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Interview with Schreier

By Are Söholt (November 2003)

Thomas Radleff wrote (November 5, 2003):
To all of you who can read German:
One of our list members, Are Söholt, has been in a SJP workshop with Peter Schreier, and has published an interview: .

Thomas Braatz wrote (November 5, 2003):
Here is a quick English translation of Schreier's interview, completed during the same noon hour that Brad sacrificed on my account.

Any questions, corrections, etc. are welcome. This is not intended as a perfect translation, but only 'dem Sinne nach.'

AS: You have frequently sung the part of the Evangelist [assuming here to refer primarily to the SJP] and people say that you are the ideal for this part. Is this Evangelist part still of great importance to you?

PS: Yes, the part of the Evangelist assumes a central position in my professional musical life. This part gives me the possibility for expressing myself very personally. What I mean is that the Evangelist is not merely a reporter (of the events that occur), but also a passionate representative who experiences directly all aspects of the situation. He supplies a sort of ‘espressivo’ which runs throughout the entire part. In this he distances himself from a plain, objective report in favor of complete immersion and participation with great passion, ‘con passione.’ I believe also that this part must be an interpretation that relates to our time, just as every other interpretation over the decades, even centuries undergoes change over the course of time. In no way can you say that the conductors and singers 50 years ago were ‘stupid.’ They simply did it differently and brought forth an interpretation that related to the time when they lived. This may be an interpretation that we no longer are able to understand properly simply because the times as well as the circumstances (the ambiance) and everything else have likewise changed, and along with this the interpretation.

AS: Have you also changed your opinion?

PS: Yes, definitely. If you listen to an old recording with Karl Erb or whoever was singing the role at that time, you will be astonished how different the part sounds. But this was simply an expression of his time which now is a very different one for us today.

AS: What’s your opinion about the modern interpretation of Bach generally? Is this ‘modern’, or ‘authentic’ interpretation closer to Bach’s intentions than that of a half century ago?

PS: It is not possible to determine this. It’s just a fact that we will never really know, if, and to what degree, we will be able to recapture authentically what Bach had in mind during his age. I do not think that is really proper constantly to be speaking of authenticity regarding the various current Baroque ensembles. There simply is no such thing. We are unable to do anything authentically nowadays. Nobody knows, how Bach’s music was performed in Bach’s time.

AS: I was fortunate enough to hear you direct a performance of the SMP in Munich and sing the part of the Evangelist. You were directing a large orchestra and a large choir. We know for a fact, that such large choirs and orchestras did not exist in Bach’s time. Do you nevertheless still prefer such a large choir?

PS: This is definitely a problem. The [Munich] Bach Choir consists of 100 singers, none of which wish to relinquish their singing in favor of a smaller choir. All of them want to sing. Faced with such a large number of singers, it is necessary [for proper balance] to also have a large orchestra. This is certainly contrary to what Bach had, but IMHO this is not so important, because the main thing is the final result. Is it possible to attain optimal expression with such a large ensemble? That is the decisive deliberation on my part and not whether I would like to perform music in the grand style. I also think that the bottom line is the expression of the content of the composition.

AS: So you mean that it really doesn’t matter whether it’s a small or large orchestra?

PS: No, it does not matter.

AS: I read somewhere that the SMP is the primary objective or goal in your life. Why do you choose the SMP over the SJP?

PS: The SMP is certainly, in some passages, the deeper Passion and more significant in content. The SJP is, for the most part, more dramatic and sometimes just a bit, I should not say superficial, but simply because of very practical considerations more dramatic. The text for the SJP is also not as good as the SMP. I think that the SMP is the more significant work. I think that the SJP is more interesting for the general listener because it is shorter and more easily understood. However, the SMP, in its arias and in the entire manner in which the orchestra is treated, has greater breadth. In the parts of the Evangelists there isn’t much of a difference in the interpretation. The same problems, or also possibilities which present themselves in the SMP can also appear in the SJP.

