Accompanying Hermann Prey

I thought I'd share something from the archives - a remembrance of Hermann Prey and my experience performing with this legendary bass-baritone artist.

"Accompanying Hermann Prey" 
from The Depot Beat - Autumn 1998, vol. V

This July the world lost one of its greatest baritones in Hermann Prey. Hermann had just become a friend and the news of his death brought great sadness to me, as I am certain it did for many.

In 1994 I received a call from Trudy Miller at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, asking me if I would like to participate in the Schubertiade accompanying Hermann Prey. Little did I know how life-altering the experience would be; I did know how inarguably lucky I was and would be always.

Having prepared three songs – Heidenröslein, Nachstück and Der Schiffer – I arrived at the 92nd St Y early, and I was nervous. “You’re playing with Hermann Prey?” my friends said. “You’d better practice.” I had worked myself into a frenzy. He entered the room, took off his coat, and, after a brief hello, said, “Let’s go.” The first two songs went wonderfully (he kept saying “Wunderbar!”). Most of Schubert’s songs were arranged for the guitar during his lifetime. Der Schiffer was less guitaristic than the first two, making it more difficult. I began my intro and I could tell he was worried. he said, “It’s difficult, yes?” Not being a quitter, he continued, “Why don’t you strum it? Make it flamenco-like.” When I improvised a new accompaniment sounding like Pete Townsend-meets Schubert-meets Paco Peña, he loved it! “Yes, that is it. Strum the whole thing!” I went home and arranged the song in this new style.

The next day at the dress rehearsal hours before the concert, he said, “Maybe you could do both – strum some, and pluck other sections.” So I went into the dressing room and rearranged it again. Hermann’s enthusiasm and love for the music made you do anything. I thought that his attitude and approach would be one of a purist. However, he was anything but a purist, and would do anything to serve what he felt the song was really about, even if it meant strumming like a wild man.

A year later at a rehearsal for our second concert together, he asked me to improvise a little introduction for another Schubert song, exclaiming, “Go ahead – I don’t care what the critics say!” This was a great teaching.

In 1997, during several rehearsals in Cologne for the second concert – the entire Die Schöne Müllerin at the Schubert festival in Bad Urach – we really got to know each other. I shall never forget the profound discussions we had over meals – topics ranging from the various pianists that had accompanied him to what it was like being a boy in Germany during the Second World War. “Hermann, you really should write an autobiography”, I said. To which he replied, “I have, it’s called First Night Fever.”

In any case, he had recorded Die Schöne Müllerin three times and said to me at the first rehearsal that he had just realized the key to the song cycle. He had really just discovered how it should be sung. He felt each song should, within reason, resemble the tempo of the first song, which is about the stream. The rhythm of the stream is the thread that holds the whole cycle together. He was thrilled with how beautifully the sound of the guitar fit the music. We would change color and even register of phrases in each rehearsal just to get closer to what he felt the song meant. It was inspiring to see such a champion of this work constantly seeking a new meaning to the songs.

But when we began the eleventh song in rehearsal, he looked at me in horror, and I asked, “What’s wrong?” “The key,” he said, “I can’t possibly do it in that key.” This was a huge problem, as changing keys in the middle means a whole new arrangement on my part. He realized this and looked at me with pity and exclaimed, “Shitissimo!” It will always be one of my favorite expressions. Off we went to buy some music paper in a nearby shop so I could get busy arranging it in the proper key.

Just before we began the performance at Bad Urach, he shot me a glance, as if to say, “I’ll see you at the end.” He waved his hand in tempo, and I began the first song, and, like an actor who goes into character, Hermann became the miller. How deeply this man felt each phrase and mood, both of the music and of the character. We did the entire cycle without a break. At the end of the last song (there are twenty in total, the piece takes fifty minutes to perform) he slowly came out of character. The audience began their applause, and he took my hand in his and said, “What a journey – what a journey.”