How have you found your way to Bach? From whom you learnt how to approach Bach's works?How did I find Bach? Bach found me!!
In Kansas in the 40s and 50s German repertoire was not often sung and if, then in English. My first "Bach" was the "Ave Maria" of Gounod as a boy soprano! A nice start and I have a recording to prove it. In Juilliard I started learning Bach arias with Mack Harrell and even sang the arias in a performance of the St. John in 1953, which was given in a church in New York. The "Eilt"-aria was cut since that was too hard for me at the time – still is. I sang the Christ often but never again the arias.
When I came to Germany things began to change. Bach came into my life. My first concert was in Stuttgart in 1958, a Bach cantata, conducted by a young conductor, Helmut Rilling.
Have you had the opportunity of working with other known authorities in the Bach's vocal works field, such as Karl Richter, Wilhelm Ehmann, Helmut Kahlhöfer, etc.?
Which brings me to the question of conductors. (I´ll come back to Bach later.) the churches and choruses in those days generally took singers from the vicinity. When I was in Stuttgart I sang in the churches there, in Karlsruhe it was the same. In Berlin it was even more so, since if I sang in West Germany or a singer was brought from there to perform in Berlin, the travel costs were high, since one could only fly. Generally the costs had to be carried by the artist, except for big concerts, such as those given by the various radio stations or the important orchestras. The trains through the Russian zone and then the DDR were slow, unheated and uncomfortable. I also had so many dates that I couldn´t waste that much time. I sang over 100 evenings a season up to the end of the 70s.
Rilling had his group of soloists, which he generally used, except for special concerts. This was also true of Karl Richter in Munich. I sang 2 concerts with him in Oxford in 1966. His recordings were made mostly with Fischer-Dieskau. I was not sorry about this, since I found the way he was "worshipped" in Munich rather strange. I remember a big silver poster in Munich with "KARL RICHTER" in gigantic letters across the top. Under this, much smaller, "Matthäus-Passion” and under this, still smaller “Johann Sabastian Bach” That says about everything on this subject. Of course if he had asked, I would have sung with him, it was my business and he paid very good money, but I didn´t miss his not asking.
In Berlin we had excellent choruses and I sang from 1964 an almost all the passions in the Philharmonie. All in all I sang 93 concerts in this marvelous hall and I don´t think any other singer has come near this number.
Another problem with chorus conductors is that they are not primarily symphonic conductors and are generally somewhat lost standing before a first-class orchestra. They concentrate on their choruses, which is what the orchestras prefers. It doesn´t lead to exceptional performances, however.
Unfortunately I have never heard of Wilhelm Ehmann and Helmut Kahlhöfer. There was a tenor named Kahlhöfer, as I remember. He sang the Evangalist in several Matthäus-Passions, in which I sang the Christ. Perhaps Helmut is his son. Don´t forget, I haven´t sung Bach in the "Big-Time" for over 20 years.
You recorded also the Magnificat with Wolfgang Gönnenwein. What can you tell about working with him?
I sang with Gönnenwein often when he was young. The recording of the Magnificat was interesting for us, since Peter Schreier took part and he came from the East. I had not heard much about him and had never heard him sing. The two Germanys were very much apart at that time and although he was charming and sang marvelously, there seemed to be a line between him and the others.
For me, as a "Berliner", it was difficult, since he could leave the DDR when he wished, earning a great deal of money in the West, and others were shot if they tried to flee. For this reason I always refused to sing in the East. I could go over any time, since I was American. I found this somehow perverse. When the Wall fell I sang at the Komische Oper in a modern opera.
Gönnenwein´s concerts were excellent and it was always a joy to work with him. He was and is a very dedicated man, but again, the orchestra could never have the sound it would have with a great symphonic conductor. Eugen Jochum, for example.
I had the great pleasure of singing the Matthäus-Passion under Jochum in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam for 5 years, when he retired. I sang one more series with Ferdinand Leitner, a total of 18 performances in that unbelievable hall. Those with Jochum were the greatest performances of the pieces I have ever heard.
