Saturday, April 11, 2020

Talking to Austrian tenor Daniel Johannsen about the Evangelist role, historically informed performance and the Romantic Lied

Photo: Anette Friedel
On March 25th 2020, I had the pleasure of talking to Daniel Johannsen at his home in Vienna. Born in 1978, the Austrian tenor is one of the most sought-after Evangelists and Bach interpreters of his generation. In addition to church music, he studied vocal arts with Margit Klaushofer and Robert Holl in Vienna, participating in master classes with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Nicolai Gedda and Christa Ludwig. He was a prize-winner at the Bach-, Schumann-, Mozart-, Hilde Zadek- and Wigmore Hall Competitions. Since his debut in 1998, Daniel Johannsen has appeared as a concert-, Lieder- and opera singer, taking him to the major musical centres of Europe, North America, Japan and the Middle East, where he sings works from every period. A lyric tenor, he sings the entire range of German repertoire in addition to English and French compositions. Numerous recordings, radio- and television broadcasts continue to document his creative output.

PH: Oh, I see you have a beautiful historic piano!

DJ: This is my “first aid kit”. It is an 1872 piano built by Carl Rönisch, Dresden and in perfect condition.

PH: So, you also have an interest in historic keyboard instruments.

DJ: Yes. German early keyboard specialist Christoph Hammer is “to blame” for my craze for period pianos. I have also been interested in period organs and harpsichords.  I want to be a prophet and a messenger, telling people that there are still lots of period instruments in collections or in private properties. (But newly-built instruments are also to be used, as they have the benefit of new and reliable materials, yet still built to the proportions of the old instruments.) This Carl Rönisch is just right for the music of Hugo Wolf. Hugo Wolf composed in the 1880s, so a piano from 1872 is literally what people would have had in their salons at that time. It’s so lovely to have this sound, especially for those big Wolf elegiac piano introductions and interludes. This piano makes performing them all so easy and logical and it holds its pitch very well. Unlike trying to accompany Schubert’s “Heidenröslein” (Hedge Rose) on a large concert grand, this is a piano where you can really let go. Although it has punch, it is never too loud. Yes, I am definitely for period pianos and my next CD, which will feature Wolf songs, with lots of texts by Mörike, Eichendorff and Goethe, will be recorded with my own piano. The pianist will be Andreas Fröschl, a very gifted German pianist now living in Vienna. I met him at a Schubertiade run by my teacher Robert Holl in Landshut, Bavaria. (Andreas Fröschl comes from there). We had one rehearsal and then a concert; I was so amazed at what he did with such tricky Schubert ensemble pieces as “Der Hochzeitsbraten” (The Wedding Roast). Andreas also fell in love with the Rönisch piano, although he doesn’t play period pianos at all, but he sat down at this 148-year-old piano and was amazed at how everything was at once so articulate.

PH: Where did you start your early music training?

DJ:  I was at a grammar school in my home region of Burgenland, the easternmost part of Austria, bordering on Hungary; till 1989, Burgenland was the easternmost part of the western world. The iron curtain was only 30 kilometres away. I still remember seeing the towers and barbed wire - a lethal zone between two empires. 

PH: I understand you trained as a church musician. 

DJ: Yes.  I started with piano and organ and took studies in church music. By the age of 11 or 12, I was already playing the organ at church (I am the son of a Lutheran vicar), accompanying services with my father. In addition to my school life, I attended a kind of music academy; the Graz Musikhochschule had a branch in this lovely little Burgenland town of Oberschützen, where I was at school. At age 17, before my A-levels, I started to study organ and church music, continuing in Vienna, graduating in 1999 with a B Diploma in church music. 

PH: So how did you get into professional singing? Who were the singers who influenced you?

DJ: I was studying vocal skills with Margit Klaushofer; this was an important subject for a career as a church musician and choir conductor.  Margit Klaushofer, the most important voice teacher I had, said I must become a singer. Before she proposed I put all my energies into making a career of singing, I had not been fond of the idea because of all the second-rate opera singers I had met singing oratorios in the villages and small towns in my home county, with their untamed vibrato and temperamental behaviour. If this was how singers functioned, it was just mad. That is how I saw singers until I met Robert Holl. What a different kind of person he was! I met Fischer-Dieskau, I met Nicolai Gedda, I met Christa Ludwig. These were singers of a much earlier generation. In their hands, I was like clay on a potter’s wheel.  This makes me very grateful because, when I met Fischer-Dieskau in 2004, he was 79 and still such a strong person. He stood behind me and sang all these Hugo Wolf songs together with me AND in tenor range! I was melting away in awe and ecstasy. It was only a year later that he broke his shoulder and he was no longer the same person. How lucky I was to have met him in the last year of his strength and professional life. This is the grace of God.

