From one perspective Christoph Pregardien is the ideal lieder singer. His lyric tenor is as clear, graceful, and unforcedly attractive as on record, and his German diction is itself almost as great a pleasure. In his voice each song is shaped into an whole, but one pleasing in every part. And yet...
Sunday he performed an all-German recital at the new Alice Tully Hall with accompanist Michael Gees: first Schumann's Eichendorff "Liederkreis" (op. 39), then -- after an intermission -- seven Wolf songs, also of Eichendorff poems, and three Mahler songs.
All were basically of a piece. Each performance was, as just noted, beautiful in every part -- enough so to raise gooseflesh in the beginning stanzas of the first Mahler selection, "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen". And not just beautiful but clear, intelligent, and using a full dynamic range: one perceived the songs as if enacted in the rippling of great clear waters.
And perhaps that is as they should be, particularly in a mostly-Eichendorff evening. Because the strain that's missing -- the personal yes and no of the subject -- is one Eichendorff labors to efface, in twilight and distance, nature and death. Schumann's "Liederkreis" of his poetry is far from the one set to Heine (op. 24), much less the two great love-story sets of that same year ("Frauenliebe und -leben" and "Dichterliebe", the latter also after Heine): in these Eichendorff songs the "I" does not much insist; the motion of the pieces is in their tracking of the shadowed and subtle world.
And yet... Perhaps it's from having just heard Rene Pape's titanically subjective rendition of "Dichterliebe" (the ultimate outpouring of Romantic subjectivity), but it seems to me that Schumann, even in setting Eichendorff, never quite dropped this thread of personal insistence (the "Florestan" side of him), and therefore that minimizing it to effect an elegant self-disappearance isn't entirely satisfactory.
So too with Wolf's Eichendorff. In Mahler, Pregardien nailed the uncanny beauty that begins "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen", but the passion that mutedly burns in the song's climax was missed. "Revelge", though an obvious followup thematically, didn't much tell either in his hands. The last song of the set was a near-perfect account of "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" in the day's characteristic already-vanished style. This seems to be how many (most?) singers and listeners see this great piece, but I (also perhaps characteristically) prefer to hear the contest between hot and cold, rapture and detachment. (Ferrier's recording is exemplary in this.)
Gees accompanied terrifically throughout, meticulously energetic and a bit more hard-edged in his objectivity than his partner. The audience responded very well, calling the pair back for three encores: Mahler's "Rheinlegendchen", and two songs from the Heine "Liederkreis" (op. 24): "Mit Myrthen und Rosen" and "Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen". Here I thought Pregardien perfectly caught the springy appeal of Mahler's little love narrative, and though the first Schumann encore (actually the closing song of the op. 24 cycle) inspired the same concerns as the regularly programmed Schumann, "Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen" was as freely and directly felt as one could want -- a perfect few minutes of Romantic love-melancholy.
A memorable afternoon, even if I didn't enjoy it quite as much as others there must have.