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TC: So it is a great thing for a singer to have an accompanist who knows singing from his own experience. What about the other way round? Wouldn't it be good for you to work with a singer who also happens to be trained as a pianist?

WR: Yes and no. Most singers know a little about piano -- it is usually part of the training at school. But a singer who has substantial training as a pianist is, perhaps, not the best thing to happen to an accompanist because then he tends to be easier on you. I have learned best from singers who knew very little about piano playing. They would say: hey, can't you do this a bit smoother, better, fresher ... whatever. Whereas a singer who also happens to be a pianist would say: considering that it is such a difficult passage, well done. People like Brigitte Fassbänder, for instance, who is certainly a major influence in my musical life, would say: I want it to sound like this or that, can't you play it a bit differently? They would say this in the most difficult parts, just expecting it, you see. That challenges you because, from the non-pianist's points of view, can't be done does not exist even for the difficult passages. If you want to be a good accompanist, you need to be technically perfect but you also have to work out what precisely you want to bring across, with this piece or that. It is up to you what you make of the work.

TC: You were fortunate to have someone of Fassbänder's caliber to learn from, so early on in your career.

WR: Yes, I suppose that is very true. Looking back, one's own career path always seems very smooth and logical. But while it is all happening, when you are at the start or in the midst of it all, it sometimes appears not at all logical. You think: I hope this will all work out, or: where will this love for music lead me in life? But now I can see that music was very much in my life from an early age. It is only logical that I should end up making a living at it. I have two sisters and we all grew up with music and singing. My parents were lay musicians, but Dad was more of a semi-professional. He was a teacher and began to study organ on the side. He soon became our church organist and also helped with the church choir. The choirmaster and my Dad even did concerts together. I always went along when Dad played the organ and one day I started helping to pull the registers, something that maybe had an early influence on the choice of tonal colors that now play an important role in my job. Through Dad, I also came in contact with singing very early on. His close working relationship with the choirmaster meant that, before too long, I was singing in the choir also.

TC: Were you any good?

WR: I have a run-of-the-mill baritone voice, not too high or too low, just right for a choir.

So I was singing there for a while and then, because the choirmaster knew that I also enjoyed playing the piano, one thing led to another. I started doing some bits as accompanist for that church choir I sang in. I also did some detours through the organ world, but piano remained the most important instrument for me. Initially, Dad was teaching me, but then I got into my teenage years and began to rebel. Like most teenagers, I arrived at a point where I did not want to listen to my father anymore. Eventually, my Dad saw that we were not going to make any headway. He found another very good teacher for me, about 100km from Waldsassen where I grew up, in Regensburg. His name was Konrad Pfeiffer. He was very strict and his first requirement was that I quit messing around with the choir. I was playing with a lot of enthusiasm and was producing sounds, but he felt that there was very little real technique and order behind what I was doing. So he had me start again from scratch, doing my scales.

TC: Ouch!

WR: Yeah, that's pretty brutal if you already fancied yourself as a pianist. But it was very good for me. I owe that man a lot because he gave me a wonderfully strong base. Order is important, in music as in life. I think any technique in music is like a little machine: if it works well then it is very good, but if something isn't quite right you soon lose your track. Today I know how very important it is for any musician to have a rounded and smooth technique. I stayed with Pfeiffer until my A-levels, going there once a week. At home, I additionally practiced for about two hours a day.

TC: Being German, you then had to spend some fifteen months in the military after finishing school. Your country still has conscription.

Rieger in conversation with a student at the Juventudes Musicales de España.
Rieger in conversation with a student at the Juventudes Musicales de España.

WR: There was no getting past that. Thankfully, they have a music section in the military ... I was lucky because I had always taken violin lessons parallel to my piano lessons. That was my way out. As pianist, you were useless in the military orchestra but as a violinist you could audition because they also had a small symphony orchestra. We were in charge of chamber music. Looking back, it was a good year because I got to practice piano a lot and violin of course, plus I met some very interesting people I did chamber music with. For a while I toyed with the idea of becoming a violinist because I was very attracted to the chamber music options.

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Copyright © 29 July 2004 Tess Crebbin, Germany


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