Talking Heads: Beethoven 250 – Chen Reiss

interview by Ben Hogwood

If you ask a classical listener to name their favourite works by Beethoven, it is unlikely that the vocal works will sit towards the top of their list. This is partly due to the invention and inspiration of Beethoven’s instrumental works, but also because the vocal works have been rendered unfashionable, and therefore easy to dismiss, for decades.

While Arcana have been listening to the works of Beethoven it has emerged that this verdict on the vocal works is less than fair. With that in mind it seemed only right to seek out a performer whose love for the vocal works of Beethoven has really come to the fore in this, the composer’s 250th anniversary year. Soprano Chen Reiss has made a number of contributions, headed by a disc of arias for Onyx Classics with the Academy of Ancient Music and Richard Egarr. In the course of our discussion Reiss, born in Israel and now living in the UK, sheds new light on these neglected works.

Our chat finds Reiss on holiday. “I’m on vacation! she says excitedly. “I have two children, and I have been locked down with them in Vienna since March, and we couldn’t go anywhere. Now they have been to school for a bit but not full time, it was an arrangement of three days a week, something like that. Since the end of June they are on vacation completely, and it has been quite a challenge at times, as parents. Luckily I wasn’t working, so I could deal with it, but I’m not used to being a 24-7 mum!”

She responds warmly to my observations on the vocal works heard so far. “I’m very glad to hear you saying that. Beethoven has such a reputation of writing badly for the voice, which I don’t understand. His writing is challenging, that is true, and that may have kept a lot of singers away from his music – but the music is fantastic, you know, as he is a genius after all. Anything that he writes, even if it is not the best in his standards, is much better than many other composers. When I did the research for my CD, it was also a surprise for me how few recordings there are of his vocal music. Everybody is recording the Ninth Symphony and Fidelio, but only these. With the arias that are on my CD, a lot of them are early works, that were not published in Beethoven’s lifetime. After the research that I did with some scholars, I found he approved the pieces to be published, and they just didn’t manage to happen. Each aria has an interesting story behind it. That was the reason why I did this CD, not just because it’s Beethoven year but because of a strong belief that these arias belong in the main repertoire and should be performed as often as Ah! Perfido.”

Her reference is Beethoven’s most popular work for solo voice. “Everybody is singing Ah! Perfido, and I agree that the form and dramatic development of the piece is probably the most complete. It was written later, but the earlier pieces are also excellent, and very interesting. Beethoven was a revolutionary composer, and you have one foot in the classical tradition, maybe Haydn or Mozart, and the other foot is already in the future. Maybe the sound of the early pieces reminds us more of Haydn – not Salieri, in my opinion – and even though he wrote them before he started with Haydn he knew his music and was very much in the period. We shouldn’t forget that Beethoven wrote those works around 1790, when Haydn was still active. The music of Mozart was also very much known to Beethoven, and so you hear the influence of those masters.”

Her opinion of the pieces, as a singer, has never been in doubt. “I do think they belong in the main repertoire, not only because they are good vocally. Maybe you need to practice them a little more, but then you would practice a Donizetti aria too. Of course you have the Italian masters, where the music sits in the voice much more authentically than Beethoven, because he wasn’t really in my opinion thinking vocally at this point, it was instrumentally. For example, the concept of ‘solfeggio’ in the voice, that is the transfer between the register of the mid voice to the high voice, it didn’t exist with Beethoven! Many times he writes in that particular part of the voice, which is not so comfortable, and this is why one needs to have a clear tone, and not just a dramatic plan but a vocal one too. This is a challenge, but it is the case for the music of Bach too. It’s not like Beethoven is the only one. Bach writes in a very instrumental way, and there are some recitatives that lie in the solfeggio area and are not so comfortable. Beethoven is not the only composer to do it.”

Reiss has done a good deal of background reading. “I found from research that Beethoven did not do it on purpose to upset the singers, not at all. He actually had contact with the singers and constantly spoke with them, and he wanted to get their input and improve his writing for the voice. In my opinion this is also the reason he went to have lessons with Salieri, and we shouldn’t forget that when he took these lessons he was already an established composer. He felt that to write for the voice was not as natural for him as writing for the piano, which was his instrument. He chose Salieri, who was the master in Vienna at writing for the voice, and I think that although musically there was no comparison with the genius of Beethoven, Salieri had a skill of writing for the voice. That was why Beethoven studied with him.”

