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Ms. Prohaska, when you sing music by Wolfgang Rihm, your voice occasionally moves in stratospheric regions – one could say, in the “air of other planets.” Do you feel it as a type of fresh-air influx when you get music by Rihm to study?
Prohaska: Fresh air? – definitely, in the sense that it has almost always been completely new pieces to date that I've sung and that Rihm actually wrote some of them for me. It is also an unbelievably great experience to open the score for the first time; it’s of course very exciting and delightful. But I would say, musically speaking, that Rihm’s music has always been strongly grounded in tradition; Rihm has his own sonic language, his own brilliance in his creativity, but he really does stand with both feet firmly planted in musical tradition. And I find that exciting about him; you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel when you're writing a new piece.
How does Rihm’s music lie with your voice? Is it possible to generalise?
Prohaska: Rihm always writes for individuals, for the person he has composed it for, the person who sings the premiere performance. He knows the extreme regions of the voice in question, but he also knows where that voice feels most comfortable. For instance, I’m often called a coloratura soprano, even though I’m actually not. I am a lyric soprano with coloratura. I’ve never sung Zerbinetta, I've never sung the Queen of the Night; I have the notes, but I’m just not at home up there – and Rihm knows that. That’s why these Requiem-Strophen with the two sopranos – I sing the second soprano – are so ingenious; some of my part lies very low. It goes from G below the staff to the D above it, yet there is always a wonderful balance; the voice always has moments when it can repose in the lower regions – it is not always stuck in the eternal ice up there.
What was it like when you saw the score for the first time?
Prohaska: Well, Mr. Schaufler, it was quite funny; we met in Berlin at the performance of the great dance-poem Tutuguri, given in a concert version by the Bavarian Radio Symphony at the Berlin Musikfest. It was a very strange moment; I had this big score on my lap as I was listening to another piece by Rihm, a piece from a very different time – a courageous, bombastic early work with a huge deployment of percussion at the end. And I was sitting there with the score and I couldn’t help myself; naturally I had to page through it and sort of have a look: how was it written? Of course that is distracting and it wasn’t as if one could get an idea of it at once in the mind’s eye, but I did get a bit of an overview of the amount.
In your view, what is Rihm’s motivation for scaling such heights? He wrote another piece for you, Mnemosyne, some of which lies very high. I always feel a moment of utopia when the soprano catapults herself into the very highest ranges. How is that for you as the performer?
Prohaska: First of all, I must say that a singer does not approach it so philosophically; at first, it is all technical and physical, which is truly a kind of tightrope walking. You sometimes feel like a vaulting horse – that is, it is a matter of managing to clear this and that hurdle while sounding especially elegant and musical and without it sounding like hard work – and that is not too difficult with Rihm’s music because he writes such wonderful cantilenas. Sometimes the pitches are extremely far apart – indeed, occasionally over two octaves – but without ever losing the thread. Often, the other instruments lead and accompany me. Rihm composes a musical Ariadne thread. He wrote Samothrake for me and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and I was again able to experience – en gros, as it were – how it is to be surrounded by Rihm’s masses of sound; they are so unobtrusively composed that they do not cover the singer – I felt supported and accompanied. With Rihm, the singing is always ingrained in the musical texture; it is never mere fodder for virtuosi.
That is also obvious in his opera Dionysos; again and again, he gives a note to the sopranos from the orchestra, maintaining the integrity and never leaving the soloists isolated.
Prohaska: Yes, and that is naturally an incredible help to intonation as well. Mojca Erdmann, who sings first soprano, has perfect pitch. I admire that like mad, of course, because it makes learning a score a lot easier. I have relative pitch, so I am more reliant on the orchestra.
The Rihm violin concerto most frequently played is called Gesungene Zeit [“Sung Time”], not gratuitously, one could say. His music often has a vocal core. Do you sense that, as a performer of his music?
Prohaska: Definitely. I love his instrumental music, too, but of course as a singer I relate more strongly to the vocal music. I was still a child when I got to know his baritone songs through our mutual friend Richard Salter; Rihm wrote several things for him and he premiered some of them. That closeness to the words, that vocal expressiveness – that is the epicentre of his work, it seems to me.
When Beethoven wrote his Missa Solemnis, he was accused of writing against the voice – also in the sense that the failure had some allure. There are pieces by Rihm called Über die Linie [“Over the Line”]; are there times when he goes beyond the limits of what singing can do, as a deliberate stylistic element?
Prohaska: I can well imagine that he tries to do that. But with a singer like Mojca Erdmann, for instance, it is not even noticeable that there are such limits, because she just soars over it all, like with Proserpina or the large part in Dionysos. I admire what she does madly. Besides, Rihm already knew what she could do and where her strengths lay, and that he could fully exploit them.
I don’t think that Rihm is a composer who deliberately writes against the voice, so that it is detrimental, so it becomes scratchy, so that you have to force yourself – which can entail long-term damage to these poor little muscles. There are other composers who couldn’t care less about that, who see only their genius hovering before them – and the singers and instrumentalists are the poor little performers. With Rihm, I feel that it all goes hand in hand: interpretation, performer and piece.
What else is there to say about the music before the first rehearsals of the Requiem-Strophen?
Prohaska: I fell in love with the wonderful Lacrimosa parts at once, one of them in Latin and the other in German. There are simply those heartrending intervals and I am simply looking forward to finding Klangfarben with Mojca Erdmann – that perhaps we will try to sound the same, or wan, or with vibrato, depending – to seek and try a mirror image and, then again, a completely different line. One can only find these things out during the rehearsal stage and really grasp what it will then become.
That almost sounds a bit like Mozart's C-minor Mass.
Prohaska: Yes, a little bit, I can imagine – but it’s also a bit more extreme and maybe a little more romantic. Hanno Müller-Brachmann, the baritone, has a sonnet that he sings completely alone.
I think that is a very beautiful idea: such a symmetry, with the male voice in the middle, surrounded by the female voices, like a triptych.
br musica-viva, März-April 2017