With an all-star line-up and an average of four concerts each day, The Schubert Project has taken the Oxford Lieder Festival to a new level. Performing every song written by Schubert over three weeks (interspersing them with masterclasses, talks, plays and Viennese coffee mornings), this is their most ambitious season to date: quite a statement, given that their previous venture was recording the complete songs of Hugo Wolf. Bringing the second weekend to its close was one of the composer's greatest and best-loved works, Die schöne Mullerin, performed by the German tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Roger Vignoles. Before the performance began, though, a brief foray into a different side of 19th century Vienna: four performers in period dress performed a trinklied, lending a light-hearted start to proceedings.

Christoph Prégardien © Marco Borggreve
Christoph Prégardien
© Marco Borggreve

Christoph Prégardien's voice may seem slightly mature for the youthful miller, but any such reservations receded into insignificance given his ability to bring out the expressive nuances of the text. Immediately striking up a rapport with the audience, he approached Muller's texts with admiration, delighting in the shapes of the words and shading them according to their emotional content. Although he lent a sense of poetry to the text, Prégardien's interpretation was refreshingly unaffected: music was never secondary to drama, and he revelled in Schubert's lyrical lines and the carefully crafted structures of each song. 

The lasting impression of one of Prégardien's performances is of the sheer beauty of his voice. His lyric tenor is bright but creamy, with a shimmer of vibrato to warm the sound: his is a voice one could listen to for hours. His use of the head-voice was carefully measured to magical effect, adding to the sense of vulnerability which underpinned even such songs as the soaring “Am Feierabend”. Admittedly, the effortlessness of the opening songs was lost as the cycle progressed: the top of his range was often thin, and he erred increasingly to the flat side of the notes.

Prégardien's reading was defined by a sense of spaciousness, a poetic declamation of the text which allowed him the room to elucidate the underlying expressive content. Admittedly, there were some interpretative quirks: Prégardien had a tendency to strike notes in his upper range before allowing them to grow, resulting in a strange squeezebox effect. “Mein!” was slightly unsettled as a result of his ardent outpouring of emotion, while “Der Jäger” was close to shouting. However, these were merely the extreme end of Prégardien's characterisation: an innocent soul with his heart on his sleeve, the singer brought a sincerity to his embodiment of the miller. The tenor's account may lack the penetrating psychological depth of other interpretations of the song cycle, but it was no less viable. Emphasising the sunny personality of the miller meant that the quiet resignation of his death was all the more moving.

The collaboration of Prégardien and Vignoles was initially strained, with the pianist's performance oddly mannered and inflexible, jarring against the tenor's more flexible interpretation. Where Prégardien seemed to enter into the poetic realm instinctively, Vignoles struggled to engage with the text. The performance only became an equal partnership at “Am Feierabend”, as he embraced a more nuanced reading which embraced the flexibility of Prégardien's reading. Vignoles still suffered from a tendency to overpedal. 

An encore of “Liebesbotschaft” from Schwanengesang displayed Prégardien's radiant sound for a final time. It is hard to deny that the tenor is a joy to listen to, which only made the technical lapses all the more disappointing and tainted an otherwise exceptional performance.

***11