This beautifully imaginative album “Auf Flügeln des Gesanges: Romantic songs and piano transcriptions,” on Challenge Records, alternates between a song and its own piano transcription: from a Schubert song to Liszt’s Schubert, from Schumann’s song to Clara Schumann’s transcription of her husband’s work, from a Brahms piece to a Gerald Moore’s Brahms; and it combines the talents of two great performers—tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Cyprien Katsaris—in these two different yet related art forms.
The public song recital is a relatively recent phenomenon, as a song was often a more domestic genre with public recitals tending to be a mix of song and instruments. It was Liszt’s example that transferred the song to the concert hall via the piano transcription. So while it might not seem an obvious course to us—that is, transcribing a song for voice and piano for just piano—it was an established part of 19th-century repertoire and the melding of melody and accompaniment allowed for an element of discreet bravura on the piano.
Prégardien and Katsaris have worked together before, on Schubert’s “Die Winterreise,” but this program gives both of them a solo spotlight. Throughout the album, I was aware of Katsaris as very much a partner. His piano accompaniments take on a strong character of their own, one which complements the singer and very much creates a discrete whole, even in the songs where the piano’s role is relatively straightforward.
I don’t know whether it is accident or design, but a number of the earlier songs on the disc have finely flowing piano accompaniments.
It starts with Schubert’s “Die Forelle,” and immediately I enjoyed the way Prégardien brings out the words to the ultimate extent. While their vocal qualities are rather different, the singer of whom he most reminded me was, in fact, Peter Pears. This is followed by Liszt’s transcription of the song: Schubert’s melody and accompaniment, but Liszt makes rather more dazzle with them. Katsaris beautifully suggests foreground and background, and as the verses develop, so Liszt gives us some real textures—delightful.
Schubert’s “Liebesbotschaft” from “Schwanengesang” is quite light and touching, with the piano part flowing like water. Leopold Godowsky’s transcription embeds Schubert’s melody in this water flow, creating quite a mellow sound.
“Frühlingsnacht” from Schumann’s “Liederkreis,” Op.39, is wonderfully impulsive, with Katsaris giving the piano part a very definite character of its own. Clara Schumann’s transcription of her husband’s song is from a collection of 30 that she did, presumably to include in her own recitals as she was a keen promoter of her husband’s work. It is quite a straightforward transcription, but the way melody and accompaniment are combined gives the pianist the opportunity for some quietly bravura moments. Clara Schumann’s playing was never showy, in the manner of Liszt, as you see here.
Her own song from 1853, “Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort,” comes from “Sechs Lieder aus Jucunde,” Op.23. It is rather lyrical, Schumann-esque in style, with a sense of understated passion and a delicate piano part. Liszt’s transcription really captures the mood of the song, and it is lovely the way the melody is embedded in the light accompaniment.
Liszt’s own “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome” is quite dramatic, with Prégardien giving a direct performance supported by the gentle flow of the piano. (The river is definitely in quieter mood.) Liszt’s own transcription of the song is very much about the flow of the piano texture rather than the vocal melody, and the transcription seems to be even more dramatic than the original song.
“Träume” from Richard Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder” receives a finely intimate performance, with Wagner’s distinctive harmonic style prefiguring “Tristan und Isolde.” This is not an operatic performance, the two performers giving us very much a song in intimate surroundings. August Stradal’s transcription has a somewhat lusher texture and successfully reinvents the song as a Romantic piano miniature. (Stradal was a Czech pianist and arranger. He was a student of Bruckner’s, and arranged some of Bruckner’s symphonies for piano.)
Richard Strauss’s “Freundliche Vision” is quietly intense and magical, with Prégardien demonstrating a lovely ease in the vocal line. Walter Gieseking’s version is described as a free arrangement, but it is very much a song transcription, with the melody placed against the accompaniment in the piano texture.
Theodor Kirchner was a friend of Johannes Brahms, and Robert and Clara Schumann. His “Frühlingslied” from 10 Lieder, Op. 1, has a Brahmsian charm that comes over in Kirchner’s unshowy transcription. Brahms’s “Agnes” from “Acht Lieder und Gesänge,” Op.59, is more darkly dramatic, to which Prégardien and Katsaris give a lovely melancholic glow. Kirchner’s transcription successfully reinvents the song as a rather Brahmsian intermezzo.
Brahms’s ”Vergebliches Ständchen” from “Fünf Romanzen und Lieder,” Op.84, is delightfully characterful and positively skittish. Eduard Schütt’s transcription is in fact, a paraphrase, so we quickly move from straight transcription into something more pianistically bravura and stray a long way from Brahms, though the result is truly delightful.
The final work on the disc is Brahms’s “Wiegenlied,” which is sung in a beautifully shaped and highly artful performance, and then in a transcription by the great accompanist Gerald Moore.
Robert Hugill is a composer, lecturer, journalist, and classical music blogger. He runs the classical music blog Planet Hugill, writes for the Opera Today website, and Opera Today and Opera magazines. He lectures and gives pre-concert talks on opera and classical music in London. As a composer, his disc of songs “Quickening” was issued by Navona Records in 2017. This article, edited, is reprinted with permission from Planet Hugill.