Chen Reiss - Liaisons

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A Viennese mélange
Chen Reiss takes a journey into 18th-century Vienna in this recital, discovering the interrelationships between Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries. In conversation with Axel Bruggemann she explains why this period saw the composition of such great operas – and what relevance the spirit of that time has for the modern day.
Axel Brüggemann: Chen Reiss, on this CD you focus on the Viennese masters – Haydn, Mozart, Salieri and Cimarosa. You embark upon a voyage of discovery and seek out connections between the musicians. What have you learned?
Chen Reiss: I find it astonishing that these musicians all breathed the same air and yet were so utterly different. I was interested in why Mozart and Haydn have such an exceptional reputation today and why we have largely forgotten Salieri and Cimarosa. The logical place to start was in Vienna, tracking down the backgrounds of these composers. This was where musical life was at in the 18th century. I wanted to know what trends shaped the composers, how they were interconnected and why – despite largely similar influences – they wrote such different music.
Haydn is, if you like, the link – living as he did from 1732 to 1809 and so outliving all the other composers.
He was the doyen, the father of them all – ‘Papa Haydn’. But one quickly realizes that the musical landscape changed profoundly over the 77 years of his life. Haydn composed to order –great ceremonial pieces for his employer; Salieri was a permanent employee at the Vienna court; but Mozart was already pursuing a different course. He had to fight for his work to be performed and present every individual work from scratch –which of course had an effect on his compositional style. Mozart wrote works for aristocrats who had subscribed to his pieces, for the royal opera or Schikaneder’s Volkstheater. In his works he always had to consider the audience that was paying for them. At the same time he was able to allow himself the freedom to realize his own musical standards –without being constantly under the court’s supervision. Indeed this was a development continued later in Vienna with Beethoven –who wasn’t beholden to a monarch and had the freedom to be more experimental in harmony and form. So you can see that this was a time shaped by fashions and rules that were gradually starting to die out.
Haydn became a kind of mentor to Mozart. He told his father Leopold that his son was one of the greatest musicians, he went bowling with Mozart, and each was a musical inspiration for the other – particularly in the field of chamber music.
Yes indeed, I can imagine people with an untrained ear thinking that Haydn and Mozart sound similar. But of course that’s not true. Haydn has this wonderful humour in his music, whereas Mozart is a master at creating profound characters. I feel for instance that he is one of the few composers who understood how a woman’s psyche works –which, as we know, is a complex matter. As a woman, I find it fascinating how he manages to express precisely those feelings in his music which I would have if placed in the same situation as his characters. Perhaps this was something to do with the fact that he had so many lovers.
I’m not sure if that was it, or if it isn’t something deeper than that. After all, Chen, men too are moved by Mozart. For me he is the master at revealing the core of a human being in music – he ventures into those areas where everyone’s psyche works the same way, be it male or female…
Yes, and the great thing is that he plays with surface impressions: that’s his way of achieving depth. Take an opera such as Così – which, at first glance, is frankly silly. A simple plot: two women, two men – and an experiment set up to test faithfulness. A theme, incidentally, which many composers of the time tackled. But Mozart was the only one who managed to plumb the depths of man’s very existence in his music. Real jealousy, real fidelity, emptiness without love –everything or nothing. And to this very day this music full of hope and disillusionment moves us to the core.
Mozart was brave with his choices of libretti: there were objections to his setting an opera in a harem in Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from tthee Seraglio). After Le nozze di Figaro was performed, the aristocracy in Vienna turned their backs on Mozart, because they could not bear to see a count seducing a chambermaid. People cancelled their subscriptions in droves and pushed Mozart to the brink of ruin.
Perhaps therein lies one reason for his greatness: Mozart was only ever concerned about his art. Even when his own existence was at stake he wrote operas that were perfect – even if the time wasn’t yet ripe for that kind of subject matter. At the same time he strove to observe the conventions of his time.
He explores the existing forms only as far as their limits permitted – which clearly went too far for some in Vienna. Today we consider this balance between form and freedom to be a perfect one. Mozart was always probing for timeless, universal, humanistic music.
Would you say that Cimarosa and Salieri are not so well known partly because they were too indulgent of contemporary tastes?