PH: When did you actually start working as a solo singer?

DJ: Well, right from the beginning of my church music studies, I knew about my vocal qualities. I had sung Schütz Passions and 17th century repertoire when only 19 or 20 years old. In fact, I debuted in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio even before I started my vocal studies. In 1998 and sang the Evangelist in my first three cantatas as a church music student. The difference was that, even as a solo-singing church musician, I still had not considered making my living as a vocal soloist. This only became clear in my early 20s, when I won 2nd Prize at the XIII International Bach Competition in Leipzig in 2002. It was only then, at 24, after I had won a silver medal and artists such as Peter Schreier claimed I was a good Bach singer, that it was time for me to accept the fact that I would have a career as a solo singer, would live off it and would be fully determined and dedicated to it. 

PH: You are known for much singing of Bach works.

DJ: Yes. I can say that there is no month of my life without Bach and there are months when there is not a single week in my life without Bach. Isn’t that beautiful! Singing all those cantatas!  Now, absolutely and objectively speaking, the Evangelist role is the best I can give. With all my love for Schubert and for Mozart opera, if I really have to decide on one focus, it is the Evangelist in the St. Matthew and St. John Passions. And I don’t tire from performing them. You know, in 2015, when I sang the St. John Passion with the Israel Camerata Jerusalem under Avner Biron, with Peter Harvey as Christus and a Swiss choir, I had five days in a row of singing the complete tenor part - the Evangelist and the two arias - and at 440 pitch (quite different to singing at 415) - and I was sound; I was tired but felt well. Before the last concert of the run, which was in Jerusalem, I went up to the Mount of Olives. Actually, I sang my first St. Matthew Passion in Jerusalem; it was in the 2004 Israel Festival. I was an aria singer. It was with Hermann Max and the Rheinische Kantorei.  I have always seen this as an omen of my Evangelist career. Today, I am honoured to be singing with both the Swiss Project - the J.S.Bach Foundation - and the Netherlands Bach Society’s “All of Bach” Project. Last year, I sang two concerts with the latter group under Philippe Herreweghe. The settings of the NBS’s videos are very beautiful, with the chiaroscuro effects of light. I love those Calvinist-style Dutch churches and the big Dutch organs. In Groningen, for example, they have built the podium right under the organ. The organ at St. Martin’s Church is one of the most famous in the Netherlands. I did the St. John Passion and the Christmas Oratorio there; such a moving setting!

PH: Where do you stand regarding the early music historically informed performance movement?

DJ: Well, I am fully a part of it. I do sing the Bach B-minor Mass with eight singers and his cantatas with four people. Single-part scoring suits many pieces, such as “Actus Tragicus” BWV 106 and for all the trickiest Bach pieces of running 16th-note polyphony. Done by a Bach choral society, it is impressive, but it will sound like thick dough and lack the fine detail. And I am not an admirer of performing these pieces as fast as possible! Actually, at 41, I realize I don’t have the fast tempi I had at 25, when I was proud of my coloratura and speed. My good friend, the late German conductor Enoch zu Guttenberg, a founder of the Orchester der KlangVerwaltung (Orchestra of the Sound Administration) was somewhat of the tradition of Karl Richter, meaning the full Romantic orchestra, but he did not adopt the thick, slow and sticky manner of Karl Richter. However, he was very big on effects. When he did "Wahrlich, dieser ist Gottes Sohn Gewesen” (Truly, this was the Son of God) from the St. Matthew Passion, it was like an earthquake. I have fallen in love with his idea as well. So, I am in the happy position of being able to say: “If there is an idea and a concept, I can be like a chameleon and find myself either in a performance of 300 people or with 40 people (i.e. 40 including choir and orchestra). I normally don’t have trouble with high pitch or with lower pitch. There are so many German choral societies that use 440 pitch, not working with period instruments. One should really be able to address all traditions. But there are some approaches that are bizarre in their choice of tempi, for example, in which I refuse to take part. I am also not an English-style Evangelist and will never sing the role in that manner ...not my idea or aesthetic. At first, I was disappointed not to be singing in the UK, but now accept it as I am a continental singer.  

