Interview: Christoph Prégardien

Christoph Prégardien is warmly recounting his first encounter with pianist Menahem Pressler, at last year’s Verbier Festival for classical music.  “I was really stunned by his humility: even with his wide experience, an 89-year-old man, he approached me and said, ‘Oh Mr Prégardien, I am so happy that we are playing Winterreise: I learned so much from you.’  I nearly had tears in my eyes that this wonderful old musician was willing to learn.  I think this is a very good approach, in every field of life, that Man is able to learn until he is dying.”

This almost epistemic humility that Prégardien admires in Pressler, with whom he will be performing Schubert’s Winterreise in Oxford this August, strikes me on numerous occasions during the course of our interview.  Winterreise is a work he has performed countless times, yet remains one he is readily exploring and learning about: his recordings of it include a version with accordian and wind quintet, and a ‘composed re-interpretation’ of the work by Hans Zender.  He explains, “Each time you sing a piece, [with] different pianists [and] different ensembles, you learn more about yourself, your possibilities, your abilities on stage.”

Indeed, as he talks about these different performances, one gets a sense of continued musical development and discovery.  “I started to learn about Winterreise quite early.  But I think you learn the whole psychological and emotional content of that piece by getting older, by having experiences, by having losses.  You have to fall in love and then to lose your lover– you have to really have this experience, to feel what is happening to you, with your soul, with your brain, with your body, in that situation.”

It is a sobering thought that a musician of Prégardien’s standing, who has performed in the world’s top concert halls, with the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden, and conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, has such a desire to learn and develop further.  His recordings, with major labels such as EMI and Deutsche Grammophon, and numbering over 130 titles, have been received to great critical acclaim, winning international awards, such as MIDEM Record and Vocal Recital of the Year.

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I wonder how Prégardien manages this vast repertoire, that spans the likes of Bach, Schubert, Britten, and Rihm. “I try to handle all composers equally,” he explains. “I try to hear the music, to find out what emotion the composer wants to bring over.  What is very important for me is that I get an emotional impact from the music and the text.  If I am not touched by them, it is very difficult for me to go on – but this is rare.”

The relationship between words and music is one of great importance for Prégardien, who uses both to find inspiration.  “Singers are very lucky, because we have the text. Other musicians don’t have this; we have poetry.” It is noticeable how often he refers to the ‘poetry’ of music, the ‘musical text’; for him, the two are deeply combined.  “To really understand music, it is necessary to understand the words.”  Winterreise comprises a set of poems by Wilhelm Müller, that were then set to music by Schubert.  When Prégardien considers the work, these two aspects hold equal weight.  “If you look at Schubert’s music, you find many hints for how to colour your voice and attitude, in order to give so many different approaches to the emotional content [of the text].”

Not that Müller’s text is emotionally straightforward either. “You have 24 songs, in the same depressing attitude — you have to find the real colours, to find possibilites… there is not only sadness, there is also anger, there is despair… the real challenge is to find a logical way for yourself through these 24 songs, to show character and development during just three days… for in three days you cannot go through a whole love.”

Emotion is at the core of Prégardien’s music-making, partly thanks to one of his early teachers, Hartmut Höll, accompanist to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.  “He didn’t care about our technical problems — he just said, ‘No, forget about that.  Look at the text, at the music — let pictures and imaginings come, and try to find the right sound and the right expression for them.'” 

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A dedicated music educator himself, teaching at German Hochschule music academies, as well as international masterclasses, and having produced several musical publications, it is this emotional side of a musician that Prégardien is most interested in fostering.  “I want to see a very personal approach to the music.  I don’t want to hear a very well-trained voice, who has studied this song and brings it over in a beautiful manner.  That can be good, but I like to find real musical and emotional personality.”

It was his personal ideas about ‘not just my part… but how the passions, the dramatic impulses of the whole should be’ that last year prompted Prégardien to take up the conductor’s baton, leading a tour with the Ensemble Le Concert Lorrain.  Singer, turned teacher, turned conductor; one can’t help but think of what Prégardien said of Menahem Pressler earlier: “If you want to learn, you can learn.”

Christoph Prégardien will be leading a Lied masterclass at St Hilda’s and performing Winterreise with Menahem Pressler at the Sheldonian Theatre on 5 August.