederkreis Op.24 (1:21-20:44 on the broadcast link below)
Fauré Nocturne no.6 in D flat major Op.63 (22:32-30:36)
Le Bonne Chanson Op.61 (32:13-52:38)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 15 April 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

The words to the song cycles can be found here for the Schumann and here for the Fauré

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Julien Prégardien and Éric Le Sage began their double header of Romantic song cycles with a lesser known collection from Schumann. The Liederkreis he published as Op.24 in 1840, his celebrated ‘year of song’, sets poetry by his contemporary Heinrich Heine – specifically the Buch der Lieder, where writer Richard Wigmore identifies common ground of ‘extremes of elation and despair and their mingled sentimentality, self-pity and ironic self-mockery’.

These are relatively short but emotive songs, the end of one often linking to the start of the next through key and mood. The first song, Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage (Every morning I awake and ask) (1:21 on the broadcast) is carefree with an accompaniment from Le Sage that trips along relatively happily, then Es treibt mich hin (I’m driven this way) (2:22) recounts the giddy excitement of waiting to see a loved one. By contrast, Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen (I wandered among the trees) (3:25) finds the subject in deeply introspective and almost resentful mood, despite the relatively calm music. Prégardien reaches some effortless high notes here, and also adopts a suitably flat tone towards the end.

Lieb Liebchen, leg’s Händchen (Just lay your hand on my heart) (7:00) is a short but rather macabre poem, given with halting piano from Le Sage, after which Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden (Lovely cradle of my sorrows) (7:45) follows immediately, offering consolation in the major key.

Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann (Wait, o wait, wild Seaman) (11:06) stays in the same key but throws off the shackles with a brilliantly descriptive piano part from Le Sage. Berg’ und Burgen schaun herunter (Mountains and castles gaze down) (13:08) describes the ‘mirror-bright Rhine’ with effortless romanticism, but almost unwittingly prophesies Schumann’s attempt on his life with the words, ‘The river’s splendour beckons; But I know it – gleaming above it conceals within itself Death and Night’.

Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen (At first I almost despaired) (16:49) is sombre in mood but quickly cast off by Mit Myrthen und Rosen (With myrtles and roses) (17:43), a light and spring-like conclusion to the cycle.

As a satisfying bridge from Liederkreis to Fauré’s most successful cycle Éric Le Sage – a specialist in the music of both composers – gives a fluid performance of the sixth of Fauré’s thirteen Nocturnes for piano, works that span his whole career. No.6 in D flat major (22:32) is probably the best known, and while its Chopin influences are evident its harmonies bear the French composer’s stylistic imprint. It has a long melody in the right hand from the start, and reaches an impressive climax at 28:20.

La bonne chanson is close to the Nocturne in Fauré’s output, and was intended for his mistress Emma Bardac. It sets nine of the 21 poems from Paul Verlaine’s collection, but it was not initially well received due to its elusive harmonies and longer phrasing. In the cycle Fauré uses recurring melodies to bind the collection together.

The cycle begins in radiant light with Une sainte en son aureole (A saint in her halo) (from 32:13 on the broadcast). The mood is cast, and Puisque l’aube grandit (The day is breaking) continues the bright atmosphere with flowing piano from Le Sage (34:16), and Prégardien copes well with the demands on the lower register of his voice half way through.

La lune blanche (The white moon) casts its spell from 36:14, the pure tone of Prégardien unforced but gaining strength on the higher notes. J’allais par des chemins perfidies (I walked along treacherous ways) is more forceful (38:17), then J’ai presque peur, en vérité (In truth, I am almost afraid) (40:12) has a nervous energy and won’t stay still, before proclaiming its love at the end.

Avant que tu ne t’en ailles (Before you fade) (42:27) is a lovely song, initially harking back to the Nocturne in both key and mood, before Fauré breaks off, propelling it away in another fit of restlessness describing the ‘thousand quail singing in the thyme’. The composer keeps the piano busy once more in Donc, ce sera par un clair jour d’été (So, on a bright summer day it shall be), though Prégardien is much more powerful here too (44:58).

N’est-ce pas? (Is it not so?) is richly romantic, retaining the subtlety of Fauré’s best songs (47:28), while the cycle concludes with L’hiver a cessé (Winter is over) (49:47). Beautifully phrased and paced by Le Sage, the introduction sets the scene for a song that pulls together all the separate elements of the cycle.

