Schubert
Schwanengesang, D957
String Quintet in C, D956

Julian Prégardien (tenor) & Martin Helmchen (piano)

Christian Tetzlaff & Florian Donderer (violins), Rachel Roberts (viola) and Marie-Elisabeth Hecker & Tanja Tetzlaff (cellos)

Singers often strive to create a narrative out of Schubert’s Schwanengesang to match those of Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin, and the strength of this soul-searching from Julian Prégardien and Martin Helmchen was that the switches of mood and intensity spoke for themselves. There was a break after the first seven songs (the Rellstab settings), but otherwise there was no re-ordering in the publisher’s opportunistic (and skilful) portmanteau made after the composer’s death, although it is possible to rearrange the six Heine settings into a sequence of sorts.

Prégardien is a noted Bach Evangelist and he brought a Passion-like stillness and focus to Schwanengesang, with the differences between the two sections – the Rellstab in general more benign and uncomplicated, the Heine poems expressing delusion and despair on a par with Wilhelm Müller – made with an unexaggerated incisiveness. The gentleness of Prégardien’s half-voice was all you wanted for the longing that clings to ‘Liebesbotschaft’ (Love’s message), and the singer well understands how the concept of “Sehnsucht”, as in ‘Frühlingssehsucht’ (Spring longing), goes way beyond the inadequate English translation of “yearning”.

Prégardien, whose unaffected delivery is the ideal vehicle for both composer and poet, cleverly undermined the stature of ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ (Warrior’s foreboding) with a haunting hollowness but was then shamelessly seductive in a lyrical and open ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade). His slight change of focus was enough to take you into a world where reality and abstraction become inseparable and his interpretation accordingly became more puzzled and inward-looking. He was marvellous in evoking the spectral volatility of ‘Das Fischermädchen’, ‘Die Stadt’ and ‘Am Meer’ (The fishermaiden, The town, By the sea), capped by the blank pain and mystery of ‘Der Doppelgänger’. There were a couple of moments when Helmchen let rip with volume, distorting the overview, but otherwise he more than met the singer halfway with some deftly characterised playing.

This was the first concert in Wigmore Hall’s Christian Tetzlaff Focus, with the violinist leading his group – including his sister Tanja and Helmchen’s wife Marie-Elisabeth Hecker on cellos – in an extraordinarily powerful performance of Schubert’s String Quintet. There was no end to points made about a work, the elusiveness of which only increases the more you listen to it – its inbuilt instability emphasised by the dark sonorities, and taken further by the cellos’ retreats into a remote hinterland in the first movement’s second theme; the decisive rhythmic buoyancy from the first cello that seemed more to liberate the music rather than contain it; Tetzlaff’s violin hovering over the Adagio to make it sound even more withdrawn; the sheer strangeness of the Scherzo’s Trio; and the Finale’s earthy lilt barely reined in by the music’s precipitate flight. The playing embraced a bipolar level of contrast and denial.

 

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