Both were great composers. And no composer can live in a bubble and write what he wants – he will always be a child of his time. These two were perhaps a particularly special case. And little wonder, since Salieri’s obligations were to the court. It was harder for him to experiment; he had to work within a tighter straitjacket, as it were. It is astonishing how Mozart was a point of orientation for him –and he for Mozart. I find it exciting that all these composers shared the same themes. One of the most important was marriage, which plays a central role in Mozart’s Così and Figaro, but also in Salieri’s La scuola de’ gelosi (‘The School of Jealousy’) or in Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto (‘The Secret Marriage’) and Galuppi in Le nozze di Dorina (‘Dorina’s Wedding’), for which Mozart wrote the aria ‘Voi avete un cor fedele’ [track 3]. In short –marriage was a modern theme. And each of these artists composed a similar story –but with different means. Salieri was a great composer, and his roles are perfectly set for the human voice, but he did not only choose his subjects according to the fashion of his day, but his notes too. Mozart was considerably freer in this respect –his arias require hard work. For him it wasn’t the voice that was the most important thing, but the message of the aria; he often treated the voice like an instrument. For me that makes him a challenge, because he probes deeper into the soul of the characters.
Today we think that we must be true to what these composers wrote – and yet they themselves had no problem with spur-of-the-moment adjustments. They tailor-made their roles for their singers, and if need be threw everything away and started again. How do you, as a modern-day singer, set about dealing with this tradition?
Of course I do allow myself small embellishments, since I know that composers wrote different cadenzas for different singers. But I’m very careful about it. The only liberty I allow myself is freedom of colour and interpretation, since after all nothing is set out to that effect in their scores. I think the composers deliberately left scope for the singers to show their range of colour. It was their job to fill the roles with their own personalities. Take a phrase like ‘I love you’: you can say it in so many different ways. And that’s what it’s about, for me: finding the colour that’s right for the moment this phrase is uttered.
That’s the exciting thing about music: it describes the words, and with Mozart it can even happen that someone says ‘I love you’ and means ‘I don’t love you’ – but we only hear that in the music.
I think of Despina’s aria [track 10] like that. She explains that lying is a legitimate tactic –in her view women need to have as many means as possible to confuse men. Quite clearly Mozart translates this creativity into his music, which presents any singer with a challenge. Another stylistic device that Mozart particularly enjoys using is harmonic shifts. This becomes very clear in Susanna’s recitative [track 2], at the moment when everything suddenly changes. At the start, she is only play-acting her love, but then –all of a sudden –it becomes serious and suddenly, she means what she says. What is more, she sees through her own thoughts, discovers her own love –and talks about herself, her husband and her wedding. You can hear the thought process in the music. You have to make that clear as a singer. It’s about allowing different atmospheres to develop in the aria.
Can it be that opera was more normal, at the time, than it is for today’s audience? For many, opera has become a museum relic from the past.
Very possibly. We mustn’t forget that in Mozart’s time the characters were all contemporary. The singers wore clothes that were worn at court. Nowadays, these are historical costumes. As a singer I have to start off by learning how to move in these clothes! I guess probably people in Vienna at the time saw a reflection of the norms of the time. Yet it was also characteristic of the age that things would be writ larger on stage than in real life –pathos and emotion played a big role. I don’t know if we’d classify a production of the time as hugely exaggerated; in any case, large gestures were taken for granted in those days. For this contrast between the ages, the shift in fashions and norms is what makes our art so exciting. We have to make opera something of our own time, over and over again. There was no cinema at the time –but cinema has changed the way we see things for ever. We are now used to seeing things as true to life as possible, and the stage reacts to that. Our art is to translate the stories and music of the past into what we are used to seeing and hearing today –but in doing so we should not lose sight of what the original is all about.
It is noticeable that the private lives of composers always played a role in their music – particularly music for women! What do you think – were these ladies muses? Luigia Polzelli, for example, whom Haydn had an affair with?
I found this an exciting stage in my research for this project. I always thought of Haydn as a rather conservative man: ‘Papa Haydn’, as well as a faithful husband. But I discovered that he had numerous, very serious affairs –actually you could call him a womanizer! He even wrote to one of his mistresses saying that he wished a certain other person would vanish for ever so that they could both live together. He actually wished for the death of his own wife to be able to continue his affair! At least that’s what he wrote. Divorce wasn’t an option then, and Haydn’s marriage was a pretty unhappy one. And yet he wrote cheerful music. I found this contrast astonishing –and I think the affairs played their part in this.
