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Tenor Prégardien to light a path through Schubert’s darkest lieder

Wed Feb 21, 2018 at 9:00 am
Christoph Prégardien will perform Schubert songs Sunday at Mandel Hall. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Christoph Prégardien will perform Schubert songs with pianist Julius Drake Saturday for Vocal Arts DC. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Christoph Prégardien is on a rare American tour, which will bring him to Washington for a recital presented by Vocal Arts DC at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater this Saturday.

The German tenor spoke via video chat about the program he will perform and what else is keeping him busy in his 60s. The recital will present the same selection of Schubert lieder recorded on his award-winning disc Poetisches Tagebuch, made with Julius Drake, who will also accompany him on tour. The disc is the latest in Prégardien’s extraordinary discography, numbering some 120 recordings by a recent count.

“It’s more than 150 now,” he says with a wry laugh. The idea behind the program of this recent disc, from 2016, is based around Schubert’s nine settings of poetry by Ernst Schulze, composed in 1825 or 1826, forming a sort of cycle that some musicologists have called the “Little Winterreise.”

“They are some of the most beautiful and intense songs Schubert has written,” says Prégardien. “The atmosphere of the songs is quite dark, like many of the late Schubert songs, not very optimistic, with dark grey colors and very intense rhythms.” He sang this set of songs often in concert and wanted to record them. The Schulze songs are about 35 minutes of music, so they needed to find another half-hour’s worth of songs.

“So I asked Julius Drake,” says Prégardien, “what would you like to record? And he asked me the same question. So we made a list of our favorite songs. Most of them are late Schubert, and they mesh very well together with the Schulze settings.”

Prégardien has sung a broad range of music, but it is Schubert that appears to be his touchstone; he has performed the composer’s lieder with guitar, fortepiano, and modern piano.

“He was one of the composers I met first when I started studying singing in Frankfurt,” he says. Prégardien’s teacher, an experienced lieder singer, introduced him to the composer. “Schubert impressed me very deeply,” he adds, “because I found that his music and his writing on poetry were so emotionally clear, as far as what he wanted.” He says he already knew Schubert a bit from growing up in his parents’ home in Limburg an der Lahn, where he was a choirboy in the cathedral.

He does not think his approach to singing lieder has altered that much in the years since his last visit to Washington in 1999, for a concert also presented by Vocal Arts DC. “I don’t think I have changed a lot,” he muses. “With life experience, you go deeper into the poetry, you find more and more interesting views on text and music.”

Often working with different musical partners brings new perspectives. He has worked with Michael Gees on modern piano, as well as with Andreas Staier on fortepiano. For this program he has partnered with Julius Drake. What does he think makes for a good partnership with an accompanist?

“What I love especially,” he explains, “is if if I can feel a pianist is inventing the music the moment they play it. With Michael Gees, even if we have done Winterreise150 times, every performance is different with him, and he would probably say the same about me.” That freedom, he says, is the most important quality.

“I remember one concert with Malcolm Martineau,” he continues. “I jumped in as a late substitute for a Winterreise. Malcolm and I had never met before. Because I came in very late, we had just half an hour to rehearse. That concert was so special, probably because both of us had to be very concentrated on the partner, because we had never been on stage together.”

In this recital Julius Drake will play a modern grand piano: does Prégardien think Schubert works better with modern or historical pianos? “I think Schubert works better with a good musician,” he says, his urbane laugh resonating again. “The fortepiano is the more suitable instrument for Schubert’s music, because the Steinway, the modern piano, is built for pianists who have to be louder than orchestras. You need to be a very good pianist to keep a big Steinway so sensitive and quiet as you need sometimes in a lieder recital.”

No surprise that Prégardien still has many projects on the horizon. “The last CD I have recorded,” he says, “was a trio CD with Swiss horn player Olivier Darbellay and Michael Gees, also for Challenge Records, based around Britten’s The Heart of the Matter.” They matched the piece with others for the same combination by Schubert and several other composers, for this disc released in January. “It’s amazing to see how much repertoire there is for that combination of singer and instruments,” he adds.

There are other plans in the works too, beginning with a disc in collaboration with Cyprien Katsaris, a Greek pianist living in Paris. “He is playing 20th-century transcriptions of songs,” Prégardien explains, “paired with the original songs by lots of composers.” In June, he and pianist Michael Gees will go into the studio again, this time for a disc of songs by Schubert and Wagner, including Prégardien’s first recording of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder.

In the last few years, Prégardien has added conducting to his life. The experiment began with a young period instrument ensemble in Metz called Le Concert Lorrain, which invited him in 2012 to conduct Bach’s St. John Passion. “It is quite different to work as a conductor, even in pieces I know so well,” he explains, “to be responsible for the whole performance, not only for one part of it.”

He took some time to study conducting, knowing that it entailed a whole list of other demands as opposed to singing. “With the repertoire I know well, I can give something to the musicians and especially to the singers,” he says. That collaboration has led to other opportunities, including Prégardien’s upcoming first appearance conducting an unnamed orchestra. “It will be Mozart’s Requiem,” he says, “with a big, professional orchestra.”

For someone who has worked with so many excellent conductors over his career, in opera and orchestral repertoire, whose example does he try to follow? “I especially liked how Fabio Luisi conducts,” he responds, “so I worked with him just on the technique of beating. What he is doing looks so clear, so I approached him to work with me.” He cites his work with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Philippe Herreweghe as the most influential on him over the years.

“For the interpretation of Bach,” he explains, “Herreweghe is for me the most important conductor. Although he is not a native speaker of the German language, he knows so many things about Baroque language, about spiritual things, and he is able to give all that to his musicians in concert.” Prégardien is delighted that Herreweghe has invited him to conduct his ensemble, Collegium Vocale Gent, for a 2019 tour of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. “I am looking forward to that very much,” he says with a broad smile.

Christoph Prégardien and Julius Drake perform an all-Schubert recital 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. vocalartsdc.org; 202-669-1463.

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