For an encore Prégardien and Le Sage gave us three Schumann songs – the first three from his cycle Dichterliebe in fact (54:24 onwards).

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, in the available versions:

Although Julien Prégardien has not recorded Liederkreis, he has a good deal of Schumann under his recorded belt – including this attractive collection with Le Sage and Sandrine Piau, which includes the masterly song cycle of Heine settings Dichterliebe:

You can also watch the album promo here:

Christoph Prégardien – The Darker Side of Love

The Darker Side of Love – Christoph Prégardien and Daniel Heide at the Wigmore Hall

christoph-pregardien

Christoph Prégardien (tenor), Daniel Heide (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 18 May 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05tpryp

on the iPlayer until 17 June

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of most of the music in this concert, including recordings the artists have made where possible. The playlist can be found here

What’s the music?

Schubert: An den Mond, D259; Schäfers Klagelied, D121

Schubert: Erster Verlust, D226

Schubert: Rastlose Liebe, D138

Schubert: Wandrers Nachtlied II, D768

Schubert: Willkommen und Abschied, D767 (17 minutes)

Schumann: Dichterliebe, Op.48 (30 minutes)

What about the music?

The relationship between Schubert and the poetry of Goethe was long-standing, beginning in October 1814 and yielding tens of songs. Many of them are darker utterances, and the collection here enjoys the composer’s ability to cast a nocturnal scene for voice and piano seemingly at will. It also celebrates his faster, galloping songs, the singer in the saddle for an action-packed horse ride, while the sheer simplicity of shorter songs such as Erster Verlust is pure and touching.

Schumann’s famous year of song reached its creative peak in May 1840, when he wrote the Liederkreis, published as Op.39, and Dichterliebe, where he sought inspiration once again from the poetry of Heinrich Heine. The quote in the Wigmore Hall program sums it up perfectly, Schumann describing the verses as ‘short, maliciously sentimental, and written in the folk style’. They evoke outdoor scenes but also inward and often crippling emotions, the singer – and possibly the listener! – an emotional liability by the end. Schumann rescues Dichterliebe, however, through the piano postludes he provides to Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen (One bright summer morning) and the closing song Die altern, bösen Lieder (The bad old songs), attempting and largely succeeding to restore stability.

Performance verdict

Christoph Prégardien has been singing these songs (or ‘Lieder’, as we should really call them!) for a long time – he recorded most of them a while back – but he still brings keen emotion to the stage.

The silence of Wigmore Hall during a song as tense as Schumann’s Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet (I wept in my dream), the ninth of Dichterliebe’s dozen, said it all. Here was a performer creating vivid pictures from Heine’s barbed text and Schumann’s equally frosty responses to the dark side.

In Schubert, too, the steely edge of even the most youthful Goethe setting could be glimpsed, brought out in an early song like An den Mond (To the Moon) by pianist Daniel Heide, stressing the notes Schubert brings in to challenge the happier times of the song.

Schubert’s horse-riding songs, Rastlose Liebe and Wilkommen und Abschied, were adrenalin-fuelled dashes into the country, while Schäfers Klaglied brilliantly evoked both the tempest and its subsequent rainbow.

Prégardien is an unfussy singer who communicates with his audience through subtle but meaningful expression, both visually and with the use of his hands. This somehow carries over to the listener too, either in the hall or at home, part of a masterclass in how to sing these songs.

What should I listen out for?

Schubert

1:50 – An den Mond (To the Moon) A calm and seemingly contented song to begin the selection – though there are some warning signs, chiefly in the piano part, to suggest all is not well.

5:27 – Schäfers Klagelied (Shepherd’s lament) A downcast and solemn song, with a vivid depiction of a storm in its central section from the piano (from 6:55), which also somehow describes the resultant rainbow (7:13) before a return to sadness.

8:58 – Erster Verlust (First loss) A song of striking simplicity and sadness, with an aching melody where the purity of Prégardien’s tone really comes through

11:22 – Rastlose Liebe (Restless love) A song that gallops out of the blocks with its rapid movement on the piano, and the breathless voice almost struggles to keep up. Meine signs off beautifully at 12:30.