Jochum was not only a great conductor but also a very religious man and believed every word and note of the score. His interpretation was a religious experience and for me this is the only way to approach Bach. Whether you truly believe, whether you are catholic, protestant, jewish or whatever, is not important. In the moment one´s sings or interprets this music, however, one must believe completely and with all your heart. Bach gives you this possibility, it is almost a miracle. Bach was a man of great strength and belief, of power and passion, of sensualness and emotion. To perform his works with a cool, objective perspective, as is often heard today, is something I cannot understand, but I guess passion is something that is not "in trend" today. I have more to say about this when we talk about interpretation of Christ´s words.
During the sixties you recorded many Bach Cantatas with Fritz Werner. Please tell me about your experience of working with him. Who chose the works to be recorded?
It was not as much a question of chosing what one wanted to record, it depended on what the recording companies offered. In 1962 Erato asked me to take part in a recording of the "Weihnachtsoratorium". It was my first important recording and was done in Heilbronn with Fritz Werner. From this recording, which won a prize as the recording of the year in Paris, grew the various contracts with Erato, which lasted quite a few years. I sang a number of Telemann cantatas under Karl Ristenpart, a wonderful musician and person! - which we recorded in Paris and which are really very good. One has the hardest coloraturas that I ever had to sing – and they were my specialty. The scores were copied by hand from the originals in a French museum, since they had not yet been published.
Fritz Werner was a strange man. I have few memories of him but I don´t think I liked him too much. I was young and happy to be able to finally record important works of Bach, especially the solo cantatas, and didn´t really care who conducted. He didn´t bother me and that made it easier. They turned out quite well, I think, and and I really sang all the phrases in BWV 56 in one breath. I always sang them that way, except for one recording later, when I got cold feet. Then I forced myself at the next concert to return to my former breathcontrol and it worked.
I was not a singer who matured early and quickly. I was 34 at the time and was just coming into my best years, which lasted about 15 years. I had also just sung Pelléas at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin and Wolfram in "Tannhäuser" in Bayreuth the Summer before.
I find it amusing how the “experts” today spend years trying to determine how Bach should be sung, what embellishments are correct, what kind of voices or instruments should be used, what Bach “really” meant, etc.. They analyse every phrase. Why? (We have a saying here in Germany, "What does the cathedral in Cologne mind, if a dog pisses on it!") Just sing it from the heart and from the balls – and I don´t mean only loud! Why should a counter-tenor sing the alto parts in the Passions? For Händel they are perfect but for Bach, in my opinion, it takes away the humanness, which only a woman´s voice can impart to these marvellous arias, even if perhaps thewere originally sung by a boy-altus in the church. They can be marvelously sung, but they are somehow abstract and that doesn´t fit the Bach I love.
It is wonderful to write about these things again..Forgive me for being a little aggressive now and then. I am so tired of intellectual Bach!! I am often so full of song that I could burst, but unfortuately I can´t let it out. "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak!"
I have noticed that you recorded some Bach Cantatas together with the famous Dutch/German soprano Agnes Giebel, including the two beautiful duet cantatas BWV 32 & BWV 57. How do you remember her? Do you recall those recordings? Had you discussed with her the right way to interpret these two cantatas before the actual recordings took place?
The recordings I made with Anges Giebel were made, as you know, early in my career. I sang with her many times later, however, since she was in the group of soloists including Marga Höffgen, which was the "First Team of Oratorium" in Germany during the 60s and beginning of the 70s. I was quite a few years younger and hadn´t had very much experience, but they took me under their wings and I learned quickly and well, I guess.
