Meet the Music Makers - Christoph Prégardien

In conversation with renonwed German lyric tenor, Christoph Prégardien:

UChicago Presents: You got your start singing in the Limburger Domsingknaben, which, from what I understand, is a bit of a family tradition.

Christoph Prégardien: Yes. My father was an amateur singer, and when he was singing in the Limburg choir, there was no boy’s choir. It was only founded in 1967, when I was 11 years old. I was one of the first members of the choir. My father sang in the cathedral choir, in the mixed chorus, together with my mother. When I was young, between five and 10, I was able to stand in that mixed choir and sing some pieces with my parents.

UCP: Did you want to be a professional musician by then?

CP: No, not so early. It only came up when my voice changed, at about 15 or 16. I was still singing in the choir, and the choirmaster heard that my voice was a little bit special. He brought me to Frankfurt and let me audition for his professor, Martin Gründler, who later became my teacher. He listened to me and said, “OK, finish school, then come back and we’ll see what we can do with you.” So I came back and started my studies when I was 20.

UCP: You’re also a prolific pedagogue: you teach at the Academy of Music in Cologne, conduct master classes, and wrote a book on vocal technique. What’s the biggest piece of advice you’d give to a young singer?

CP: I think singers are a little bit different than other musicians. Instrumentalists start when they’re very young; singers only [develop] their instruments when they’re 14, 15, 16. Even female singers have a kind of voice change. That makes teaching young singers different from instrumentalists, because they don’t have the theoretical or technical background instrumentalists have at the same age. On one [hand], it makes it very interesting, because you can start from scratch. On the other, the studying time is limited. We have to bring young singers to a certain ability in order to compete on the market. You have to teach [students] the difference between singing, say, a Baroque or Classical aria from the 17th or 18th centuries and a Romantic aria from the 19th century. All these things are important for young singers to know, because I think [as opposed to] 30 or 40 years ago, young singers have to be more broadly educated. In former times, it would be enough to have a beautiful and ability on stage. Today, it’s not sufficient.

UCP: You’ve sung such a vast part of the repertoire, from Baroque to contemporary works. Which repertoire do you have the strongest affinity for?

CP: My voice is what you can call a typical German lyric voice; the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is associated with that kind of voice. I also sing much Baroque opera, but I’ve also sung more advanced roles, like Max in Freischütz. That was the most dramatic role I ever sang. I tried to sing some Rossini, and also some Donizetti. But I think my voice is a living instrument, and it [continually] develops. I tried to go into more dramatic things but I could feel my voice didn’t like it. I always went back to Mozart, Bach, and Schubert, and I must say, it was a wise decision for my career not to go into more dramatic roles: my voice is still in very good shape, and I am still able to sing Bach coloraturas as well as Mozart cantilenas.

UCP: Which singers do you look up to?

CP: Depends a little bit on the repertoire. If I look at the repertoire of lyric tenors, of course, we had one great German tenor in the ’50s and ’60s: Fritz Wunderlich. If you listen to his voice, you can hear the inner fire—the vitality and vibrant will to express himself onstage—in the music. The pure beauty of his voice was also remarkable. He is really one of my favorite singers.

If I go to other Fach [eras], there’s one of my great idols Nikolai Gedda, who sang both Italian and German roles. He had a wonderful mezza voce. A tenor must have the ability to sing high notes in different ways—for example, in not only a dramatic way but a lyric, piano-sounding way. Of course, for every tenor Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo are idols because of their sheer musical presence onstage and the beauty of their instruments. Talking about my own lieder singing, I’m an admirer of the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who was in the prime of his career when I was studying in Frankfurt. He was the hero of lieder singing.

UCP: In terms of the earlier side of your repertoire, you worked with the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt on a number of occasions, including a 2000 recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. What are your memories of him?

CP: I have very intense and fond memories of Maestro Harnoncourt. I had the privilege to work with him in repertoire [that was very important to me]: not only the St. Matthew Passion, but also some Mozart and Haydn’s Armida, with Cecilia Bartoli. It was one thing to watch [Harnoncourt] from the audience, but when you work with him, you can see his face. You can see it in recordings—I cannot describe it properly in English, but it was so inspiring how he conducted. He was not a really good Kapellmeister, in the [way] of having a good beat and clear [direction]. What was much more impressive was how he could express what was going on in the music in his face.

What I also remember was working with him in rehearsals was that he was so sparkling. Even when he was already quite old, it seemed to rejuvenate him, being in front of an orchestra. He was a master in bringing singers into the right [interpretive] direction.

On the other hand, he was such a nice man—really human. There are some conductors in the market who treat musicians very badly. But he was always very friendly, just like a father to his children.

UCP: You’ve also recorded Winterreise multiple times. Something I’ve heard people say is that a person needs to have reached a certain age or level of maturity before attempting the cycle—but of course, both Schubert and Wilhelm Müller died when they were 32! What are your thoughts?

CP: I think you need a certain personal ripeness to really dig yourself into this very difficult cycle. You need experience as a human being, and you need experience in love and loss. Normally, that’s something you can’t have at 25. But Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for instance, recorded his first Winterreise when he was 23 or so, I think.

