A fascinatingly structured programme by German tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Julius Drake – starting each half with an extended Beethoven piece and then dovetailing two Schubert Lieder between thirteen songs of the fourteen originally published Schwanengesang, though not sung in the usual performing order. The first two items are characterised by repetitions of a single word at the end of each stanza, bringing the challenge of bringing cohesiveness with interpretive variety – a good touch in the ordering. Beethoven’s Adelaide did not find the singer in immediate top form, the voice not sounding as free and flexible as later, but in defence there was also the audibly distracting electronic whine of a mis-set hearing-aid device pervading the delicate acoustic of the hall. Once this “contribution” was contained thanks to the intervention of both John Gilhooly and the singer soloist the programme started to cast a distinctive spell. These late songs of Schubert are never comfortable listening; their valedictory nature encompasses moments of anger, despair, longing and not always fond reflection. Both performers brought these elements very strongly to the fore. Prégardien’s vocal armoury includes a forceful, decidedly baritonal, lower register that contrasts extremely effectively with his honeyed, quiet singing on high. He is sparing in his use of vibrato, deploying it to add distinctive colours and emphasis on certain phrases and tones, and he has a notably long-breathed sense of line. Yet the vehemence of the some of the poetry emerges strongly, with rare vocal swoops and scoops for ‘dramatic’ effect. His diction is very fine, easy to follow and understand when the texts are dense and rapidly sung; it helps that his stage persona is so restrained. He communicates much with his face and keeps expansive arm and hand gestures kept to a minimum and this really helps keep the audience attentive and involved.
Julius Drake likewise was a consummate accompanist, ever-alert to his singer and yet deftly bringing out the complexities and felicities of Schubert’s writing with exciting dexterity. He also lent much fluidity to the programme by perfectly judging the release of long-held final chords of some of the songs and his timing of the gaps between successive items, some of which followed almost seamlessly such as In der Ferne and Aufenthalt. Interpretation of certain songs really imprinted themselves into recall. The sense of impending mortality hung heavy on the soldier of Krieger’s Ahnung and was followed by an expansive, hushed and haunting performance of the Rückert text of Dass sie heir gewesen – surely the highlight of the first half.
A powerful rendition of the lengthy An die ferne Geliebte opened the second half of the recital – both artists performing as one in capturing the moods and sense of its constituent six poems. The final selection from Schwanengesang followed with Drake’s pianistic flourishes depicting the effect of the breezes on the waterways of Die Stadt, and Prégardien’s darkest palette imbuing Der Doppelgänger with both menace and fearfulness. The concluding Der Atlas brought the programme proper to an unsettling end. Between the two encores – the missing song of Schwanengesang and an intensely sung Nacht und Träume – both performers were presented, deservedly and somewhat belatedly, with their 2016 ‘Jahrespreis’ of the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik (German Record Critics’ Award) by Eleonore Bühning for their Schubert: Poetisches Tagebuch recording.