Marga´s husband, Theodor Egel, was a chorus conductor, who performed primarily Bach. He hadn’t perhaps Marga’s overwhelming talent, who was the best alto I ever heard in these works, but he and his chorus not only gave concerts in Freiburg, where he and Marga lived, but also in Frankfurt, and other german cities. We performed the Matthäus-Passion in the palace of the Doge in Venice, which turned into a marvellous "battle" between Tinteretto, Veronese and Bach. Giant spotlights were trained on the massive ceiling, showing the hundreds of colorful bodies framed in endless gold, all seemingly swirlling about, inspried by the Bach coming up from below. What an evening!
It wasn´t possible to take the Freiburg boy´s choir along on this trip to Italy, so they engaged the one from St. Marks Cathedral. When we had our big rehearsal the night before the performance, 10 little boys were standing there, where there are generally at least 20 or 30. (Jochum wrote in an essay about the work that up to a hundred boys could be used, since then they wouldn´t have to sing so strongly and the sound would be better.) We thought nobody would hear a sound. When they began to sing in the first chorus they just blew the orchestra, chorus and our minds away. They were magnificent. It was one of the biggest thrills of the performance. What clear, natural voices! It was in the Spring and it was freezing in the rooms "backstage". I was sure we would all be sick the next day, but we weren´t.
Agnes had – and I guess she is still singing!, God bless her! – a small voice, which would probably never have worked as well on the stage as in the churches – and she was smart enough to know this. It carried like a slender angelic trumpet, however, and it even had something of a boy-soprano quality, as I remember – perfect for this music and the extreme resonance and echo in the churches. Voices with large vibratos get into trouble in such places.
Her voice was just the opposite to Marga´s, whose voluptious sound just swallowed the whole hall, acustics and all! Marga never had the whole score in her lap, only the pages of her arias. She would sit rather forward on her chair, completely immovable and concentrated. When it came time to sing she would stand up and let her charisma flow into the hall. When she was finished she returned to her statuesque position. I loved to listen and to watch. What a wonderful artist and singer – a woman of great simplicity and warmth!
Agnes loved to talk about vocal technique and no singer could get away without discussing this subject with her, often hours on end. She was interested in every new idea and thought on the subject. She was this way as long as she sang and is singular for me in this respect. I loved to sing with her, as one can hear in the recordings. As I said, I was still quite young and very impressed. We also sang some Brahm´s Requiems together, one in Kiel, as I remember.
We never discussed interpretations. It is perhaps a nice illusion that singers do this but it doesn´t happen. Good singers feel what the other singer is going to do and if, in a duet, both are doing this, they fall into line together and make music, both giving and taking. If one of the singers doesn´t have this feeling, then there is no use talking about it. There was certainly no need to discuss it with Agnes, we just sang. Of course there were rehearsals with the conductor to set the tempi and also to find out what special things he desired. Here, too, there were never problems with good conductors. It is the same in the opera, too.
In your last message you wrote: 'they are not very important cantatas for the bass'. What do you mean by that? That the cantatas are not challenging in technical or expressive terms? Or that the part of the bass is relatively short? I listen to the Bach cantatas intensively during the last two and a half years, and write each week a review of the cantata under discussion. From my my personal experiene I can tell you that so far, almost every cantata has given me outmost satisfaction.
I apologize for the remark concerning Cantata 90. Of course I meant it is not so interesting for the bass, only singing recitatives, some of which have very strange texts. They were generally written by personal friends of Bach and few were really literarily gifted.
Non-singers have a big advantage here. They – you – can hear these works without thinking about singing, without your vocal chords moving with the singers. For you Bach can keep it´s magic. It is not always possible for singers while they are performing. Bach can be so difficult that we hardly have time for such thoughts and are more nervous than anything else. It is our business, our profession, and we must find a way to sing it without the audience noticing how truly difficult it is. It must sound as if we are singing the text for the first time, there must be no noticeable routine. At the same time we must know exactly what we are doing and are only too aware of the pitfalls, which are waiting around about every corner. The fear and nervousness can never be completely overcome, thank God. Otherwise there would not be enough adrenalin and it would be boring, too. I repeat: the audience must notice none of this. If they do, they can´t concentrate on what we are singing and the message we are trying to bring across to them. It is what we are paid to do and if we can´t do this, we fall to the wayside somewhere along the line.
