REVIEW: (Peter Jacobi, Herald Times): Menahem Pressler gives the audience a gift on 89th birthday


Menahem Pressler gives the audience a gift on 89th birthday

By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer
December 18, 2012

Let’s start with the unusual.

Here it was, on Menahem Pressler’s 89th birthday, and instead of others making him the recipient of presents, it was he who gave.

Here it was on Sunday evening in Auer Hall when, instead of happy music for a joyous occasion, this remarkable artist concentrated on one of classical music’s most emotionally searing works, Schubert’s “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”).

But then, as he insisted when explaining the why for this concert, Pressler wanted to mark the event by sharing music “gratefully” at home in his beloved Bloomington. And how better do that, he reasoned, than with Schubert, one of the pianist’s great joys.

“Winterreise,” of course, requires more than a pianist. It demands a singer who not only can supply vocal beauty across a span of 75 minutes but give the score all of its needed passionate intensity. Pressler had such a musician in Christoph Pregardien, a distinguished German tenor who has made “Winterreise” one of his specialties.

For Pressler, who has spent a lifetime blending his pianism with other instrumentalists, including those 54 memorable years as founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio, collaborating with a singer was new, an experiment first tried with Pregardien last summer at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland. The object of attention then as on Sunday was the Schubert song cycle, based on 24 poems by a contemporary of the composer, Wilhelm Muller.

The poems follow a man shorn of his love, traveling alone through a winter landscape. He is in despair, unwilling, unable to see anything save gloom. His mood is unsparingly sad. “My heart seems to be dead,” the traveler says in “Erstarrung” (“Benumbed”). “Her picture is frozen within it. Should my heart ever melt again. Her picture will flow away, too.”

Later, in “Letzte Hoffnung” (“Last Hope”), he watches the last leaf on a tree, attaching his “hopes upon it. If the wind plays with my leaf, I tremble in every limb. Oh, and if the leaf falls to the ground . I fall together with it.”

Schubert’s music — for both singer and pianist — adds heat, adds misery, adds disconsolation. Expressiveness comes not just from the words but the piano accompaniment, it bulging with description: the stinging wind, the icy river, the plaintive sing-song of the Hurdy-Gurdy Man (“Der Leiermann”) in the closing song, an eerie evocation of the man looking into the void, his future. One can but wonder what composing this music did emotionally to Schubert during an illness-ridden, often tempestuous year that was to be his last in a tragically short life.

Pregardien’s traversal through all this heart-wrench was breathtaking. Very quickly, as the music began, he became the forlorn traveler telling his story, living it. The voice encompassed mournful lyricism, fleeting moments of gentle memory, bursts of anger, overpowering regret, the embrace of impending, yearned-for death.

Watching and listening to Menahem Pressler, one felt as if he had been collaborating with singers all his life. He seemed immersed in the tale. There was thought in every phrase, tension in every hush. The musings were arrestingly dreamy or nightmarish. The climaxes had affecting power. He was, throughout, in the presence of Schubert.

Together, Pregardien and Pressler journeyed through the haunting cycle, firmly tied to their harrowing and sincere interpretation, sometimes verging on what came across as almost spontaneous, even though the performance was, one knew, carefully considered and honed. With this “Winterreise,” the two colleagues fully honored Schubert.

The hall-filling audience sat in sustained silence from start to finish and, when the music faded away, remained so for what must have been a good part of a minute. Then, there followed the applause, the standing recognition, and the cheers for this unusual birthday event.

Copyright: 2012


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