This was, without any doubt, one of the finest Lieder recitals I have heard in years. With such a perfect programme and performers, it is remarkable that the Queen's Hall was not quite sold out. To add to the musical quality, incidentally, the two appeared in frock coats; and their comfortable platform manner and interaction throughout intensified our experience of such well-prepared and well-judged performances.
Dichterliebe, from Schumann's annus mirabilis of 1840, is clearly a masterpiece but also a puzzle: why, having happily secured the hand of his beloved Clara, did he pour such inspiration into Heine's bitter love-poems? Whatever the explanation, this performance realised perfectly the many different aching qualities of unrequited love which these songs express.
© Rosa Frank
Technically, this was done partly by Michael Gees' extremely expressive playing, from the first equivocal introduction of Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, to the many extended piano postludes of individual songs, where he found great colour variations. However I did find his frequent smudged pedalling - so frequent as to be deliberate - a slight distraction.
Christoph Prégardien's smooth lyric tenor was ideal for Schumann's plaintive melodies, wistful and without resolution in the early songs, then finding a richly contrasting tone for Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome and the well-known Ich grolle nicht, here even darker than usual.
They managed to catch the mood of each of these sixteen songs while effortlessly linking them coherently. They also took considerable liberties with tempi and pauses, though always artistically justified, making a dramatic recitative of Ich hab' im Traum geweinet and heightening the melodramatic similes of the last song Die alte bösen Lieder, whose sorrowful postlude closed the set.
The second part of their programme was a judicious Mahler selection: three of the whimsical songs, then three serious songs, from Des Knaben Wunderhorn followed by the deeply introspective Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.
For the quirky humour of the lighter songs, Prégardien adopted a different voice: a narrative style using very little sustain until near the end of Rheinlegendchen - and maintained thereafter. Urlicht, which is familiar for female voice from the Second Symphony, here sounded entirely right for his tenor voice. The highlight of this concert for me was their extended sympathetic treatment of Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, from the piano's martial scene-painting to the voice's finely sustained lines.
In Revelge (Reveille) they gradually built up the horror of the drummer-boy's tale. Finally and effectively they released the tension with the calmness of Ich bin der Welt - - . Here Prégardien found an unbelievable sustained pianissimo for the penultimate lines. Then Gees' coda stretched Mahler's suspensions far beyond the piano's sustaining power - and yet musically it worked. Altogether it was extraordinarily moving.
Schumann Dichterliebe Op.48
Mahler Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn:
Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?
Lob des hohen Verstandes
Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen
© Jonas Green. 24 August 2007. First published on www.Edinburghguide.com