The Christ is one of the most difficult roles to try to interpret, since everybody has in his own private definition of the figure. The words are, in reality, the basis of our society, of our code of morals, among the most important words in our culture. I know that as a jew you probably have trouble following this line of thought and that is certainly your right but as I said before, I think this role can only be sung by believers, although they must not necessarily be christian. They must at this moment, however, be able to put themselves into the spirit of these words and believe them completely, without restrictions. If one questions the text´s validity, then one should not try to sing this part. Am I asking too much? I have never spoken about this to someone outside my cultural circle. I would be interested to hear what you think.
I have never been able to sing abstractly. What I sang, I was. This was true of my opera roles, of my Lieder and, strangely enough, for this part, too. I sound like a heretic but I don´t mean it this way at all. I feel that Bach, and that is perhaps the greatest gift he has given to the singers of this part, makes it possible for us to "be" something that we in our daily lives are not. Through him our voices and our souls become one with the text. When I sang these texts, I felt as if there was a bright light going out from me, reaching out to the people. I felt a tremendous quiet in me, as if I were being secretly led by something I d´t understand. Although this was so very strong and real, I have never been able to find the right words to describe this without sounding like "I thought I was Christ!".
Have you had any exprience of singing within the frame of the HIP (Historically Infomed Performance) movement? What do you think of this trend?
You ask about HIP. I have never heard of this expression and assume you mean performing works with original instruments, trying to find the original sound – as nearly as possible. Yes, I have taken part in many concerts and recordings of such concerts and they were often very beautiful and in any case very interesting. There are problems, too. The A is at least a half tone lower. Otherwise the old instruments would be endangered. This brings problems for the singers, especially the alto and bass, especially if the latter is a baritone, as I was, even though I had a good low range.
I am sure, however, that Bach would have been the happiest of all, if he had had the instruments, which are available today. The development over 300 years has not been backwards. He didn´t have any choice. Today we do. "Ich habe genug" would be a real problem if it were a half step lower, unless one would do as Fi-Di. in his earlier recording – taking the G´s in the last aria up an octave. Nobody else would dare do such a thing, but one doesn´t argue with a god!
Forgive me for being old fashioned. I believe that music is best when it is done simply and straight from the heart. That is another problem the young singers have today. In this brutal and aggressive business world today – which singing has also become, - showing feelings or sensitiveness is often taken for weakness, true emotion for sentimentalism. Many are simply afraid to open themselves for fear of attack. Singing, however, requires this. One must have the courage to open one´s heart. Of course not all singers can do this, even if they try. This is the difference and what makes a great singer. There are a lot of good voices around but few real artists. This has always been the case, of course.
I think I was able to reach the audience and move them, but you would have to ask them to know if this is really true. I know I gave all I had every time, although sometimes it wasn´t enough. Sometimes it was and that is enough for me.
Regarding the role of Christ, I have to admit that I am not religious person. If I were, it might have very problenmatic for me to listen to the text of Bach's vocal works. I usually translate the text of the cantata under discussion to Hebrew, try to understand what it is all about and the connection betwewn the text and the music. Than I try to comprehend the feelings a believer may feel hearing the text and the music. I learn a lot through this process and write about it weekly reviews for the Bach Cantatas Mailing List. A true believer might have enjoyed more than I do. But does it really matter? And who can compare two human beings' feelings? Bach music has so many levels that I believe that everyone can find his way of enjoying it. That is why I believe that Bach is the greatest composer who has ever lived!
Of course Bach is the father of our music. The music world would be rather sad without Beethoven, Mozart or Schubert, however. It is amazing that they are all of germanic heritage, whether from Germany or Austria. What extremes these countries have brought out over the centuries, from the most nobel to the most dispicable. This is, however, not our subject today.