A mark of true art is that it shines a light into those parts of our soul that we would prefer to leave in the dark, don’t you think? And all that takes effect by means of the voice – a little bit of vibrating air. It has the power to move us, in a real sense.
Yes, the voice is a physical form of expression – body and soul all at once. And in order to connect in this way we need the freedom on the stage, the scope, to take risks we couldn’t in real life. The world of opera plays with these exciting extremes. There aren’t any operas about tax returns or washing up after breakfast. These things don’t happen in opera –what we are concerned with is the general condition of the human psyche; the things which truly move us at a profound and existential level. And, of course, everyone faces these moments, one way or another, in their own lives. The art of the composers we are discussing consists in the ability to find and to touch that part of our soul with music.
You have spent a long time in your work with these composers and their city of Vienna. What has changed in your perspective on the music of this period?
All the composers whose arias I sing were interconnected – whether in friendship or in competition with one another, or simply through the city of Vienna, its trends and the Zeitgeist that shaped all of them. Of course there comes a point at which you start comparing the individual composers – to see how they treated their own time and what they foresaw for our age. And you start to understand why posterity favoured some composers, while others sometimes go out of fashion. But it’s important that they’re not forgotten, because only then does the whole picture become clear. Only when we appreciate that these musicians were not only in competition with one another, but respected one another’s work and were mutually enriched, do we form a picture of the time. A picture, by the way, that we see repeated much later on in Vienna –I’m thinking of Mahler, Schoenberg and Berg, who also formed a musical association, in which they treated the same spirit of the age in different ways.
And all this could only have happened in Vienna?
I think so. And part of this history can be felt to this day in the city. I don’t think there is any other major city in the whole world in which classical music and opera play such a big role. Every taxi driver knows what is on at the opera in the evening, performances are reviewed on the front pages of newspapers. That’s unique. And above all –the city is still a melting pot, a place where all who love music come together.
Axel Brüggemann and Chen Reiss
Translation: Saul Lipetz
Described as ‘a stunning Gilda’ and ‘a hugely talented artist’, soprano Chen Reiss has performed leading roles at the Vienna State Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Theatre des Champs-Elysees, Teatro alla Scala, Semperoper Dresden, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Hamburg State Opera, Wiener Festwochen, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Israeli Opera.
Accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle, Ms Reiss sang on the soundtrack to the film Perfume. A frequent soloist at important concert venues worldwide, Ms Reiss has sung with distinguished conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Ivor Bolton, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, Daniele Gatti, Daniel Harding, Manfred Honeck, Marek Janowski, Paavo Jarvi, James Levine, Fabio Luisi, Zubin Mehta, Donald Runnicles, Ulf Schirmer and Peter Schneider.
She has given concerts at the Salzburg, Ludwigsburg, Rheingau and Lucerne Festivals, as well as in Carnegie Hall, Vienna’s Musikverein and the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Other concert appearances include the Staatskapelle Berlin, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Munich Philharmonic, Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin, Orchestre de Paris, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Pittsburgh Symphony, Munchner Rundfunkorchester, Orquesta de Valencia, Oviedo Filarmonia, Atlanta Symphony, New Japan Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, La Chambre Philharmonique and the Israel Philharmonic.
In the 2010/11 season Ms Reiss was invited to sing song recitals at the Tonhalle Dusseldorf and at the Gstaad festival with Charles Spencer, as well as a solo recital at the Laeiszhalle in Hamburg with Alexander Schmalcz. She has given solo recitals in Carnegie Hall, Philharmonie Berlin, Prinzregententheater (Munich), Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, Bad Kissingen Festival, Konzerthaus Dortmund, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Alice Tully Hall.
Her operatic repertoire includes Gilda (Rigoletto), Nannetta (Falstaff), Oscar (Un ballo in maschera), Adina (L’elisir d’amore), Marie (La Fille du régiment), Sophie (Der Rosenkavalier), Rosina (Il barbiere di Siviglia), Servilia (La clemenza di Tito), Blonde (Die Entführung aus dem Serail), Susanna (Le nozze di Figaro), Zerlina (Don Giovanni), Despina (Così fan tutte), Euridice (Orfeo ed Euridice), Contessa di Folleville (Il viaggio a Reims) and Adele (Die Fledermaus).