When performing Beethoven, Reiss is keenly aware of the role played by her allies. “The other challenge in Beethoven is not so much for the singer but more for the conductor. In many of the pieces he writes for the voice in a very low register, and not very loud, but he would write passages where the orchestra is really loud. Beethoven was relying on the fact that he would have good conductors conducting his music, and that they would know how to balance. His writing is very dramatic, in Ah! Perfido especially, but also in Primo amore.”

She elaborates on the latter piece, an earlier work for soprano and orchestra. “You really need a good conductor for this piece because of the dynamics and the balance. There are a lot of different sections in this aria, and they have very different characteristics, so it is really down to the conductor to create magic and for the orchestra to be very soft and transparent, but also to give the oomph and the drama when needed. We definitely rely on the conductor!”

This approach extends further. “My arguments here also apply to the Missa Solemnis”, she says. “I have spoken with several big conductors, and they have said it is really not an easy piece to conduct, and that it is very challenging because of the balancing. The orchestra is large and there is a quartet of singers, so in order not to cover them you have to really take a delicate approach. When the music is written as forte the orchestra does not have to blast, it has to be relative to the quartet of voices that you have. You really rely on the fact that you have a good conductor to give the right interpretation of what is on the page.”

Would this explain why Beethoven’s vocal works were not so well known; that he had trouble finding the right conductor for them as much as the right singers? “I am not sure what the reason is”, she says honestly. “There is an aria on the CD from the Cantata on the Accession of Emperor Leopold (Fliesse, Wonnezähre, fliesse!) and there is a rumour I read that orchestras of the time did not want to play it because it was unplayable. For an orchestra of today that is no problem, because our technical level is higher than it was 200 years ago. Physically it was a problem, but that became musical too. You need very sensitive musicians to play it, because it is very technically challenging not just for the soprano but for the soloists in the orchestra – the cello and the flute solos are not easy. Beethoven was a challenging composer, he wanted to push the boundaries as much as he could. The pianists back then found his music challenging, maybe not so much now because if you play Rachmaninov or something then Beethoven is not quite so difficult.”

Reiss expands her thinking to consider other operatic composers. “I do agree that Verdi or Puccini wrote for the voice in a more confident way, but I’m now learning Zaïde, the early Mozart opera, and I’m finding similar challenges to Beethoven. There are long phrases where you need impeccable breath control, which in my opinion is not easier for the voice. That is no reason not to sing it, though! Primo amore shows what I love about Beethoven, in that he was very human. He writes about very fundamental feelings and he writes about them with his heart on his sleeve. It is romantic but not pathetic, it is substantial and filled with feeling. Today they would probably give him Prozac, because he was someone with very grand feelings! Those feelings are very true, there is no melodrama. I don’t want to insult other composers, but there are others who were melodramatic. Some of the French and Italian composers wrote on a very grand scale.”

The accompanying interview for Chen’s Beethoven release features not just conductor Richard Egarr’s clear enjoyment of the music, but also Reiss talking about how she really identified with how Beethoven was feeling, and that he felt he was reflecting what a lot of us feel in relationships and romantic situations in his music. “He was misfortunate with love”, she says, “but then who could stand up to his standards? At first, I chose the arias that I thought were good for my voice and also good dramatically. I find the orchestras love them too, as it gives them the possibility to shine. If you think of a composer like Donizetti, it’s not as challenging for the orchestra, and I think they like challenges. There is so much character in the writing for the orchestra in these pieces, not so much ‘oom-pah oom-pah’ as there is in Salieri or a lot of the Italian composers of that time. Here the orchestral players are just as important as the singer. I really enjoyed working with Richard and the Academy of Ancient Music, because they took this role and played with real gusto and passion.”

On the Odradek release, Chen sings the substantial aria Tremate, empi, tremate (Tremble, guilty ones, tremble) with tenor Paul Armin Edelmann and bass Jan Petryka. “My ambition was try to record or sing the Beethoven music that is suitable for my voice”, she explains. “In July this summer I was supposed to do the Missa Solemnis, which I have never performed before. Unfortunately it was cancelled because of COVID, but I did learn the piece. Other than that I managed to do everything. I sang in Lenore, which was marvellous, and then Fidelio itself, and these arias. The only thing I didn’t do was this trio, so I’m very glad that we found the possibility to record it in another city. It was a coincidence that I met Thomas Rösner, the conductor. It was in Liege where I was singing, two years ago, and he said, ‘I’m doing a disc with the Piano Concerto arrangement of the Violin Concerto, do you think we could do something?’ We thought we could do the Mozart aria Ch’io mi scordi di te?, and I said, ‘Listen, there is a Beethoven trio I would really like to record’. When I did this Tremate it reminded me a little of the trio in Fidelio with the Father and the two lovers. Marzelline is thinking that Fidelio is a man, and she’s in love with him, and the father basically gives his blessing. It is of course a different story altogether, but the ending is very dramatic. I think it’s a very good piece to perform as an encore in a concert, wouldn’t you agree?”

