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Franz SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
Song Cycles
Die schöne Müllerin, D795 (1823) [61:39]
Schwanengesang, D957 (1828), and other Lieder [71:48]
Winterreise, D911 (1827/8) [70:43]
Christoph Prégardien (tenor)
Michael Gees (piano)
Andreas Staier (fortepiano)
rec. 2007-12, Galaxy Studios, Mol, Belgium
Sung texts with English translations enclosed.
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview.
CHALLENGE CC72665 [3 CDs: 204:10]

Christoph Prégardien has stood out as one of the most reliable and natural interpreters of German Lieder, and Schubert’s songs have obviously been close to his heart. He has returned to them from time to time. The three discs in this collection have previously been available separately, but here they are now, conveniently gathered in a box. The earliest recording is Die schöne Müllerin, which I reviewed very positively when it was new. Returning to it after thirteen years I found that I had no reason to change my verdict and reprint the full review:

“Hard on the heels of Andreas Post and Tatjana Dravenau (see review) comes another tenor version of Schubert’s indestructible Die schöne Müllerin with Christoph Prégardien and Michael Gees. While Post is quite early in his career, Prégardien has been active for some two decades as a recording artist and his discography is extensive, to say the least. He recorded Die schöne Müllerin in 1991 with Andreas Staier (fortepiano), a reading that was awarded the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis in 1993 (now Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88985456992, 4 CDs) and when he now returns to this work, he has radically changed his approach.

I have sampled a few songs from the earlier issue and what we hear there is a youthful, fluent lyric tenor, quite straight-forward and the accompaniments are in accord. The mature Prégardien – he turned 50 in 2006 – has mellowed a little and there are some signs of strain in the upper region of the voice but by and large he has preserved all the best qualities of twenty years ago while, as far as I could judge from the snippets I heard, he has deepened his insight.

Tempos are generally moderate, giving him ample opportunities to mould the phrases expressively and his readings are considered and emanating from intimate knowledge of the text. There is nothing sensational or showy about his readings; they just seem natural, unaffected but committed. The ebb and flow of the music is well catered for, and the dynamic range is – well, natural and unaffected.

What makes this reading stand out and – to some listeners at least – may be controversial is the question of embellishment. It is well documented, that singers also in Schubert’s time tended to decorate the music with grace-notes and even modification of notes. Sometimes, at least in the case of Johann Michael Vogl, maybe the most important champion of Schubert’s songs, this was due to the ageing singer’s fallible ability, but performance practice was that there was a certain amount of freedom for the singer to improvise, not actually rewrite what was written.

Prégardien decorates the song-line mostly discriminatingly and primarily in strophic songs where he avoids monotony by varying the line slightly from stanza to stanza. It is tastefully done and for listeners who know the songs more or less by heart it gives added pleasure to wait for the next deviation from the ‘original’. It is mainly a question of inserted grace-notes and discreet decorations of phrases but sometimes he also changes the melody considerably and even opts for final notes of a phrase an octave lower than written. Jan Kobow, whose recording has been my favourite version since I reviewed it a couple of years ago, also decorates, but much less than Prégardien, who moreover makes quite heavy ritardandi, mostly at the end of songs and rarely overindulgently, but I can imagine listeners being irritated.

Michael Gees, who throughout the cycle is a wonderfully responsive accompanist, also inserts some extra notes once in a while, and sometimes plays a phrase out of his own invention. It is all tastefully done, and I ended up with a sense of having heard the cycle with new ears. All the songs were there, and they sounded as I was used to hearing them, but just as with a newly restored old painting where the removal of centuries of discoloured varnish makes the picture that much more vivid, so Prégardien’s and Gees’s restoration work reveals hitherto unseen tinges.

My admiration for Jan Kobow’s recording is undiminished, but Christoph Prégardien now enters my shortlist of really important versions of Die schöne Müllerin. The SACD recording is first class and allows the listener to appreciate every nuance of the reading. (The reissues are on CD.) Walther Dürr’s liner notes are excellent.

A deeply satisfying reading of Die schöne Müllerin, made special by the quite extensive decorations of the song-line.”

I may have been too concerned about the embellishments then. Today they sound only natural and part of the interpretative freedom for the artist. You’ll find the same approach in the Schwanengesang songs on CD 2, and the decorations are just as tasteful there. What can be more controversial is the amendment of the cycle.