Upcoming engagements include: Adele, Sophie, Pamina and Servilia at the Vienna State Opera, Iphis (Jephta) at the Handel Festival in Halle and Gottingen and Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem in Pittsburgh (with Manfred Honeck), as well as concerts with the Orchestre National de France (Daniele Gatti), Munchner Rundfunkorchester (Ulf Schirmer), Hamburger Symphoniker (Jeffrey Tate) and the Baroque ensemble l’arte del mondo (Werner Ehrhardt).
A solo CD with the WDR Radio Orchestra was released in 2009 including songs and arias by Mozart, Schubert, Spohr and Lachner. Another CD with Italian songs by Schubert and Donizetti was released in 2007.
Artistic director Werner Ehrhardt, from Cologne, frequently appears as a guest conductor with orchestras on the international stage. He studied violin with Professor Franz-Josef Maier, historical performance practice under Sigiswald Kuijken in Brussels, and conducting under Professor Karl-Heinz Bloemeke in Detmold, Germany. A constant curiosity and a pronounced interest in different ways of approaching music led him to continue intensive study under Kato Havas at Oxford and Professor Renate Peter in Cologne.
As the artistic director of the world-renowned Concerto Koln chamber orchestra from 1985 to 2005, Werner Ehrhardt developed a characteristic style of interpretation based on historically informed performance. In 2004, Werner Ehrhardt founded l’arte del mondo and turned to traditional orchestras as well. He has since given highly acclaimed performances with numerous international opera, symphony and chamber orchestras, including the orchestra of the Stuttgart State Opera, the Berlin Konzerthaus Orchestra, the Bern Symphony Orchestra, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, Capriccio Basel, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, the Neuss German Chamber Academy and the Geneva Chamber Orchestra. He has also worked with soloists such as Daniel Hope, Magdalena Kozˇna, Barbara Hendricks, Christine Schafer, Viktoria Mullova, Eva Mei, Andreas Scholl, Chen Reiss, Olli Mustonen, Christiane Oelze and Thomas Zehetmair.
Werner Ehrhardt’s recordings include more than 50 CDs that have won many international awards, including the Echo Klassik Prize.
The orchestra l’arte del mondo, which was founded by artistic director Werner Ehrhardt in 2004, stands in the tradition of historically informed performance. This is the starting point of the ensemble, which however also presents outstanding performances on modern instruments, in repertoire up to composers of the 20th century.
The orchestra’s creation was soon followed by invitations to perform in renowned festivals and concert series –such as the Ludwigsburg Schlossfestspiele, Bonn’s Beethoven festival, the Konzerthaus in Berlin and the Cite de la Musique in Paris –and to collaborate with the West German Broadcasting Company (WDR) and Deutschlandfunk.
The ensemble’s interesting oeuvre has been documented on the Capriccio and Phoenix Edition CD labels. It includes a number of world premieres and rediscovered orchestral works, operas and oratorios. The recording of Etienne-Nicolas Mehul’s comic opera L’Irato ou l’Emporté received the prestigious French award Diapason. From 2011, l’arte del mondo and Werner Ehrhardt will publish their recordings on Sony Classical and Deutsche Harmonia Mundi labels.
The orchestra’s regular guest soloists include the sopranos Simone Kermes, Ruth Ziesak and Chen Reiss, tenors Christoph Pregardien and Thomas Michael Allen, violinists Daniel Hope, Viktoria Mullova and Baiba Skride, trumpeter Reinhold Friedrich, harpist Xavier de Maistre and jazz pianist Uri Caine.
l’arte del mondo have performed in venues such as the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Herkulessaal in Munich, Tonhalle Dusseldorf, the Philharmonie Berlin, the Schwetzinger Festspiele, the Handel Festival in Halle and the Musikfestspiele Potsdam-Sanssouci as well as at the Israel Festival, in South America (Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo), Turkey, Switzerland and France.
Since summer 2010 l’arte del mondo has been the permanent orchestra-in-residence of Bayer Arts & Culture Leverkusen. This residence includes various performances throughout the concert season with guest artists such as Viktoria Mullova, Ruth Ziesak and Daniel Hope.

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