Sometimes written in dialogue or in unison, sometimes close to opera, to a Singspiel scene or to choral music, Schubert’s vocal duets, trios and quartets show the full variety of his creative impulses. These brief vocal ensembles composed for gatherings of friends, the famous ‘Schubertiads’, display a skill and a taste for freedom that hold an immediate appeal for today’s listener – for here one sings purely for pleasure.
How did you form this quartet?
Werner had always wanted to do Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer. So seven years ago, he set out to form a high quality quartet to sing these pieces, and that’s how we got this quartet together. The problem was in coordinating four busy singers’ heavy agendas, as well as two pianists’ (the Brahms is for piano four hands). The agencies were all quite apprehensive at the time because they thought it would be too difficult a task. But we managed and we ended up doing the Brahms quartets 28 times! We then went on to do the Schubert and the Schumann recordings. After a couple of years of working together, we became a family. There have been changes to the original core of the quartet either due to the occasional illness or agenda not permitting. However, it has now crystallised into this group.
How often do you get together to rehearse?
When we have enough time, we rehearse for five to six hours, three days running. So it is very intense!
How do you feel after that?
Tired! But that’s part of the job. I think it’s because we invest a lot of energy and love into this quartet. There is no other quartet of this stature; we know that. And so we feel responsible and make sure we do the best job we possibly can.
Did you feel there was a need for a new quartet?
We never thought of it in those terms; we just knew that we had all met each other at the right moment. There are quartets around. But they are not as well established as we are. There used to be Edith Mathis, Brigitte Fassbaender, Peter Schreier and Fischer-Diskau: that was THE quartet of the 70s-80s. Now we are the new one.
How does it feel being THE quartet of today?
It feels good. The unusual quality about our quartet is that we are all able to be our “solo selves” (we are first and foremost soloists in our own right) and at the same time intermingle so well. That is all the charm of it.
Is there a lead role in the quartet or are you all on an equal footing?
None of us ever steps into the shadow. If you want to talk about a primus inter paris, it is of course the soprano because she has the leading line. But she is not in that sense above anyone. And she would not want to think that she was either. As for my role, usually the baritone or the bass is just “there”, singing his lines. But we do not want that – we consider it an equal partnership. We are a quartet as it should be: that is, a team of like-minded people who are considerate to each other. So, no, there is no first violin! There cannot be. It would not work otherwise.
Talking about first violin, can a vocal quartet be compared to a string quartet?
Yes, you have to look at each other for eye contact, breathe together, rehearse together... It is a question of reacting and responding the whole time.
On stage, you are generally quite still and communicate mainly with facial expressions…
I see no need to move around so much. When it is all in the face and the eyes, then everything is there that is needed, I suppose. I am not a gesture person.
For this programme, you sing with sheet music. Do you feel as close to the audience as when you sing by heart?
We sing almost by heart, to be honest with you. But as there are four of us, it is sometimes better to have the score, just in case. You will notice that none of us really looks at the music all the time. We are free from it. We have done the Schubert quartets four or five times now. That is not so many, compared to the Brahms programme. We sang Brahms almost completely without the music. And this will happen too with Schubert, in time.
The first part is more humorous and the second, more serious. Why did you compile the Lieder in this way?
We start off with the lighter Lieder because Schubert wrote the heavier pieces with the more humorous ones in mind. I think perhaps in the second half, the audience start to understand what the vocal writing is all about. And then we can re-offer the public a sample of the first funny part in an encore.
Who chose the programme? Did you choose the particular solos and duets and so forth?
Yes, we did. And we managed to find songs that are not so well known. Not many people have heard of Lied der Delphine, for instance. Der Hochzeitbraten is another of his masterpieces. It is so well written, so skilfully crafted. I suppose it is no coincidence that the recording has just won the Diapason d’Or. This is not only thanks to our rendition, but also to the discovery of these not so well known works.
This will be your third quartet appearance at La Monnaie. What can people who have already come to your two previous recitals expect? What is different this time?
It is a great experience for us every time we come to La Monnaie. This time, the audience will see our funny side, I think, and our acting skills as well, which we did not have the opportunity to show on the two previous occasions, especially with Schumann, who is much more serious, much more intellectual. Schubert is less so. The second part is rather serious, but it is not intellectual in that sense. The sun is still shining.
In the texts or the music?
In the music. Schubert is sometimes like Strauss: even in the darkest moments, there is always a glimmer of light…
Interview by Charlotte Panouclias