Classical; Christoph Pregardien (tenor) Michael Gees (piano) St John's, Smith Square, London
Friday 26 April 1996
Last Monday, Pregardien was billed to sing Lieder by Schubert and Schumann's Dichterliebe with the exciting period keyboard specialist Andreas Staier. Staier was replaced by Michael Gees playing the usual Steinway, but any disappointment on one level was more than compensated by delight and surprise on another. These 55 minutes would have been an education to anyone who still, in this enlightened day and age, thinks that the pianist in Lieder is secondary to the singer.
Not that Gees was good news absolutely all the time. In Schubert's Der Musensohn, he pounced on the accents so hard he destroyed any sense of rhythmic buoyancy; Pregardien must have found it hard to get airborne against this choppiness and though not actually out of time with each other, pianist and singer seemed far apart in feeling. In Erlkonig, on the other hand, Gees kept his eyes fixed on Pregardien throughout, heedless of the score or his hands, and the two men seemed to fuse. When Pregardien pushed his tone, at the start of this miniature drama, his voice seemed a bit tinny and small; but as he varied its colour, he was more impressive, producing a good bassy quality for the father's responses, and ringing out wonderfully for the boy's last appeal. In Erster Verlust I'm sure Gees didn't mean to upstage Pregardien but, in effect, that is what he did, because his sensitivity to nuances showed precisely what was lacking in the singer's rather stiff performance.
Schumann's Dichterliebe, 16 settings of Heine's love poems, was ideal for the two as a team, because the voice so often leaves the final word to the pianist. If I had to choose the loveliest song in the world, I should find it hard to beat the fifth of the cycle - Ich will meine Seele tauchen, in which the piano floats a descant above the voice part and then takes over when the singer falls silent. Gees was delicate, tender, then swelled with real ardour at the end, and Pregardien's perfectly tuned simplicity made for a performance you could hardly have bettered.
Ich grolle nicht was taken quite gently, very well sung against discreetly cushioned strumming on the piano - no pounding from Gees here. But in the next song, Und wussten's die Blumen, Pregardien showed an unyielding, wooden quality, as if the pain expressed in the words triggered a stiffening of musical feeling, and in Das ist ein Floten und Geigen, he started to ham up the implied drama, hands stretched out to grip the piano behind him, as if he had just seen a ghost. For the most part, he did not look very expressive, but rather like a machine for singing, so perhaps radio listeners created a better image for themselves.
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