AS: So you could say that the possibilities for expression in both Passions are about the same?

PS: Yes, I think so.

AS: What is important in the presentation of the part of the Evangelist:

PS: I think that, in order to sing the part, you must have good linguistic capabilities [have a good relationship with language in general] as well as good command of the German language because Bach composed in this language and made use of the special accents and clarity of diction that is inherent in the German language. This is, first of all, very, very important: the manner in which the Evangelist treats the words. The narrative, the reporting tone of the Evangelist is of fundamental importance. What this means is that the Evangelist is the central figure of the composition and that he controls everything like a puppeteer his/her marionettes. He controls the choir, the soloists, the tempi for the orchestra, the bridge passages, the ‘building-up-of-tension-toward’ and the movement into a new situation, or into a possibly very dramatic action. All of these things become the task of the Evangelist. As you have probably noticed in this course on the arias in the Bach Passions, I place special emphasis upon not only simply singing, or singing the notes correctly, but also upon making something of the narrative of the SJP be transferred to the listener. This should really have an effect upon the listener. I think that we are not only making music for the sake of making music, but that we are also obligated to fulfill our task of bringing this composition closer to the public, or to the listener, through our interpretation.

AS: In England an English translation for singing the SJP has been made as well as a Norwegian translation for singing the SJP in Norway. What are your thoughts regarding the translation of Bach’s texts into other languages so that listeners who do not speak German can understand the work directly in their language?

PS: The tendency to do this already existed in Karl Richter’s time, to have the Evangelist emphasize more the singing and direct his attention toward the melodies. However, I do not think that this is what Bach had in mind simply because the Evangelist-Narrator is a participant in the events and not an objective observer, who is soberly reporting events as they occur. No, on the contrary, he is experiencing these things in himself while reporting them and is even active participant. This can be seen, I believe, in the manner in which Bach wrote this part, specifically by inserting unusually wide interval jumps by means of which Bach creates this tension. For this reason I find the English style of performing this role rather a bit boring, perhaps to puritan in nature. This, of course, is a matter of taste. Well, the English seem perhaps to be more receptive to this type of treatment. I really don’t know.

AS: Agricola, in his book about singing, indicated that there were 3 different forms of recitative, with each type being treated differently.

PS: I think that all appoggiaturas are necessary for the purpose of expression. They are not nefrom a musical standpoint but rather as a method for stronger emphasis in expression. The appoggiatura can come from above or below the note, but here the text should concur and be appropriate for the expression used. That which, for example, means using a ‘Mix’ [range?] of vocal possibilities where ‘mezzavoce’ is indicated, is a case where an Evangelist should be prepared to sing ‘mezzavoce’ in this manner in order to include this also in his repertoire of musical techniques. Your Danish colleague in this course, seems to me to sing too much from the body, from the chest. He ought to use a bit more ‘mezzavoce’ in certain passages. For this reason I am of the opinion that a singer ought to use all possible means that are at his disposal: ‘mezzavoce’, language, dynamics, etc. without creating any specific theory about them. What, after all, is really meant by ‘singing style’ or authentically according to a certain style of singing? Naturally you can not sing Bach the same way that you would sing Wagner, but it should be self evident that Bach’s recitatives need to be sung with a certain feeling about the style that would be appropriate for them. What this means ideally is using all the means at the disposal of a lyrical tenor, a role-playing (operatic) tenor, who has mastery of the facets needed to give shape and form to the music. In this regard I am definitely of the opinion that the manner in which the recitatives are presented and performed is a very significant task for the performer.

AS: Do you think that there is generally no great difference between singing recitatives in an oratorio or in an opera?

PS: No, there is not. Since Bach had assumed his position in the church, he was unable to write operas. But I think the Passions are his operas and that the recitatives allow for many more possibilities for expression than we can imagine. These might even approach the type of recitative heard in operas.

AS: You have characterized the Evangelist as being the central figure in a Passion. Is that one of the reasons why it is so natural for you to sing as well as direct Bach’s works?