PH: Would you like to talk about your connection with Schubert’s music?

DJ: Yes. Schubert is really one of my first loves. For me, his life and biography are the most amazing in the whole of music history. Schubert composed for 18 of the 31 years of his lifetime (he did not start writing music at age 5, as did Mozart and Mendelssohn); he was almost adolescent when he started composing.  Otto Erich Deutsch, who compiled the first comprehensive catalogue of Franz Schubert's compositions, said that eighteen years of a lifetime would not be sufficient for one to only copy all the music Franz Schubert wrote! And Schubert had such neat handwriting (Beethoven’s is hieroglyphic!) For me, Schubert is the greatest musician who has ever lived and composed in Vienna. He is the most Viennese composer, even more so than Johann Strauss or Franz Lehar. Hardly any other music causes me to shed tears as do his Octet or the last string quartet (the G-major). By the way, when I want to give myself a treat, I only listen to chamber music, not vocal music. For me, Schubert’s chamber music is the finest of the genre - the best string quartet, the best piano trio, the best octet, the best quintet, all beyond everything else. I like to put it this way: what is Schubert’s “Meterware” (normal production) would be considered a once-in-a-lifetime gem of Viennese grade-B and grade-C contemporaries of his, such as Aßmayer or Randhartinger. As to the depth of content of his songs, it is “prima la parola e poi la musica” (first the words and then the music). This is what led Franz Schubert to music. Even at the height of his sickness, when he was in hospital due to syphilis, he read and read - he read poetry, also poems written by his friends, given to him with the ink not yet dry, immediately sitting down to compose settings of them.

PH: I would like to hear more about your recently-issued Schubert disc.

DJ: I recorded “Lieder Ohnegleichen” (Songs without Equal) - with pianist Christoph Hammer. I chose all the songs. But, being a singer in constant action and reaction with pianists, many of the songs were suggested to me by different pianists. For example, “Berthas Lied in der Nacht” (Bertha’s Night Song) was suggested by Charles Spencer, with whom I had two very beautiful Lieder evenings. I owe “Die Nachthymne” (Hymn to the Night) to Graham Johnson. We performed it at the 2014 Oxford Lieder Festival. It was actually a two-and-a-half-hour lecture-recital focusing on Schubert in 1816, with a selection of his works written from January to December of that year. Graham Johnson is just marvellous; I can only recommend his extensive 6000-page “Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs” (Yale University Press). I think if you read this, you will know everything about Schubert songs. Regarding our Schubert disc, all the songs on the disc are taken from my own “treasure box”. Except for three of the songs, all date from Deutsch 800 and on, written in the last one and a half or two years of Schubert’s life, representing the most mature Schubert. One of my all-time favourites is “Im Frühling” (In Spring). I have told people that if this were the only Schubert song (a nightmarish idea), a person finding this single song would have to say “Who was this person, setting a poem to a theme and variations?” This was composed in heaven...incredible. Poet Ernst Schulze, who died young following a desperate love affair, was lucky to be placed on Parnassus on the wings of Franz Schubert with this beautiful song. There are quite a few beautiful Ernst Schulze Schubert songs...ah, beautiful songs. How lucky it was that these newly-printed books of poetry were brought to Schubert by his friends. They knew he was like a magnet for these things. He wrote the songs when still under the first, fresh impression of reading; he would then pace around reciting their elevated language aloud in a manner we no longer recite poems, in a singing way, as they did before the days of microphones. To us nowadays, reading them in this way would sound stupid, reminding one of the mannerism of dictators and politicians, but it represented a kind of intertwining of the poetry, music-making and the art of recitation, these being part and parcel of public music and artistic performance. These all worked together so well, combining music and the arts, all part of 19th century bourgeois culture.  For those of this class, it was so normal to do this. Perhaps this corona crisis will re-establish these old skills and traditions.

