An interview with Christoph Prégardien: the pressure of surpassing your previous performance

German lyric tenor Christoph Prégardien talks to Primephonic’s Rina Sitorus about the perfect combination of singing, teaching and conducting, alongside his 40-year career and upcoming project(s) with Challenge Records. Prégardien is praised as one of the most distinguished lyric tenors of our time, with extensive repertoire that includes the great baroque, classical and romantic oratorios and passions.

How do you manage your vast repertoire and how do you choose what to perform?

I had a family very early on so I wanted to have a certain income. So I decided to be a member of an opera company, which is very normal for a young singer. Very soon after it felt like a prison, so I decided in my mid-thirties to take matters into my own hands. It was perfect timing since record labels were starting to record repertoire for CDs, the new medium at that time. So I had plenty of opportunities to record many things, firstly oratorios and later on, lieder.

From that I learned that it is important to have imagination and fantasy in building up your programme. This is possible in the field of chamber music and song. If you try to plan a lieder programme, you can plan nearly everything as long as you follow some rules in tonality or dramaturgical order of songs or storytelling. That is why I always like to build special programmes.

For example, I’ve done this programme for the first time in 2009, Between Life and Death by the composer Carl Loewe, which I also recorded for Challenge. It started with Bach – going to Mahler, to Schubert, to Schumann, to Leuven – and we even put two opera arias into the programme. There are obvious connections between, for example, Komm, süßer Tod BWV 478 and Symphony no. 2, Movement 4, Urlicht by Mahler. You come from C minor to E-flat major and the text shares the same idea of a beautiful death, so this is a perfect combination even if the composers are separated by more than 200 years.

Would that be possible to achieve by singers without your years of experience?

The market is totally different today, but it was already changing when I started. The singers after the Second World War had good possibilities to make the career they wanted, because the market was not so open. Nobody came from Asia or Central Europe to sing or play instruments in Western Europe, so the whole opera market was only open for the Western Europeans. Today, it is very difficult for young singers to start because the competition is immensely strong. Singers come from all over the world and the quality of music education has also been raised immensely.

What have been the highlights of your career so far?

Difficult to say. I remember singing my first evangelist role in St Matthew’s Passion in 1982. I was very nervous beforehand. Or singing my first Tamino in 1987, or Die schöne Muellerin and Winterreise the first time, these are the highlights of my career. If you ask me for personalities, there are encounters with great musicians like Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Philippe Herreweghe, Ton Koopman, John Eliot Gardiner and many others.

And what about challenges?

The biggest challenge is the pressure of maintaining – or even surpassing – your previous performance! This is the pressure you feel when you get older and I don’t mean when you turn sixty, I mean already in your forties. When you are at certain places for the second time and you were great the first time, people just expect you to be better, or at least as good as you’ve been the last time.

For a sustainable career, I think it is important that you meet the expectations of the audience. It is easy to be at that particular place the first time. Looking back I say it’s easy, but it is way more difficult to return after five or six times and people still expect such miraculous performances from you because you had been great three years before.

How far do you let critics influence you?

In the first 15 years, I was very keen on good reviews, because it helped your career. And of course everybody gets bad reviews every now and then, but there was one time when I was so angry at one critic and I just stopped reading reviews altogether. I don’t give reviews too much weight anymore, especially not in this stage of my career. I think my career doesn’t depend anymore on reviews. People who want to listen to me or to give me a contract, should come to a concert or a live recording and listen for themselves to figure out the things I can do and what I can’t do.

Though I should point out that some people might look for a certain thing in my voice since now I’m 61. I’m very positive and so is my audience. My voice has changed a bit, into a more baritonal range with a darker colour, but I’m singing the same repertoire as I did 20 years ago and I think I’m still doing it quite well. I know what I do and I know what I’m able to do, and the biggest critic of me is myself. I listen to my live recordings, radio recordings, and I’m honest with myself. As long as I think my voice is good, I will keep on singing. I also love teaching and conducting. I guess the combination of both makes it perfect.

Singer, turned teacher, turned conductor. Was it intentional? 

I started to give master classes quite early. I found out how much I liked working with young people and I am especially interested in the technical aspect of singing. I was not a natural singer. Somebody who has a great talent in producing great sound since the beginning doesn’t necessarily know what he or she is doing. When I was 19 or 20 I had to really build up my voice since it didn’t work well right away. I was a tenor but I didn’t have high notes. I never had this naturalness since my voice is more of a baritonal tenor voice, which suits the works of Schubert or Mahler more. So, for Bach or Mozart I had to work very carefully on my vocal ability to be able to sing the parts. I think this, and experience I had from my four teachers, has given me a technical foundation that I know what I’m doing when I’m singing.

What about conducting?

My wish to conduct came quite late. There were times when I was not happy with some productions, especially with Bach’s music. I was not content with what the conductor was doing. Well, not the great ones of course, but some of the not-so-good conductors don’t have a plan for the orchestra, choir or the soloist, whereas, a plan should give unification to the whole performance. Then I met Stephan Schultz of Le Concert Lorrain, a French baroque orchestra. We had had a production of St Matthew’s and St John’s Passions where I was singing the Evangelist role. I asked if we could do a production of St John’s with me as conductor. He liked the idea, so 2012 was the first production.

I prepared myself very carefully. I took conducting lessons, I worked with Fabio Luizi and Marcus Creed. I worked with Marcus because he is a very important choral conductor and with Fabio because he’s a very good orchestral conductor.

I tried to be professional and it was quite a good success. In the first tour we had 13 concerts of St John’s and we did St Matthew’s in 2015 where we had 15 concerts. And for the 70th birthday concert of Philippe Herreweghe in Brussels, I was allowed to conduct the Collegium Vocale Gent. We played An die Sonne, Die Geselligkeit by Schubert, next to Warum toben die Heiden by Mendelssohn. To stand in front of this great choir and great people in the audience was great!

I’m going to have a production with the Netherlands Bach Society. I’m also going to conduct a Mozart Requiem with a symphonic orchestra in 2018. I hope it will keep on going… I’m not changing profession, I will go on singing as a tenor with some baritone roles every now and then. The good thing about becoming older is that you can try out things and you mustn’t care.

You’ve got around 150 recordings under your name. What’s cooking at the moment?

There is one album released by Challenge on 6 October with me singing, Michael Gees on piano and Olivier Darbellay on horn. We start with Benjamin Britten’s The Heart of the Matter. We combine it with repertoire from the 19th century like Schubert, Conradin Kreutzer, Franz Lachner, and pair them with the quite unknown like Edgar Mannsfeldt or Carl Kossmaly.

Any interesting projects for the future?

I’d love to record Schumann’s Dichterliebe again. I recorded it around 20 years ago. I have sung it so often in concerts and my approach to the work has changed and I’d love to re-record it. Maybe in combination with some lesser-known pieces by Schumann and Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder, which I’ll be performing for the first time early next year. It would be great to have those done!

Can you imagine a life without the stage?

I have to imagine a life without the stage, I have to think about it. I don’t want to die onstage or when I’m still an active musician, yet at a certain point as a singer you have to finish (being) on stage. I can probably go on as a conductor, and definitely I’ll go on as a teacher. I have two small children and I love to be at home and enjoy my wine cellar. I’m a great wine enthusiast and I love cooking. There are a lot of great things I do outside the stage. I am just a normal man (chuckles).

Christoph Prégardien in conversation with Primephonic’s Rina Sitorus

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