Given the way the voices combine, and the dramatic third part, she has a strong point. “Yes. I think it is very well conducted, with the middle part which has these beautiful long lines. I think it is an early piece, and of course Beethoven has these dramatic parts, which come later, but he also has a very good sense of lyricism and melodic beauty, a pureness which reminds me very much of Mozart and Haydn. You see it in these early works that he was more classical, and then he became much more dramatic. The third version of Fidelio, which we play today, is much more dramatic than the first two versions because I think the magic aspect was less interesting for him ten years later. Then he was more interested in the political aspect of the scene. He steps away from a beautiful sound to make music in the service of the emotion, rather than in the service of just beauty, which we have more with Donizetti.”

She considers once again the operatic works of Beethoven’s contemporaries. “Of course Mozart also wrote operas with political aspects. It’s really interesting with Zaïde, which I’m learning at the moment. It is an early piece, but he presents the conflict between East and West, the Christians and the Muslims. It’s amazing how nothing has changed in the tension between the regions, and between people who come from different cultures and mentalities. We have not really changed. Of course, today we are much more politically correct. Back then the European culture, manners and way of life was seen as superior to the Turks, for example, or the Muslims. Mozart was always talking about these things politically, but I think the music always has to sound beautiful and eloquent. In Beethoven the drama and the emotion are very much in the foreground.”

Reiss’s Immortal Beloved program finishes with perhaps Beethoven’s best-known solo vocal piece. “Ah, Perfido! is a real joy to sing”, she says passionately. “What is so great about these pieces is that lighter voices can sing them. It depends what approach you take – do you take the Baroque approach, the Classical approach, or do you take the more Romantic, Wagnerian approach? Are you presenting where he is coming from, or where he is going to? In my case, doing this CD, I was presenting with where he was coming from. I started with an early piece from 1791, and I finished with the later Ah! Perfido. It is about showing his development as a composer for the voice, how he maxed out his way in writing for voices.”

Has Chen recorded many of the songs with piano? “I haven’t done those this year, I have concentrated more on the orchestral pieces. My friends at the opera were struggling with them. I do think that people who claim it is really difficult to sing Beethoven perhaps approach from heavier productions such as Wagner and Verdi. My idea was that if you approach the instrumental, classical / baroque approach – in German we call it ‘schlicht’, which means ‘simple’. The voice production has to be more like you would sing Mozart, and when you approach from that direction it is easier to manage the ‘solfeggio’ and his vocal lines, which are often instrumental. If you sing with a lot of weight on the voice then you might find the songs quite tiring, because they do not always lie in the sweet part of the voice. But, if you approach them with a little less vibrato but still a warm sound – but not heavy – then I think you sing them much more easily.

Given some of the versions heard in our journey through listening to Beethoven’s works, this makes sense. “Or even Schubert”, offers Reiss. “A lot of people who sing Beethoven like Wagner, why not sing like Schubert? After all he was a contemporary, and again Schubert could be sung in a Romantic way. That doesn’t mean you have to sing Beethoven in a Baroque way, as he was a very Romantic composer. If you go in the direction of Schubert it would be much more manageable. I don’t think Beethoven would have expected a Wagner sound, it was not the way they sang in Vienna back then. This is how we often play his symphonies, for example, with a very rich sound, but instruments are different from back then, the piano now is different from how it was back then. The voice is not.”

Outside of the vocal music, what would Reiss class as her favourite Beethoven? She hesitates, laughing a little. “For me, the Piano Concertos. I really love these – number one, four and five. I am a frustrated pianist, and it is an instrument that can express so much. I wish I had the patience when I was seven or eight to practice more!”

Chen Reiss’s Beethoven album Immortal Beloved is out now on Onyx. You can listen to clips and explore purchase options from the Onyx website

Chen Reiss also appears on Voices, an album of works by Beethoven and Mozart under the direction of conductor Thomas Rösner. You can read about it and listen to clips on the Odradek website. Meanwhile the soprano’s own website is here

2 thoughts on “Talking Heads: Beethoven 250 – Chen Reiss

  1. Pingback: Listening to Beethoven #109 – “Ah! Perfido”, Op.65 |

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