Interestingly, on my Schubert disc, I did not choose many poems written by the composer’s circle of friends. I completely omitted his some-47 settings of poems of Johann Mayrhofer, one of his truest friends. I thought that many other collections and recordings had featured these Greek mythology settings.  But I have fallen so much in love with the settings of Johann Gabriel Seidl and have given much space on the CD to songs written to his poems. For me, Seidl is the most important poet of Biedermeier Vienna, of the Metternich era. Relevant to our times (but for different reasons), he deals with our being requested to stay at home, to stay within the walls “Ihr lieben Mauern, hold und traut, Die ihr mich kühl umschließt” (“Dear, familiar walls, you enclose me within your coolness” - from “Am Fenster” - “At the Window”, translation Richard Wigmore.) This is one of the songs dearest to me. You can learn so much about people’s emotions at the time of Metternich’s Spitzelstaat, with all his secret police and agents around all the time. Seidl tells us so much about how it felt to be inside the home, to sense relief, perhaps not publicly but in the confines of the private home, where you could still give expression to your soul, all your feelings and political ideas, if not said aloud but told silently in the privacy of your own room. So, at times, we also need to stay in our own rooms. We can find much solace and inspiration in these Seidl texts. 
PH: Would you like to talk about your recording career up to now?

DJ: Yes. Well, recording is always very special if you have a good recording engineer and sound master. The latter is like a singing teacher.  He is someone who gives you such good feedback. For ten years, I have been working with Stefan Ritzentaler, the sound master of J.S. Bach Foundation. We are such a good match. Before he talks, I can already figure out what he is going to suggest, what to do better on the next take. To be used to the microphone is of great benefit and importance. It is something that is not a part of normal music-making. This experience is something I don’t want to miss out on. I have many recording ideas for the whole of my remaining career and for bigger labels. I have recorded for Sony Music, for Harmonia Mundi, for Carus - very appealing labels - but even with some no-name labels, I have had very fulfilling and satisfying recording work. I love it very much and I think I am feeling comfortable with it by now; I can do it for hours on end and it all feels “in place”, not tiring, just polished. For “Lieder Ohnegleichen”, we had recording sessions of four and five hours. In the best times and moments of recording, I can imagine my audience being present, in front of me, even when I am alone in the recording booth or in an empty hall. 

PH: Do you teach?

DJ: Yes. The more the better. Teaching also clarifies things for me! Not yet having a position at a college or a conservatory, I have private pupils and think that, as this coronavirus crisis continues, I will start teaching on Skype. Two years ago, I was very honoured to be approached by Ulf Bästlein, a professor from the vocal department of the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz, (where I had originally studied church music), asking me whether I would like to apply for an adjunct professorship there. So, I did apply and ended up being one of the ten people chosen to take the teaching audition, after which I was informed that I was among the first four. I felt very touched and honoured and applied for it. I feel the time has come to enter academic musical life. What interests me is teaching people from many different places the art of interpretation - Bach, Schubert, many styles of German music and other traditions. It is important they are informed of what lies behind the music -  about painting, other arts - all constitutional to understanding, for example, certain gestures of Baroque music only explained if you know about Baroque dance, Baroque iconography and how people are depicted, in order to know how they sang, to be able to imagine how  this music sounded. For me, this is a whole package, to be a part of all the arts, to enjoy Baroque- and Classical architecture, to know what the churches, opera houses and concert halls were like, where the works were first- or regularly performed. It is then easier to understand how powerfully one should sing, how much intensity there was in the voice. That is the focus I would prefer rather than teaching voice students singing technique from scratch. I’m not so patient or into the minutest detail. And there is my library at hand, books up to the ceiling, as you can see - including books from the 18th century like those by Mattheson or Quantz or Praetorius and all the other important first early musicology books. I really like reading them now and then. Reading what they wrote belongs to the informed singer, the informed musician - you have to know a few things in order to enjoy the second and third layers below the aesthetic surface of a piece of music. 

PH: Do you write music?

DJ: I used to compose a little. On my web page, my very vintage-style web page from 2003, there are a few pieces I wrote - a six-part choral motet and a few other things. I liked it. I also liked doing settings. When I was an organist, I tried to be very correct, using no parallel 5ths and 8ths, to create a fully precise four-part setting of a chorale. But I don’t compose any more.

PH: Do you write about music?