What I believe is that old souls can live in young bodies. Sometimes when you are onstage singing, you cannot tell where your ideas and interpretation comes from, because it doesn’t always have to do with your own life experience. It comes from a different world—that’s what I believe. It sounds a bit strange, probably, but I believe in the idea of Wiedergeburt [reincarnation]. How else could you explain that young composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Mendelssohn or Schubert write works at 15, 16 years of age if their souls have just been born? I think you cannot explain that. Experience is more [important].

So, people have the right to say they won’t sing Winterreise before they’re 40; I didn’t sing mine until I was 35, I think. Of course, my interpretation changed, and the more I’ve sung Winterreise, the more I’ve [noticed] other things in that piece.

UCP: Your most recent CD, Poetisches Tagebuch (2015), is a collection of Schubert’s poetry settings, with texts mostly by Ernst Schulze. Why select these songs?

CP: It’s a very interesting thing about Schulze, because the nine poems Schubert set [are] sometimes called “The Little Winterreise.” If you look at the texts and the music, you can also see a human soul struggling with love and loss, so it’s similar to the contents of Winterreise. I didn’t know some of the songs before I recorded them with Julius.

Schubert wrote some 650 songs and I’ve sung maybe half of them. I always find new songs, and some of the Schulze songs were so amazing to me that I thought, “Oh, I have to record them all.” So we recorded those, then we [wondered] what we could add to them that has a connection to the Schulze settings. We decided to take songs that come mostly from the same period. Schubert wrote most of the Schulze songs in 1823, 1824, I think. The other eight songs on the CD are also late Schubert songs. We [initially] had a collection of about 25 songs we wanted to record, so we had to take some of them out, of course.

UCP: If I’m not mistaken, the CD marks your first recorded collaboration with the celebrated accompanist Julius Drake, and subsequently first tour together. What is it like working with Drake?

CP: We had our first concert ten years ago. He was recording a lot for English labels, and of course he collaborates intensely with Ian Bostridge. I used to work a lot with two or three different pianists, but no more. Only in the last 10 years I started to work more regularly with other pianists. At a certain point, I thought Julius is such a great musician that I wanted not only to make concerts with him but to make a recording with him. He’s not only a very good musician but a very nice man, and we understand each other musically and personally. It was a logical decision to make a CD together.

UCP: Your son, Julian, is also a tenor, and you released a CD together in 2014. You’ve said that sometimes, listening to recordings, you can barely tell who is who! Do you get a sense of déjà vu watching him as he builds his career?

CP: At quite an early stage, we decided that Julian wouldn’t study with me in [Cologne]; he went to Freiburg. I think there’s such a special relationship between a father and his son, and to be the vocal teacher of your own son is a difficult connection. It would be difficult for him to follow my advice—when the father says, “Please don’t do that,” you can’t be sure that the son will [listen to you]! [Laughs] He was more able to take advice from other people than me.

From a very early age it was clear he wanted to be a musician. When he was five, I was singing Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. A wonderful baritone was singing Don Giovanni, and he admired him. He said, “When I’m older, I’ll become a baritone!” I said, “Oh, Julian, you can’t decide that now. You never know what kind of voice you’ll have after your voice changes, and whether you’ll have a good voice at all!” But he always insisted on being a singer. When he had his voice change, he had it much earlier than I had it—I changed at 15, he started changing at 12 or 13—so until he started really studying at 18 or 19, we worked together from time to time.

But at this point in his career—he just turned 33 a few days ago—we are onstage together and we talk a lot together about music. I’m a proud father to my son. I love to listen to his way of singing, and most importantly, he’s very happy with being a real musician.

UCP: You’ve also begun conducting more recently. What cued this turn for you?

CP: My first project was in 2012, and it was Bach’s St. John Passion. Together with Le Concert Lorrain Laurent [French early music ensemble], I decided to take it on tour three years before. Then I started studying conducting: I took lessons, I met with other conductors. I know how difficult it is from a technical point of view to lead an ensemble; you cannot say “I want to be a conductor” then be a conductor. It’s a very serious profession.

The reason I wanted to do it is because there was some repertoire—especially Bach—that I sang all the time all over the world. Sometimes there were really good performances, but much more often [there were] concerts I didn’t like being part of, because many of the conductors didn’t know how to handle the text and unify a performance.

We had 13 performances all over Europe. It was a success, but for me it was a revelation because I liked to be in front of the chorus, orchestra, and soloists and see their faces. When you’re a musician, you always look into the audience, which can be very nice, but I think it’s a totally different thing to watch the faces of 50 or 60 musicians. Then in 2014 we did the St. Matthew Passion, and in 2016 the Christmas Oratorio. The most important [collaboration] for me was with the Collegium Vocale Gent, with Philippe Herreweghe. I did a lot of concerts with Philippe. We did a big concert in Brussels in May [to celebrate his 70th birthday]; that was the first time I conducted the Collegium Vocale, and that was a very special thing for me.
What I’m now planning is to tour an a cappella program with the Netherlands Bach Society in 2019—going back to my roots, to the boy’s choir, where we did a lot of a cappella music. I hope to have more opportunities to conduct, but it’s not my first wish as a musician. I just want to go on singing and go on teaching. I still feel very happy onstage, so I think there’s still more to do in the future, in different fields.