12:47 – Wandrers Nachtlied II (Wanderer’s Nightsong II) Here we can feel the stillness of a summer evening, the conditions in which Goethe scribbled the verses for this poem as he stood outside in a garden. Prégardien’s higher notes are beautifully tailored.

15:18 – Willkommen und Abschied (Greeting and farewell) Another of Schubert’s quick dashes through the text, though at the end of each verse we have a pregnant pause. Prégardien cries out ‘ihr Götter’ (‘O gods!’) at 17:17. The text at the end translates as ‘what a joy to be loved’

Schumann

The words for Dichterliebe can be found here

21:12 – Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (In the wondrous month of May) A graceful song to begin the cycle, with some beautiful top notes (the translated words ‘blossom’ and ‘desire’) that Prégardien very subtly stresses through a pause.

22:54 – Aus meinen Tränen sprießen (From my tears will spring) The spring-like openness continues, in the same key.

23:51 – Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne (Rose, lily, dove) A playful song, over in a flash!

24:23 – Wenn ich in deine Augen seh (When I look into your eyes) A tender love song, that tellingly moves to the purity C major to tell of how ‘when I kiss your lips, then I am wholly healed’. There is a yearning postlude on the piano.

26:12 – Ich will meine Seele tauchen (Let me bathe my soul) Another short love song, this time with a flowing, watery piano accompaniment.

27:08 – Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome (In the Rhine, the holy river) The singer adopts a much more imposing tone to evoke the grandeur of the Rhine and the great cathedral of Cologne, where hangs an image of ‘Our beloved Lady’ – which the singer equates to that of his own love. The piano postlude is reminiscent of a Baroque aria.

29:16 – Ich grolle nicht (I bear no grudge) The text turns darker, though the musical language is still generally positive. The tenor has a heavier tone here, the voice more of a baritone in its richness.

30:49 – Und wüßten’s die Blumen, die kleinen (If the little flowers only knew) The piano matches the tenor in this flowing, limpid song – spring like in its subject matter but ultimately sad and regretful at a broken heart. This leads straight into…

32:05 – Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen (What a fluting and fiddling) A proud song but once again with a darker centre.

33:29 – Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen (When I hear the little song) This is Heine’s poetry at its coldest, and in this brief song it gets a suitably bare response from Schumann, who then attempts some consolation in the extended piano postlude, which in reality says just as much as the song does.

35:47 – Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen (A boy loves a girl) A more positive mood now – but soon the poetry turns dark as well. Schumann keeps his tongue firmly in his cheek, allowing the tenor a bit of sardonic humour and the piano a grand finish

36:47 – Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen (One bright summer morning) A beautifully simple song – though now the mood of sadness is taking hold with greater certainty. Again we have a longer piano postlude, the pianist reflecting the text through music and trying to console.

39:38 – Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet (I wept in my dream) Schumann’s use of silence here is striking and altogether ominous. Prégardien gathers the power of the final verse, the texture sparse as can be, until the music stops abruptly.

42:25 – Allnächtlich im Traume (Nightly in my dreams) An elusive song – another dream but one the poet cannot really remember – which possibly explains why Schumann leaves the music sounding half-finished at the end.

43:54 – Aus alten Märchen winkt es (A white hand beckons) There is greater optimism in this song, using the upper register of the piano for the first time in a while, but once again Heine insists on an ending that takes away the potential for happiness. Schumann’s music rescues this in the postlude however!

46:39 – Die alten, bösen Lieder (The bad old songs) A bit of nostalgia to finish – though this is a purge, the poet casting all his ‘bad and bitter dreams’ away in a heavy coffin. Schumann responds with gallows humour, a song that is bold and defiant in its execution but which fades away to reflection. Once again we have a piano postlude, this one even more meaningful as it tries to draw the cycle to a soft conclusion. In the right performance however, like this one, a level of bitterness remains.

Encore

53:05 – SchumannMit Myrthen und Rosen (With myrtle and roses) (the last song from Liederkreis, Op.24) This has an effortless, upward curve to the melody. Prégardien’s gestures to the audience here were beautifully observed.

Further listening

With Christoph Prégardien demonstrating his almost unparalleled abilities in Schubert, here is a Spotify link to a recent recording of him singing the great Schubert song cycle Winterreise. Again this is music on the dark side, but is greatly inspired at that. Texts can be found http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/assemble_texts.html?SongCycleId=47″>here and the playlist is here

For more concerts click here