Monday, February 3, 2020

Talking to German baritone Matthias Vieweg at the 2020 Eilat Chamber Music Festival

Matthias Vieweg (photo: M.Vieweg)

On January 22nd 2020, I met with baritone Matthias Vieweg at the Dan Eilat Hotel, Israel, where he was performing at the Eilat Chamber Music Festival. Born in Thuringia, Germany, he studied at the Hanns Eisler School of Music, Berlin, also receiving guidance from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hans Hotter, George Fortune, Rudolf Piernay and Peter Schreier. Matthias Vieweg has performed at concert venues and festivals in Europe and Japan under such conductors as Daniel Barenboim, Kent Nagano, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Günter Neuhold, Philippe Pierlot, René Jacobs, Hermann Max and Helmut Rilling. He is an internationally active interpreter of opera, oratorio and Lieder.

PH:  Matthias Vieweg, is this your first time in Israel?

MV: No. I am happy to be here. I love the country and enjoy meeting people here with different cultural backgrounds, to share interests and experiences.

PH: Are you from a musical family?

MV: Yes. My father’s siblings were all professional musicians. I grew up with music - with a lot of Bach. We did not listen to so much modern music.

PH: What was your early music education?

MV: I started with piano lessons at age five, meaning that I read music before I read words! I had a good piano teacher. By the age of 14, I had to decide what to do in the East German system, because my family was connected with the church and it was forbidden for us children to go to high school. But I needed to find a way to graduate high school. In East Germany, there were a lot of specialist music schools, so I auditioned and enrolled in one of them, where I would also be able to do high school matriculation. That was a step in the direction of becoming a music sound master (my ambition) as we did recordings there. We had classes in voice training, in piano, in conducting, history of music, harmony - a really good basic music education, much richer than the usual high school education. The school had a very good mixed choir, on the level of the St. Thomas Boys’ Choir, Leipzig and we did a lot of recordings; this also gave me an opportunity to get a taste of what went on in the studio there. It was a boarding school in the Harz Mountains and I graduated from there. 

PH: How did you start your career in music?

MV: By accident. I wanted to work in music production, to be a sound master, guiding musicians - that was my intention.  But with the changes in Germany, I needed to change my plans completely. At that time, in East Germany of the1990s, companies were shutting down and there was no need for more music producers there. So, I looked for other things I could do: I could play the piano, I could sing and I was good at mathematics, so I started with mathematics. But I then decided I was more the artistic type, left the maths studies and began to develop my voice. So, you could say I became a professional singer by accident. 

PH: Where did you study?

MV: I studied in Berlin, becoming a singer step by step, but had the advantage of a solid musical background from my schooling. 

PH: Do you see yourself mostly as an opera singer, a singer of oratorio or Lieder?

MV: I really love them all. At present, I am doing more concerts, opera and oratorio and less Lieder recitals, because, at the moment, it is really hard to do Lied recitals - to find an agent or a concert hall where you can hold a concert is really hard. I love singing Lieder because I also studied Lied accompaniment at the university, but I probably do just two Lied recitals a year. The rest is oratorio and opera. I like opera but feel I can not engage in only one discipline. It can be really nice if you take something from opera into concert performance and vice-versa. In concert performance, you have to concentrate on the music, build your phrases and to shape the music really well. If you also do that in opera, it is really nice; you can show the dramatic experience of opera in oratorio, because there is so much dramatic music there. If you sing only as an oratorio singer with no experience of operatic dramatic expression, your performance lacks something. 

PH: I see you won 2nd Prize at the 1998 International Bach Competition in Leipzig, and that you have sung in Bach festivals. Is Bach your most preferred composer?

MV: Bach is, of course, my number one composer. And not only for singing. I love all his music. Bach is really natural for me. When I hear a line of Bach’s music, I can feel it immediately. Maybe it is because I grew up with Bach. But there is also so much good music besides Bach and I am very interested in all other repertoire and other musical styles as well - not only Classical, Baroque, but earlier and later music. I am interested in good music! If music “reads” your heart, if it can reach you, it must be good music. That is my idea of music and not to discount it if it is not so rich or so sophisticated. It all depends on what the music tells you and if there is music that tells you a certain story then it is, in my opinion, good music.

PH: Where do you stand regarding the movement of authentic early music performance?

MV: I really like the idea of bringing the original sound of that music to the audience. As of age 14, I remember groups playing Baroque music in the authentic manner because, for me it was more natural than the overloaded Romantic style of performance. I love that, but sometimes I am really glad to do it the other way, with a large orchestra, large choir and a full musical sound. All this depends on how the music is done. If it is done well, it is fine. I am not strict in thinking there is only one way of performing Baroque music. And anyway, nobody really knows exactly what music sounded like then. There are books of correct spelling of Latin or of early English, but should we do Bach in modern German pronunciation? I think Bach would have been performed in the Saxonian dialect and I think we should sing that music in the Saxonian dialect. But I would laugh if I heard that. And after all the arguments over what is right and what is wrong in Baroque performance practice, people forget that every person needs to sense the music and find his way of performing it, even if it is not the best way. One can then always try a different approach. But I like the way the authentic artists produce the music - how they did it in the Baroque was much lighter, not so slow, more dancelike, more organic and not so overloaded with Romantic musical ideas. 

PH: Do you write about music? 

MV: Very seldom, but I like to discuss music. I have a composer friend who sends me new compositions of his in order to get my opinion on them. What I like is listening to that music without knowing what his basic idea is to first listen to it to hear whether it speaks to me and what I can find in it.  Only afterwards do I wish to discuss the structure and the ideas behind the piece with the composer. Of course, you cannot hear the ideas behind a piece if they are very sophisticated. Even in Bach’s music, you cannot hear all the complexity of the mathematics in his music. But the point is whether you feel the music and that you realize that there must be more to it than you hear the first time. If you listen to music twice, ten- or twenty times, you can pick up whether it is really good, each time finding new points of interest.  

PH: What do you think today’s audiences in Central Europe are looking for?

MV: I think audiences want more than a concert - they want a “performance”. What I don’t like is that the audience is over-inundated with things not to do with the music. What I really like are concerts in venues not normally used for concerts. You can discover really nice places and then find the idea of how music can enrich them. There is a lot of that happening now. It is really not easy to fill concert halls nowadays. People are swamped with TV, you can watch movies on your ‘phone, etc. It is so hard to get these people to come to a concert, to shut their eyes or watch what is happening, but mainly to open their ears and their minds to the music being performed. If this can be done, these people will love it. It’s an experience you can’t have with your mobile ‘phone or from watching TV. You need to sit there with the musicians in front of you. If you can achieve that, people will come back again for more. But I believe concert organizers will find ways to draw in the people if they offer something extra at a concert. Coming back to our discussion of the Lied recital, that is where you can’t have a large audience. Maybe it is too intimate a genre for some people. One has to be prepared for that fact that this music is not as overwhelming and that it has a specific kind of emotion. Only the big names manage to do recitals nowadays. 

PH: When it is not music, what interests you?

MV: I’m interested in literature, walking, discovering nice spots, even locally, and I love to travel with my family. My family occupies me a lot. 

PH: Matthias Vieweg, thank you for your time and for sharing your thoughts on performance.

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