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Even though five years separate the composition of the 1st and 2nd books of this cycle, performers seem to have carte blanche to the performing order of the songs…
Christoph Prégardien: Wolf didn’t specify the order in which he wanted the songs to be sung. Poems are not like an opera or a novel. In the printed order, the relation between the songs doesn’t seem right from an emotional aspect. If you consider that a normal recital contains 20 to 25 songs, this cycle has 46 songs, which means every song is twice as short. As a performer, one has many possibilities to put the 46 songs in a dramatically intelligent order. I’ve sung Italienisches Liederbuch before in the printed order, but I was never convinced by it. So I like the challenge to create a little drama by assembling the songs in another way.
Are these songs a little old-fashioned or still believable in the 21st century?
CP: Our living circumstances have changed but not our emotions. It is about a young man and a young girl, who love each other, fight and fall in love again.
Julia Kleiter: This is something that will never be different. It’s the same in every relationship. That’s just how a man and woman work with each other.
CP: In this cycle, the man is the weak person: a kind of softy, always admiring her and saying beautiful things. The woman is totally different and I think that’s why they don’t make a good match: she is the strong character and at a certain point, quite annoyed by him.
Is that why Wolf chose Italian popular poems?
JK: My guess is that he was attracted by the Italian-like emotions. We have this idea about Italians, especially the women, being full of temperament and big emotions. So female and fiery. Maybe that’s what fascinated him, because we don’t find that in German literature so much. German figures are more introvert and reserved.
Are you telling a story and acting as partners addressing each other?
JK: What we’re doing is definitely a story. This took a lot of work and effort.
CP: The first step was to define which songs are sung by the man and which are sung by the woman. In some of them, it was not that obvious. Dramatically speaking, I address my songs directly to Julia. And then she sings a suitable reply.
JK: Sometimes it’s so direct that we don’t even do breaks between the songs. It’s like a real-life conversation.
CP: First it starts quite harmoniously. Then something goes wrong and the arguing starts. After the fight, there is a happy ending in our version.
Tell me about a couple of songs you like in particular.
CP: I especially like “Wir haben beide lange Zeit geschwiegen” and “Sterb' ich, so hüllt in Blumen meine Glieder”. These two songs are so lyrical and so full of beauty and harmony: the two souls find each other again.
JK: One I really like is “Mir ward gesagt, du reisest in die Ferne”, because it’s the moment when the woman is at her most vulnerable. I love that moment, because she’s not playing a game. She’s just really in love and worried all night long.
You say you like this cycle because it’s rollercoaster-like, but the songs you have mentioned are the opposite!
CP: I can sing dramatic songs, but I never feel so full of inspiration with those as I do with lyrical, slow and piano songs.
JK: I think what makes it so special is that there is both. Because that’s how life is. We get emotional and angry at each other but then there’s nothing better than the moment of peace. And of course I love to sing the songs where she’s super angry and just wants to kill him. Of course it’s fun. But if you ask me personally, I’m more of an introvert. I’m not someone who would yell and scream. I’m not an Italian, I’m German!
What is it you like in recitals?
CP: The most special thing is that the whole evening depends on you: it’s just you and your accompanist. That gives you a lot of freedom and artistic satisfaction, because you don’t have to follow an orchestra, a conductor or a director. The big challenge, and I love it, is to have silence all evening and see the faces of your audience. Mostly happy faces.
JK: You can see the public and in turn, they see you as a performer, as a person. It’s so direct that people concentrate on you because they know you are looking at them.
What should the unacquainted ear look out for in this recital? Can a novice attend the concert, unprepared?
CP: I think it’s always difficult to go to a concert, especially of vocal music, without being prepared. To understand Wolf’s music, you should be familiar with the texts. And that’s a bit of a problem if you are not a native speaker of German because he worked so meticulously on the texts when he composed the songs, that the details of his music can only be understood if you know exactly what he wanted to create at that moment.
JK: I find that usually, the more you know about something, the more you can appreciate it. Also, if you don’t need to read the poems and programme during the concert, you can follow the singers better.
And what does it feel like to be on stage as uncle and niece?
CP: Being a soloist is a lonely profession. If you’re alone on stage, you sing for yourself, the pianist and the audience. But you’re alone! Here, when I sing a song and Julia is standing beside me, it’s a totally different feeling: one of closeness, sympathy and support.
JK: It’s always interesting to be on stage with my uncle and to act with him as if he were my lover! It’s very funny to do because we know each other so well! And it’s very beautiful: there are some things you don’t have to figure out because the relationship has a history. I’ve admired him as a Lied singer since I was a little girl and have learned so much from performing with him.
If Wolf were alive and standing before you, what would you ask him?
JK: Oh my God! Hugo Wolf coming through my door right now... I would like to talk to him about the woman’s personality. My uncle and I discussed when she’s honest and when she’s not: when is she just playing a game and when is she being truthful? Sometimes I thought she was very honest but he thought she was a fake because it was obvious from the music. That would be something I would like to talk about, just to see what he thought about it.
Interview by Charlotte Panouclias