Bag & Baggage Theater Productions Shakespeare Hillsboro Oregon

Sending sorrow to the ocean floor: Christoph Prégardien and Gloria Chien

Love and loss seesaw deliciously in CMNW lieder recital at The Old Church.

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The anguish of unrequited love is compelling stuff, especially when sung by German tenor Christoph Prégardien with Gloria Chien accompanying him. They performed a selection of lieder by Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann at The Old Church on February 24 that conveyed a large palette of emotions, painting a world of love and loss embodied in poetry from the Romantic era. 

With more than 150 recordings under his belt and appearances in opera houses and concert stages around the world, Prégardien is considered one of the preeminent lyric tenors of our time. Three years ago, Gloria Chien, the superb pianist and co-artistic director of Chamber Music Northwest, heard him sing a recital in Georgia. She was so moved that she went backstage afterwards and asked him to come to Portland. To her surprise, he agreed.

Christoph Prégardien and Gloria Chien at The Old Church, Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Invisible Harness.
Christoph Prégardien and Gloria Chien at The Old Church, Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Invisible Harness.

So now, with the pandemic easing up a bit, Prégardien flew to the Rose City, making the concert with Chien his only North American appearance this year. During his brief time in Oregon, he made it a point to do a master class with voice students at Portland State University. What a treat for those singers! Perhaps one of them will be able to study with him someday at the Academy of Music in Cologne where he is on the faculty.

Even though Prégardien has built an international career singing as a tenor, he has done some performances as a baritone. In 2018 he released an album of Bach and Telemann cantatas for baritone voice. That may have helped to explain why the first half of his CMNW program featured his lower range.

Although Beethoven reportedly noted that he was not a fan of writing songs, he still managed to write 80 of them–of which “Adelaide” is considered the most popular. Set to the poetry of Friedrich von Matthisson, it reveals the love for a woman who is unattainable. Prégardien and Chien swept the audience into Beethoven’s idealism, painting idyllic scenes and a final wish that even graveside flowers would someday sing of his beloved.

For Beethoven’s “Wonne der Wehmut” (Delight in Melancholy), the duo embodied Goethe’s poem by creating a sorrowful place where the narrator dwelled on unhappy love. That mood was completely changed with “Neue Liebe, neues Leben” (New Love, new Life), a peppy setting of another Goethe poem. It swirled tantalizingly with hope, yet was etched with wariness of the charms of a new romantic interest.

Christoph Prégardien and Gloria Chien at The Old Church, Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Invisible Harness.
Christoph Prégardien and Gloria Chien at The Old Church, Feb. 24, 2022. Photo by Invisible Harness.

Schubert wrote some 600 lieder and is considered one of the greatest composers of that genre. After he died , 14 of his last songs were published with the title Schwanengesang (Swansong). Although the tunes don’t constitute a song cycle like Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey), they do have similar thematic material about love, nature, and loss. From Schwanengesang, the audience heard the first seven numbers, which beautifully interpreted the poetry of Ludwig Rellstab. The word painting of Prégardien’s voice–complemented by Chein’s dazzling pianism–seesawed back and forth between hopefulness and dejection.

In “Liebesbotschaft” (Love’s Message), Prégardien described a flowing brook that becomes the messenger between two lovers. But “Kriegers Ahnung” (Warrior’s Foreboding) conveyed a tinge of tragedy for a soldier in danger of never seeing his beloved again. In “Frühlingssehnsuct” (Longing in Springtime) Prégardien filled the hall with a yearning for love, and that desire grew even more ardent in “Ständchen” (Serenade), which moved subtly between major and minor keys. Yet that love went into a tailspin in “Aufenthalt” (My Abode), causing the narrator in “In der Ferne” (Far Away) to leave his homeland. In the final song, “Abschied” (Departure), Prégardien and Chien painted a melancholy scene with farewells to the town, the gardens, the girls, and the stars.

Robert Schumann, wrote over 100 lieder in 1840 when he was 30 years old. He collected 16 of these songs, which set the poetry of Heinrich Heine, in Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love). This song cycle typically takes about 30 minutes, with some of the numbers clocking in at under a minute and others lasting up to four minutes.

Starting with “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” (In the Wondrous Month of May), Prégardien and Chien created a mesmerizing, dreamy mood. Two songs later, the feeling of love rushed headlong in “Die Rose, die Lilie” (The Rose, the Lily) and arrived in blissful state over the next three numbers. But that emotion quickly dissolved. “Ich grolle nicht” (I Bear No Grudge) reacted angrily to betrayal. The next songs descended into lament, reflection, self-pity, and remorse, and a sea of emotions. But the last song, “Die alten, bösen Lieder” (The Bad Old Songs), was the most memorable. Prégardien sang of how he must bury his sadness in a huge coffin that twelve giants carry and sink into the sea. And Chien, in a masterful way, got the last word, emphatically sending the Poet’s sorrow to the ocean floor.

Throughout the performance, Chien demonstrated an uncanny ability to listen, breathe, and phrase along with Prégardien. Together, the two artists created a sublime evening that will be cherished for a long time.

Visit CMNW’s website to stream this concert, which will be available to watch “At-Home” from Thursday, March 10, 7:30 pm, through midnight March 17.

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James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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