PS: That’s the reason why I do it. Just because the Evangelist is in the center of things, I am also able to conduct this work. Basically the Evangelist is the conductor! He prepares, among other things: the tempi, dynamics, articulation. He is, in essence, the conductor. The ideal situation would be if the Evangelist would not have to conduct: When they sing “They answered him”, the strings continue to play, using the same rhythm established by the Evangelist.

AS: In the 18th century rhetoric was often used in music: it was important for the listeners to be moved by the music. Is it also the case that the Evangelist is also moved by the music which he performs, for example, when he describes how Peter wept?

PS: Naturally, the Evangelist has all these possibilities at his disposal: singing lyrically, singing emotionally and singing while interpreting the text. All of these things must be in the Evangelist part. I find it particularly bad when the Evangelist does too much straight singing of the text passages, or sings them without significance or meaning. What is it that the listeners want? They want to know what is happening in the piece. This is the responsibility of the Evangelist and for this he has many possibilities/techniques at his disposal.

AS: You have made numerous recordings in the past, among others under Karl Richter, a great conductor of Bach’s music…

PS: That was then, but not now anymore!

AS: But he [Richter] still has some fans?

PS: Yeah, sure. I think people were fascinated by Richter’s personality, but today it is not possible to imitate/emulate Richter any more. Richter was simply Richter. This was because he knew where to place certain, definite accents, in order to create pauses with great tension, and knew how to get an orchestra to play very expressively, not simply to provide an orchestral accompaniment, but to get them to truly participate in the music. In this Richter was really great. Amazing for me is the development [in playing style] that took place from the time before Richter to Richter’s time…it’s all like a wonderful fairytale, like a story. You can continue to discover again and again new possibilities and you will be continue to be astonished about everything that can be discovered in Bach’s music.

AS: Take, for example, Mengelberg’s live recording from 1939. Just listening to it may cause you to be shocked, but his manner of conducting is nevertheless still wonderful.

PS: That’s absolutely true! But that was his time! I think that it is really terrible when our generation laughs about things like this. This should not be done because a century from now people will also be laughing about us the same way. Who knows?


Feedback to the Article

Thomas Radleff wrote (November 5, 2003):
[To Thomas Braatz] Thanks, Tom Braatz, for your translation!!

Since I am not quite sure if Are still is a list member, I forwarded it to him. At this very moment, he is singing a program with Bach cantatas in Bergen, Norway - what a surprise for him when he returns back home...

David Glenn Lebut Jr. wrote (November 5, 2003):
[To Thomas Radleff] Are you German? I myself am a 3rd-generation descendant of German Evangelical Immigrants to the US (By the way, if you could not figure it out, Evangelical is the equivalent of what us English-speaking peoples call "Lutheran", but it is more accurate to be called Evangelical since that is keeping with Luther's intentions). I have picked up most of the language and can hold my own in the speaking of it and writing of it.

I have long had a deep fondness of the German people and culture. If it wasn't for the Germans, ther would not be any English. Also we would not have half the music, art, literature, culture, and philosophy and religious works that we do. I think the tendency of English-speaking cultures to "bash" Germans and German culture especially after WWII is very unfortunate and in fact shows how historically ignorant people can be. They ignore the fact that our own ally Josef Stalin killed more people than the Nazis and that there was a large anti-Nazi movement in Germany itself which lasted throughout the war. Not only that, but in the US there has been a large German community since the 30 Years' War and somewhat even earlier. The A&E movie "The Crossing" even pointed out that during the Revolutionary War more than half of the German troops employed by the British against the Colonials stayed on in the new country.

Peter Schreier: Short Biography | Kammerorchester Berlin
Recordings of Vocal Works:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | General Discussions | Interview with Schreier [Are Söholt]
Individual Recordings:
BWV 232 - P. Schreier | BWV 245 - P. Schreier | BWV 248 - P. Schreier
Table of recordings by BWV Number


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