To begin with, it isn’t a cycle at all. After Schubert’s death, his publisher Tobias Haslinger simply issued “the final fruits of his noble power” which he had obtained from Schubert’s brother Ferdinand, under the collective title Schwanen-Gesang: seven songs set to poems by Ludwig Rellstab, six to texts by Heinrich Heine, and a single song to a text by Schubert’s friend Gabriel Seidl, Die Taubenpost. There is no common theme or a continuous story that legitimates the soubriquet “cycle” – only those “final fruits”. And since there were other “final fruits” to texts by Rellstab and Seidl, Prégardien saw a possibility to enlarge the Swan Song to be more comprehensive, by adding Rellstab’s Herbst before the Schwanengesang proper, and six Seidl texts after Die Taubenpost. These six were not quite contemporaneous with the others, having been composed in 1826, but are still fairly late.

This amended Schwanengesang works fine as a unit. Herbst (Autumn) opens with gusting winds, heard in the prelude and throughout the song, and nature is present in the next song, Liebesbotschaft, where we hear instead the rushing of the brook. As always Prégardien is a model for clear enunciation of the text, without being over-emphatic – and he is so delicately nuanced. And so is Andreas Staier. The ominous Kriegers Ahnung is masterly in the sensitive modulations of the voice. Frühlingssehnsucht and Ständchen, two songs that are frequently sung separately, are superbly done, and listen to how he tastefully inserts grace notes. I sat spellbound through the eight Rellstab songs. And the Heine group is just as successful. Der Atlas, where the titan complains: “The whole world of pain I must carry”; the inward, almost hesitant Ihr Bild; the heart-rending Am Meer; the ghostlike Der Doppelgänger – they are all so ideally interpreted. And after Die Taubenpost, where Schwanengesang ends, we are vouchsafed another half-dozen of Seidl settings (see below). Der Wanderer an den Mond is well-known, but all of them are lovely songs and they are interpreted with the same care for dynamics as the rest of the programme.

Winterreise, on CD3, was recorded a few years later. Here Michael Gee is back at the piano, and together they create a chamber-size cycle full of sensitive nuances. The opening Gute Nacht sets the seal on the whole work with delicate legato singing, worlds apart from the stamping foursquare delivery of some well-known baritones. Prégardien employs his half-voice to great effect, but there is deep feeling in the reading. Die Wetterfahne is eager and intense – but still within an intimate frame. In fact, intensity is omnipresent throughout the performance. Der Lindenbaum is restrained and beautiful from the beginning; Die kalten Winde bliesen is forceful, but the conclusion of the song is wonderfully soft. When we reach Frühlingstraum (tr. 11) the pain begins to creep in and becomes our companion up to the last few songs, where a resigned calmness takes over.

In the second part, Die Post is a temporary gleam of light, but Die Post bringt keinen Brief für dich, and the pain returns.Täuschung (tr. 19) brings another ray of hope, but ein helles, warmes Haus, und eine liebe Seele drin, was only an illusion. In the last four songs, the wanderer has become reconciled with his lot, and is already walking in the valleys of the shadows of death. Die Nebensonnen (tr. 23) is so touching in Prégardien’s reading, as is Der Leiermann, where the old organ-grinder stands barefoot on the ice … I was deeply moved by this Winterreise and among tenors I can’t recall another singer who touched me so much – apart from John Elwes (see review), whose reading is quite different from Prégardien’s. The whole set is a triumph for Christoph Prégardien’s refined interpretations, and I urge readers to sample it. I wouldn’t be surprised if more than one were to place their orders at once.

Göran Forsling

CD 2 [71:48]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
Text: Ludwig RELLSTAB (1799–1860)
1. Herbst D 945 (1828) [3:19]
Schwanengesang, D 957 Nos. I – VII (1828)
2. Liebesbotschaft [2:42]
3. Kriegers Ahnung [4:45]
4. Frühlingssehnsucht [3:42]
5. Ständchen [3:20]
6. Aufenthalt [2:39]
7. In der Ferne [6:35]
8. Abschied [4:10]
Schwanengesang, D 957 Nos. VIII – XIII (1828)
Text: Heinrich HEINE (1797–1856)
9. Der Atlas [2:05]
10. Ihr Bild [2:45]
11. Das Fischermädchen [1:56]
12. Die Stadt [2:18]
13. Am Meer [3:59]
14. Der Doppelgänger [4:05]
Songs after Seidl:
Text: Johann Gabriel SEIDL (1804–1875)
15. Die Taubenpost D 965 A (1828) [3:22]
16. Sehnsucht D 879 (1826) [2:21]
17. Am Fenster D 878 (1826) [3:45]
18. Bei dir allein D 866 (1826) [1:55]
19. Der Wanderer an den Mond D 870 (1826) [2:17]
20. Das Zügenglöcklein D 871 (1826) [4:13]
21. Im Freien D880 (1826) [4:54]

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