I can´t imagine Bach’s sacred music without the New Testement, but his genius does carry over to all of us. (Even to animals, I have read. Cows give more milk when listening to Bach. I think this is a wonderful story, which I hope is true!) I think it is perhaps easier for the listening music lover, such as yourself. To perform it without being able to at least during the piece being able to identify with the spirit of the text, falsefies it, in my opinion. Bach was a very religious man and wrote almost all his vocal music for the church. I guess I am too strongly formed by my history and culture and others, such as yourself, are the same. We both have the right to admit this. The music is the common ground on which we all can meet, and what a glorioius ground it is!
It just occured to me that in the 60s and early 70s I sang very often in BBC in London. I could sing more or less whenever and whatever I wanted. One of the main reasons was that I could sing German Lieder well but was not German! This was the same with Ernst Häfliger, who was Swiss. In those years I don´t think hardly any other foreign singer recorded as much in BBC. I have a lot of the recordings but many have been destroyed over the decades, since the laws are different there and live recordings must be done away with after 6 years. I am very sad about this, since I sang the Schubert cycles often in live broadcasts. In Germany the radio stations keep all such recordings.
You have mentioned singers like Agnes Giebel and Ernst Häfliger. Do you happen to sing with the following singers [all of them sang a lot of Bach]: Maria Stader (soprano), Arleen Auger (soprano), Helen Donath (soprano), Hertha Töpper (contralto), Claudia Hellmann (contralto), Kurt Equiluz (tenor), John van Kesteren (tenor), Georg Jelden (tenor), Helmuth Krebs (tenor), and maybe some others? If yes, what memories do you have of them?
When I came to Berlin in 1962 Ernst Häfliger was the leading Mozart tenor of the house. I sang “Cosi fan tutte” and “Zauberflöte” with him many, many times. We also sang together in Strauss´ “Capriccio” – another of my favorite roles – and “Der Wildschütz” of Lortzing. As I wrote before, I sang the Bach Passions with him often, especially the performances of the Matthäus-Passion in Amsterdam. He was the best Evangelist I had the pleasure of singing with. He was not a relaxed singer. When I stood beside him I could feel how every muscle of his body was being used. As music critic here in Berlin seemed to sum this up in a review, saying that one must be impressed and moved by the enormous concentration of his “unbedingter Einsatz”. I can´t find a good translation for this phrase. It pulls together such terms as determination, struggle and concentration. He took many liberties in his interpretations as far as tempi are concerned but they were, in my opinion, not to show himself as a singer, although he sang the part marvellously, but in order to try to transport this great intensity to the audience. He was also a wonderful collegue.
I sang many concerts with Helmut Krebs. Unfortunately I missed his best years in the opera in Berlin, when he sang all the Mozart roles, but he still was singing oratorio, especially Bach. In concert we often sang together and he was a singer of great dedication. This influenced me greatly, since I was still quite young. He and Häfliger carried on the tradition of Karl Erb. His vocal color was completely different from Ernst´s and this made their interpretations very interesting to compare.
I only sang with Maria Stader and Arleen Augér several times, including several Telemann recordings for Erato with Arleen. Both were excellent artists with beautiful, floating voices, which filled even the largest halls and churches. I have known Helen Donath all my career, since we started about the same time. She was a wonderful Pamina in “Zauberflöte” and had a youthful quality in her singing, which she managed to keep all through the years. I sang often with Kurt Equiluz and not only in oratorio. We sang together in “Ariadne auf Naxos” at the Wiener Staatsoper and in Geneva. A quiet man with a lot of humor and an excellent musician. I sang with John van Kesteren several times and also with Georg Jelden, who was a baritone when he started, as I remember. I have no real memories of these concerts, only that all these singers were very professional and dedicated and I guess that is about the best thing one can say of an artist. I was very fortunate to have worked with so many fine ones.