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Diving into the music

An encounter with accompanist
Wolfram Rieger,


The profession of accompanist is a lot more involved than playing the piano while someone else is singing Lieder. It is probably one of the most difficult musical arts because it requires so many skills, beyond being a good pianist, united in the same musician: the ability to be a team player, to plan a concert program, a profound understanding of singing preferably through professional voice training, and so the list goes on. It is little surprise that at top level this very specialised field is dominated by just a handful of outstanding musicians, one of which is German-born Wolfram Rieger. His full schedule leads him around the world, partnering some of the most famous singers of our time: Thomas Hampson, Barbara Bonney, Thomas Quasthoff, to name but a few. We managed to catch up with him for a rare interview, in an Italian coffee shop in Munich, where he impresses by radiating intelligence, charm, and a spirit of child-like wonder about his music. The waiter is happy, too, since Rieger has no qualms about conversing with him in pretty good Italian ...

Wolfram Rieger talks to Tess Crebbin. Photo: Philip Crebbin
Wolfram Rieger talks to Tess Crebbin. Photo: Philip Crebbin

Tess Crebbin: You seem to speak a lot of languages: Italian, English, Spanish, French ... one presumes there are a few more.

Wolfram Rieger: Travelling around the world as I do, you learn to get around in different languages. It's a necessity when you have to find your hotel in a new city. My Italian, incidentally, I initially learned from the singers I worked with. In the early days I also accompanied opera arias and then I took the Italian I remembered, from Mozart, and made my way to Italy. When I got there, I was so proud of trying out my Italian and I addressed the waiter as voi and so on. It turned out that I spoke really antiquated Italian. They all looked at me like: where is this guy from? It's like someone coming to London and speaking sixteenth century English. They thought I was kidding. But better to be learning from opera than not at all. Knowing their language opens up an entirely new path into a people's soul. If you go to a foreign country and you speak language, you get taken more seriously. Especially in music, this is important. The only thing you have to keep in mind is that, if you learn your language from opera, or Lied texts, or whatever, it is best not to apply it one-on-one.

TC: Well, it took me a while to realize that grasen does not mean mow but graze these days. That was from Mahler's Rheinlegendchen. But we learn from our mistakes. Speaking of Mahler, as a team performing the Wunderhorn Songs, you and Thomas Hampson are unbeatable. Do you have a favorite song?

WR: I am so fascinated by the Wunderhorn cycle per se that I like all of them. They all touch on some essential part of our souls, involve us, being filled with the heart and the spirit of the composer. Some of Mahler's composing is rather challenging, however, and some songs take more work than others. Revelge, for instance, has some technically nasty bits -- as though you didn't have enough to do, just working yourself through the already challenging score, every once in a while Mahler throws in these really difficult trills that are not exactly in the most fortunate position for the pianist but, from the composer's viewpoint, could not have been put elsewhere. The Irdische Leben is also difficult to play because you have to give the piece a certain character, the unrelenting aspect of the threshing machine that you want to keep up throughout the song, this pitiless daradaradara ...

TC: When watching you at the piano, it seems as though you are very much in tune with your singers and actually breathe along with them. Is that true?

WR: You have to do that if you want to be a good accompanist. I was fortunate in that I came into contact with singing early on. While still at music school, I took voice lessons. I also had my own choir for a while, which I conducted. I loved doing that. So, aside from studying piano and violin for a double major, I did conducting and singing as minors. What is so good about taking singing lessons for an accompanist is that you learn how singing works, what happens with the air, and you also learn the terminology. So when someone speaks of singing on the breath you know what it feels like. It's good if you can express yourself in the same terminology as the singers do.

TC: That is obviously something the singers appreciate also. You were in high demand as an accompanist even during your student days.

WR: Immediately after I finished studying, I accompanied in the voice classes at music school. I was fortunate to work in the classes of Brigitte Fassbänder, starting about one year before I finished my studies. Once I graduated I became her official accompanist for the students. Actually, I'd have been hired sooner but you cannot become a teacher before you complete your studies, although I'd have thought this quite amusing. Brigitte Fassbänder helped me enormously along my career path. When I initially came into her classes with some of her own students, she heard me and liked what I did. She had a profound musical wisdom and immediately sensed that 'accompanist' was in my blood. Since she was without permanent accompanist in her class at the time -- someone had just moved to another city -- she asked whether I'd be interested. What I learned from her, more than anything, was to keep up the energy level. She was a very energetic singer and this is what she expected from the man on the piano also. Very soon, we got on so well, musically and personally, that she wanted to take this energy before a wider public. So we started giving concerts together. From 1990 until she quit singing in 1995, we did a lot of them.

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Copyright © 29 July 2004 Tess Crebbin, Germany


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