DJ: Yes. When I write on Facebook, when trying to explain my approach towards this or that. There was the Record Challenge of October 2019, where I wrote about eight discs - four of the texts were in English and four in German. And there just might be an unwritten music novel in my head that will become a reality one day.

PH: Do you edit?

DJ: Well, on the smallest scale, as when I am looking for something from the Düben Collection, the famous collection of the Uppsala University library, where there are loads of 17th century works. Sometimes I select a work that is only in manuscript form and I put it through my computer music program to make a small edition for performance on Petrucci, but these I do for my own use and not for publishing.  

PH: What is your focus at the moment?

DJ: Going back to my piano and the Hugo Wolf songs, I think that what I really want to do at the moment is to get the Romantic impact and the Romantic power of my voice sounding in the manner of these songs. I am trying to do a lot of this. Maybe there is some Romantic opera for me to perform. We haven’t yet spoken about opera.

PH: So, let’s talk about opera.

DJ: Normally, I feel 100% comfortable with Mozart and Handel opera - with Tamino, with Belmonte, with Ferrando. These are perfect for my voice. I will shortly be performing in “Idomeneo”, when I am asked. And then, of course, there is much 20th century opera. I like Benjamin Britten. “Albert Herring” used to be my favourite opera role and I like the three church parables (especially “The Prodigal Son”) very much. I want to do Peter Quint in “The Turn of the Screw” and one fine day I want to be a Peter Grimes and a Captain Vere in “Billy Budd”. These are really opera roles I have a certain aspiration to do, but they are still a few horse powers away from my current repertoire. 

As to being on the opera stage, there is a feeling of freedom and laissez-faire which you only have when you do opera; in the concert hall, this Friday-to-Sunday period of making concert music is always so strict, without a millimetre of spare time, because you have to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse properly and not waste time...exhausting. But when you do opera, you have these six or seven weeks and it is a totally different approach. Of course, you have to be diligent and wise and you mustn’t waste time there, either, but you have more time and you can try more ideas. And then you have these performances and there is a very interesting discovery I have made. There are two possibilities in the opera: you can be having a bad day, you feel awful, you feel weak and you have to make such an effort to go to the theatre and get on stage. You are then surrounded by fully motivated colleagues and a wonderful conductor and, all of a sudden, your colleagues take you with them and, even if you are a bit shaky on the first aria, by the last aria you are in such good shape that the audience will be shouting. This is a beautiful thing I have learnt about opera performance. The other experience is this: you are fully motivated, you feel you are in great shape, you come to the opera house and go on stage and have a kind of Freudian dream (you want to run, but everything there is happening in slow motion): your colleagues are so lacking in energy, the ensembles are uninspired, nothing works, but you decide you have to find your place in this mess and get on with it. The latter does happen, perhaps infrequently, but it can. This is what you learn about opera - that you are part of such a big operation, with so many powers sharing and joined in one place and from all the arts. It’s good. I think my Evangelist has benefited a lot from my Tamino and, of course, my Tamino is still benefiting from my Evangelist. 

PH: The coronavirus restrictions must have brought your performances to a standstill.

DJ: Yes. I should have been in Groningen this Good Friday, but, of course, everything is cancelled, as is the mid-May Schubertiade project near Utrecht. What I will so much miss is the act of standing in front of an audience and delivering the music to the people. You know, I do between 80 and 90 performances a fully into concert life. But, as of next week, I hope to have all my concerts on YouTube.

PH: When it’s not music, what interests you?

DJ: Nature...learning about what life is about from nature, that there is a beginning each and every year, especially now that spring is so welcome, so desperately awakened. With the recent freeze here, the blossoms recently out could die. So, I like nature and all sports taking place in nature. I jog. Also, reading, certainly...all different kinds of books and literature, I like the culinary arts and engage in much social contact by email and such time-consuming activities as Facebook. But you also need time just to think. I have experienced this even in non-corona times: you have to have some hours in the week to sit down and just think, to have your idle ideas and have your idle hours, because the inspiration for ideas for Lieder evenings, for concert projects, for whom to contact or what to start again, comes with quiet thought. The artistic person, regardless of whether he is a painter, sculptor, actor, a singer or a writer, needs to have these hours - leisure time for the muses to visit. 

PH: Daniel, thank you so much for your time and for sharing so many of your ideas and experiences.