Prégardien’s storytelling creates vivid journey in Vocal Arts recital

Sun Feb 25, 2018 at 10:22 am

Christoph Prégardien performed a recital for Vocal Arts DC Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Christoph Prégardien had not been to Washington since a 1999 recital presented by Vocal Arts DC. The same organization brought the German tenor back Saturday night, for an all-Schubert recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Some of the vocal splendor may have dimmed, but if anything the refinement of this performance revealed an urbane deepening of interpretation.

As Prégardien described in a recent interview, the program is drawn from an award-winning disc called Poetisches Tagebuch, made with pianist Julius Drake, who was the tenor’s keyboard partner for this recital. The inspirational kernel of the concert, Schubert’s nine settings of poetry by Ernst Schulze, featured on the first half. When Schubert set these poems, in 1825 and 1826, he may have seen in the poet’s early death, from tuberculosis at an even younger age than Schubert would die in just a couple years, a prefiguration of his own.

Scholars have labeled this set of Schubert’s Schulze songs the “Little Winterreise,” and the trotting rhythm of the first song, “Auf der Bruck,” does indeed establish the feeling of a journey. Bolstered by Drake’s rollicking touch at the keyboard, Prégardien created a sense of tense excitement with precise diction and articulation. With an entirely different palette of musical elements, all legato phrasing and lighter dynamics, “Der liebliche Stern” was a study in contrast to the first song.

Prégardien used sheets of lyrics on a music stand as an aide-mémoire but kept his expressive face and body language always focused on the audience. In longer, even mostly strophic songs, he created peaks of musical sound, scaling up and down them in a way always diverting to the ear, as in the sweetly forlorn “Um Mitternacht.” Sometimes an air of unpredictability kept the sense of routine at bay, as when he explosively set off at a faster tempo in “Im Walde,” after Drake’s slower introduction.

The attempt to imbue “Lebensmut” with a rash, youthful energy led to some trouble for Prégardien at the top of his range, as well as clotting some of the repeated notes in the piano accompaniment. Directly after it, in a gorgeous rendition of “Im Frühling,” Prégardien finessed the high notes with beautiful stillness, still-powerful breath support used to link together long phrases.

Vocal Arts DC may want to reconsider its experiment with supertitles, displaying English translations of the poetry, as a computer glitch of some kind led to the projection of a computer desktop for an extended period during “An mein Herz.” Even with that distraction, Prégardien and Drake brought the Schulze set to a storm-tossed conclusion.

In the second half, the performers offered some of their favorite Schubert songs. Highlights included the distracted harmonies and crooned high notes of the curious “Daß sie hier gewesen” and a time-stopping rendition of “Du bist die Ruh,” one of Schubert’s most familiar songs, here made to sound completely new. There was both drama, like the lightning and thunder crackling in Drake’s fingers in “Im Walde” (this time to a poem by Friedrich von Schlegel), and nocturnal stillness, as in a glacial “Nacht und Träume,” imbued with religious devotion.

The sole moment of levity came in the light-hearted “Fischerweise,” supplied with lusty joy by both singer and pianist. As if to compensate for this momentary happiness, the grim plaint of “Totengräbers Heimweh” followed, a gravedigger’s contemplation of the finality of death. After a meditative performance of “Der Winterabend,” a last narrative foray into Schubert’s bleakest worlds, the performers, ultimately coaxed into an encore, serenaded the audience with Schubert’s “Ständchen.”

Vocal Arts DC next presents baritone Theo Hoffman and pianist Bradley Moore 7:30 p.m. March 20 at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.; 202-669-1463.

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