Thursday, March 24, 2011

Christoph Pregardien and Ensemble Pentaedre (Canada) with Joseph Petric perform Schubert's "Winterreise"

So much has been written and discussed about Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) “Winterreise” (Winter Journey) D.911, the spine-chilling song cycle Schubert composed for tenor voice and piano to 24 poems of Wilhelm Muller. We have heard the “Winterreise”, sung it, read scholarly interpretations of it, analyzed it on its many fascinating levels and compared interpretations of the work; yet something about the work eludes one. Highly Romantic, yet clothed in Classical restraint, is it really a cycle and what is its message? Or is there one? I believe the enigmatic quality of the work draws listeners back to it again and again. The story of the jilted lover walking out of the town into the inclement, bleak, European winter, a landscape devoid of people (until his meeting with the hurdy-gurdy player), the man’s state of mind mirrored in nature, becomes a somewhat “static” journey. Perhaps the work is about hope or hopelessness; most would agree to say that it alludes to death. In 1827, Schubert was a torch-bearer at Beethoven’s funeral; a year later Schubert, himself, was dead. Following Byron’s death, Muller wrote the poems between 1822 and 1824; he, himself, died in 1827 at age 33, probably never having heard Schubert’s setting of his text. The “Winterreise” is Schubert’s very last work. He did, however, manage to perform the whole cycle with baritone Johann Vogl, Schubert, himself, at the piano.

Playwright Samuel Beckett, a music-lover and amateur pianist, identified with the way the song cycle unfolded, listening to it endless times, “shivering through the grim journey again”. In his final play “What Where”, he alludes to the “Winterreise”:
‘It is winter
Without journey.
Time passes.
That is all.
Make sense who may.
I switch off.’

Curiosity brought large audiences in Israel flocking to hear the chamber version of “Winterreise”, with Schubert’s piano part replaced by wind quintet and accordion, in an arrangement by Canadian oboist Normand Forget. Soloist was the German tenor Christoff Pregardien. He was joined by the superb Pentaedre Quintet (Canada)- Daniele Bourger-flute, Martin Carpentier-clarinets, Normand Porget-oboe, Mathieu Lussier-bassoon, Louis-Philippe Marsolais-horn and accordionist Joseph Petric. This writer attended the performance at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem YMCA, on March 21st, 2011. The order of songs chosen by Forget was influenced by the original order of Muller’s poems.

From the first strains of the opening song “Gute Nacht” (Good Night) the audience is drawn into a mesmerizing, lush sound world created by voice and instruments. Normand Forget paints Schubert’s piano gestures in shades of instrumental color, mixing timbres as only a master orchestrator does. Motifs and underlying messages written into the original piano score are heightened. Forget’s use of bass clarinet (Martin Carpentier) seems to evoke wistful memories, hidden in the subconscious, his delicate use of accordion (Joseph Petric) conjuring up the nostalgic and gentle as in the dream sections of “Fruhlingstraum” (Dream of Spring) , the flute (Daniele Bourget) depicting light and weightlessness, as the crow in “Die Krahe” (The Crow) soars upwards into the sky. The horn completes the picture of the mail carriage in “Die Post” (The Post) bringing hope for a letter that does not arrive. Dramatic moments are highlighted, sometimes startlingly so, but never too thickly scored to be articulate. Forget’s effective use of instrumental color is matched by economy of sound, strategic timing and sensitive dynamics.

In “Das Wirtshaus” (The Hostelry) Forget gives the accordion the soothing, gentle chordal introduction. The instrumentalists then (excepting accordion and flute) become a (vocal) choir, creating a wonderfully coordinated and dynamic choral blend of humming. Schubert’s inn is, indeed, a church, providing respite and tranquility and the idea of making this “hymn” a choral one is a stroke of brilliance on Forget’s part.

Presently a professor of the Cologne Academy of Music, Christoph Pregardien’s repertoire spans from Baroque- to contemporary music, from performing recitals, to singing with orchestras and to the opera stage. He is, however, one of today’s foremost Lied singers. His total immersion in the “Winterreise” and compelling treatment of each song ensures keeping his listeners under his spell. His warm, mellifluous voice boasts color, stability and reliability in all registers, his diction is crystal clear and he wields his theatrical sense subtly and respectfully. He takes us through the gamut of emotions of the work, his facial expression – mostly his eyes - hinting as to courage, calm, optimism, fond memories, illusion, anger and despair. In the final song “Der Leiermann” (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man), the accordion plays the drone evoking the stark, medieval quality of one of the eeriest moments in music. This is punctuated by “comments” on the oboe. Pregardien describes the pathetic hurdy-gurdy man with calm empathy that spirals into a sense of warm satisfaction. With this, he perhaps confirms how enigmatic the work is.

Normand Forget’s courageous “Winterreise” project is drawing audiences to concert halls to hear and “experience” this arrangement. Its strength lies in the fact that he bases it totally on Schubert’s score, thus paying homage to the picturesque richness, motifs and emotional depth of the piano part. The Pentaedre Ensemble’s excellence, attention to fine detail and good taste do justice to this fascinating project. Kudos to all the players and to accordionist Joseph Petric for his outstandingly sensitive contribution and to tenor Christoph Pregardien for a musical experience to remember!

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