Schubert as the benchmark. An interview with Christoph Prégardien

Christoph Prégardien is widely regarded as one of the foremost lyric tenors of our time. In particular, it is his achievements as a lieder singer that are highly acclaimed. Firmly established in his recitals and in his work as a teacher at Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Kölnis the cosmos of Franz Schubert’s lieder. “Christoph Prégardien works veritable wonders, and anyone who has heard his consuming, absolutely intonation-pure interpretation of Schubert’s ‘Nacht und Träume’ will no longer be able to resist,” as the magazine “Fono Forum” once put it. Claudia Mücke had a lengthy talk with Prégardien – about singing art songs, about singing lessons, about the importance of editions and, of course, about the genius of Franz Schubert.

What significance does Franz Schubert as a composer of lieder have for you?

Prégardien: Schubert’s lieder have accompanied me since the very first singing lesson with Professor Martin Gründler at Frankfurt University of Music. My background was more in church and choir music when I started studying singing, so for me it was a completely new world of setting words to music that soon opened up to me. I was fascinated by the variety and profundity of Romantic poetry and how it was set to music. Franz Schubert was the benchmark for me right from the very beginning because I immediately felt myself transported into the particular emotional situation when I listened to his songs. Schubert changed lied composition in such a way that he gave the piano part far greater weight than composers before him had done: on the one hand the equal status of the voice and the piano, and on the other hand complexity.

What are the challenges for singers studying this repertoire?

I constantly wonder why so few young singers sing Schubert, why they seem to give him a wide berth. Perhaps it’s because Schubert stands at a border between Classical and Romantic composition. What I mean is that his melodic lines certainly still contain Classical and also Baroque elements, which requires the singer to have a very agile voice in comparison to later composers. A striking contrast would be Robert Schumann. His songs are composed far more cantabile; they can be more easily mastered by inexperienced and younger singers than those of Schubert. It’s not without good reason that many opera singers say, “If I want to know if my voice is still in good shape, I go back to Mozart.” Mozart is the milestone for opera singers because the voice still has to have a very instrumental quality. So you can’t bask in the sound – you have to articulate very well. It’s much the same with Schubert if you compare him with later composers.

You’re not only a singer but you teach as well. What importance do Schubert’s lieder have today in singing lessons?

For us – and I can speak now above all for the Cologne Hochschule of course – the lied is extremely important. We try to treat all areas of singing – oratorio, opera and lied – equally. On the one hand, this is meant to help the students become acquainted with a wide-ranging repertoire during the course of their studies. On the other hand, they should be technically able to sing everything from chamber music to grand opera. With the same vocal technique, of course, but with a different approach. If you sing in a chamber music hall with 200 or 300 seats, you obviously use your voice differently to how you would in a large opera house with seating for 1,500. Moreover, a young singer has to have a very wide repertoire these days to be able to earn a living, given that the competitive situation is very difficult. The European and especially the Central European or German-speaking market is the destination of many young singers from around the world. Thanks to our rich cultural life, there are a great many opportunities for singers to perform and to develop their potential. In the last 40 to 50 years, this has seen competitors coming here from all over the world and our young singers have to go head to head with them.

Simply for the reasons I’ve just described, Schubert’s lieder are important for singing instruction. Another aspect is that you can choose various levels of difficulty from over 600 songs. There is so much that can be readily mastered by even young singers in the first semesters. Having said that, Schubert’s classical and instrumental compositional style never lets you feel you’re not being pushed hard enough in terms of technique and interpretation. The thoughtfully controlled use of the vocal resources and developing a text-oriented seamless legato can best be studied by looking above all at Bach’s, Mozart’s and Schubert’s works. The fundamentals you learn here are then an important basis for mastering more recent music written for voice.

How important is a reliable musical text for your work as a singer and teacher?

For me personally, it’s very important to have a musical text based on the latest scholarship. Many editions still actually date from the early 20th century but continue to be used even though there are now editions which are more up to date. Until well into the 19th century, what the composers committed to paper was not so detailed as in later times and it therefore allows us considerable latitude in how we interpret what they wrote. Each edition is at the same time an interpretation of the autograph manuscript – if this is still extant – and should thus be used with an alert eye. I also have a look at the autographs in addition to a current edition, and sometimes the first editions too if possible. Even within this very modest period of time, you can find astonishing differences between the sources. I also remind my students about being aware of how important the musical text is and I try to arouse interest and curiosity in them.

In the case of Franz Schubert, we are in the fortunate position with the new Bärenreiter editions of having both an edition based on sound scholarship and a new practical edition. In Walther Dürr, Bärenreiter was able to secure the expertise of one of the best Schubert scholars and best authorities on his handwriting and style of notation. I am extremely grateful that I was able to work together with him for so many years. His sudden death at the beginning of 2018 is also a great human loss.

