, July 2010
In his novel Récital, une interpretation, the French writer Ariel Denis offers this description of Hermann Prey’s singing: “Prey [had] an entirely characteristic, profound, and at the same time gemütlich timbre, which was always instantly recognizable, like invisible velvet, dark and at the same time serenely jovial…He sang the simplest music with the greatest simplicity (and the highest artistry)…The miracle of Hermann Prey lay in the innocence of his singing, an innocence he never lost.”
This quotation is found in the DVD booklet and I include it here because these Schubert performances from 1984 and 1986 beautifully support Denis’s description. Prey’s singular artistry is evident in his performance of every song in the two legitimate Schubert song cycles, and even more so in Schwanengesang.
The bonus feature, Stationen eines Interpreten, features an extended interview with Prey that concentrates on his operatic roles, the footage of which does not impress as much as it might. His Figaro in Rossini’s Barbiere is a celebrated interpretation that I find uncomfortably unidiomatic, as I would with probably any German baritone. The excerpts from a Salzburg Nozze di Figaro with the young Mirella Freni as Susanna are better. Samples of his Wolfram, Beckmesser, and Jesus Christ in the Saint Matthew Passion are all fine, but his best role may have been Papageno, whose personality he likens to his own in the interview. There are also two small parts that Prey recorded in the 1950s that I have never heard sung better: the Night Watchman in Die Meistersinger (Kempe, EMI) and Harlequin in Ariadne auf Naxos (Karajan, EMI).
The naturalness that he brought to these roles are hallmarks of his Lieder singing, and Prey recorded Lieder, folk songs, and operetta from early on in his career. He was born in 1929 in Berlin; his career flourished from the 1950s until his death in 1998. Many of his recordings are unavailable, perhaps because he was overshadowed in both opera and song by another Berlin baritone (his doppelgänger?) born in 1925.
As with Fischer-Dieskau, Prey’s greatest achievements were in Lieder, and I must digress here to recommend an obscure and very special recording, Prey’s Vox collection of Carl Loewe’s ballades with the excellent pianist Günter Weissenborn. Ubiquitous in the record collections of my Viennese relatives on New York’s Upper West Side, it hasn’t, to my knowledge, ever been issued on CD. Both Prey and Fischer-Dieskau were advocates of Loewe’s songs, but this recording surpasses any of their subsequent ones. Recorded in Prey’s vocal prime, his selection of ballades, from the epic “Archibald Douglas” to the astonishing setting of “Erlkönig,” would lead anyone to recognize Loewe, at his finest, as a song composer on Schubert’s level.
By the mid 1980s when these films of the Schubert song cycles were made, Prey’s voice had darkened but was still in fine shape. The Schubert cycles, Winterreise in particular, were touchstones that he continually revisited throughout his career. He performs them in what appears to be a rustic living room in an Austrian country estate. (It’s actually the ORF studio in Vienna). A mill wheel and rushing water set the scene for Die Schöne Müllerin and a cold-looking landscape introduces Winterreise. It’s nighttime outside for Schwanengesang. Aside from these scene settings, director Franz Kabelka unobtrusively aims his camera at Prey’s face and, at appropriate times, the piano keyboard. There’s no audience.
Schwanengesang makes a particularly strong impression. Prey is in ravishing voice here—one takes his flawless breath control and legato for granted—and Schwanengesang’s lower keys suit his range. While not conceived by Schubert as a true cycle, its songs revisit the themes of the two legitimate cycles—rejection, loneliness, imminent death—in a way that is even more emotionally searing. Schubert, in his response to Heinrich Heine’s dark, bitter poems, creates vocal music more intense than anything composed before Wagner. Prey isn’t a singer that one associates with anguished intensity, but that is what he creates in the sequence of slow, intensely dramatic songs, “Ihr Bid,” “Die Stadt,” and culminating with the shattering “Der Doppelgänger.” (I can imagine Prey, cast against type, as an excellent Amfortas.)
In an unconventional ordering, Prey sings all of the Heine songs first, preceded by Seidl’s “Die Taubenpost.” The second half of the cycle contains the usual six Rellstab settings, with the addition of a seventh, “Herbst,” and ends appropriately with “Abschied.” Prey’s interpretation of “Abschied” is all the more moving for the defiant energy of its quicker than usual tempo, relenting a bit at the end.
The colorful, impressionistic piano writing in Schwanengesang also elicits more involved, supple playing from Leonard Hokanson than in Die Schöne Mullerin. Hokanson and Helmut Deutsch approach the piano parts similarly. Their playing is solidly rhythmic and never fussy, but lacks the degree of inflection and dynamic variety that collaborative pianists of more recent generations have brought to Schubert’s splendid accompaniments.
These performances are very strongly recommended. For anyone who might be unfamiliar with Prey’s singing, they could be revelatory.