Bärenreiter’s Schubert lieder are being published for high, medium and low voices. How important is careful selection of the transpositions?

That’s a difficult subject. There are various aspects. Cycles such as Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” can really only be properly performed in the original key relationship. If you transpose one of its lieder by moving it to the baritone register, for example, you change the overall structure of the composition and you won’t manage to get the transitions as Schumann wanted them. The key plan and the sequence of the songs in “Dichterliebe” are meticulously thought out. It’s much the same with Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte” and Franz Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin” and “Winterreise”.

The reason, however, behind transposing songs is, of course, that young singers – no matter what their voice – should have the chance to actually sing these lieder. That’s why a publishing house needs to carefully consider which keys it offers. For the Bärenreiter edition, we decided to take into account which keys are already found in other editions on the one hand, and thereby to try to create further possibilities, yet at the same time remaining as close as possible to Schubert’s original keys; he did, after all, consciously select a key for a song – his choice is certainly programmatic. If you transpose a song to keys which are too remote, you’ll get into difficulties. A good example is “Die Schöne Müllerin”. In the original pitch, the upper notes of the piano part are very low and if that is then transposed down, the piano suddenly no longer sounds very good.

In the case of the cycles where we know exactly how Schubert wanted them, we decided to transpose all the lieder of the cycle by the same interval and thus to keep the relationships of the keys between each of the lieder. With the “Winterreise”, for example, it means that the medium edition has been transposed down by a major second throughout. Other publishers have adopted a different approach. They said: a baritone, bass or mezzo-soprano can only sing to there so we’ll move the transposition further away from the original key. We have tried to find compromises for the Bärenreiter edition. That’s certainly open to discussion, of course, but I believe you have to take into account as many interests as possible. I’m really pleased that at some point in the future we will have all the Schubert lieder in three or even four different keys so that we as teachers at the Hochschule will really be able to adopt a highly individual approach for each student.

When the new practical edition of the lieder is completed in a few years, singers will be able to choose from a fund of over 600 lieder specifically tailored to their needs, as it were. This might then also result in us not hearing just the same 50 to 100 songs by Franz Schubert on the concert stages the whole time.

You have already mentioned the importance of the piano in Schubert’s lieder. As we all know, there are clearly huge differences between a modern piano and the instruments in Schubert’s day. So what exactly are the challenges facing a pianist today?

When you perform lied repertoire from the late 18th and early 19th century, you have to bear in mind that the authentic fortepiano sounded very different to a modern concert grand because of how it was constructed. And, of course, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and others composed for precisely this instrument and wrote the musical text accordingly. In our work with the pianists, we discuss the problems this raises more or less the whole time. It’s not just matters of tonal balance and aesthetics that are involved here but also the use of the pedal, for example. The bass notes don’t sound so profound and long on a fortepiano as they do on a modern piano.

Thanks to the period performance movement, the awareness among the new generation of pianists of such issues is now far greater. Since there is also an increasing number of restored period instruments or excellent copies, we can very easily discern the differences to the modern piano.

Is there a Schubert lied which has a special meaning for you?

Yes, there are many that I really love but the favourites keep changing. There is one song though which I sang very early on in lessons with Professor Martin Gründler in Frankfurt because it was extremely demanding in terms of phrasing and the breathing cycle and therefore lent itself for practice purposes in the lessons. It is “Nacht und Träume” on a text by Matthäus von Collin. I really love this song and it frequently features in my programmes. It is also ideal as the last encore after a lieder recital. There must be 20 to 25 of the more than 600 Schubert songs which I particularly like singing. There are very few which I don’t really want to sing any more because I don’t like them or don’t find them good. It’s a veritable miracle how high the level of his songs and also the choice of his texts are when you consider how short the time was in which he wrote them.

Christoph Prégardien is one of the foremost lyric tenors; his work as a lieder singer is held in particularly high esteem. His heavy involvement in teaching is also very important to him. In addition to performing at concerts and recitals, he teaches in his capacity as a professor at the Cologne University of Music and gives master classes around the world. He has also had regular appearances as a conductor since 2012.

The 13-volume practical edition of the complete Schubert lieder for solo voice and piano has seen him working closely together with Bärenreiter-Verlag for many years now. Progressing from one volume to the next, he is working on the transpositions with the editorial staff of the “New Schubert Edition” and the publishing house so that all the volumes for high, medium and low voices can be published.

The first volume of the practical edition based on the volumes of songs of the “New Schubert Edition” was published in 2005. In addition to all the authorised sources, it also takes into account performance variants handed down from Schubert’s circle and which convey an impression of contemporary performance practice. The ninth volume with lieder from the spring and summer of 1816 was published in 2018.

Schubert lieder at Bärenreiter