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S & H Interview

Marcus Ullmann in conversation with Melanie Eskenazi

 

The German tenor Marcus Ullmann is one of the most rapidly rising stars on the concert and opera scene; regulars at the Wigmore Hall gave his debut recitals last year a rapturous reception, having been persuaded to go to hear this then unknown singer by William Lyne’s enticing words ‘…a lovely, natural tenor voice, superb use of words, very musical…….memorable.’ And so it was, the present writer having been absolutely convinced by his lovely singing of Schubert in particular, although it was also felt that he had some way to go before he would achieve his obviously high ambitions.

I spoke to him just before his performance of the Evangelist under Helmuth Rilling at the Barbican, and asked him firstly about that much – heralded Wigmore debut, where, most unusually for a new singer, he had performed twice within one week. ‘That was not intentional, since originally they offered me one date six months before the other, but in the end I just had to do both so very close together; it was a daunting experience since I was extremely nervous, but the Wigmore audience is so very nice, so welcoming as well as knowledgeable.’ Things were not helped by his having to go back to Germany in between the two recitals, for an opera performance in Mainz, so it was hardly surprising that his debut was a nerve – wracking one for him, so much so that he forgot to leave the platform between his groups of songs, something which at the time I had thought demonstrated a slight desire to show off! Nevertheless, this special audience took him to its heart, and he was touched that there were so many visitors to the Green Room afterwards.

When we met, Ullmann was in the midst of an arduous series of concerts, with no fewer than fifteen, in fifteen different cities in five countries within a month, sometimes finding himself singing not only the Evangelist but also the tenor arias when a colleague fell ill; was it hard to say no to an engagement when you are so sought after? ‘Yes, it is hard, especially for a Bach Passion with Rilling!’ I found his Evangelist very moving, remarking that he sang ‘with sweet musicianship’ and ‘…did what all good Evangelists must, that is, he told the story, without hand – wringing but plenty of pathos, and he rose to all the great moments.’ He rejects the notion that Bach presents unusual challenges for a singer; ‘Bach is not difficult! Bach is easy; I love this music because every note is full of life but also intellect, and although the technical features sometimes need a lot of study, as long as you are so familiar with the music and know so much around it, you can always bring it alive. ‘

He acknowledges the influence of Peter Schreier in his singing of Bach, and this is obviously present in his view of the role of the Evangelist; ‘I cannot be the dispassionate reporter! There are times, especially in the St. John, where you have to be a little detached, since he knows everything from beginning to end, and Matthew does not. The Matthew is more of what I would call a Passion of love, the John is very straight, very dramatic, but with the Matthew it’s more ‘the moving of the heart’ which you can feel in the recitatives. ‘

Ullmann was a member of the same choir which also nurtured Schreier and Theo Adam, but for him the progression to professional singer was not an inevitable one; ‘I wanted to go in for Chemistry, like my father, but at the time my girlfriend said ‘I don’t want to live in the kind of towns where the chemical industry is based – please study music instead!’ He professes not to have been much interested in classical music in his youth, but being a member of the choir conferred many advantages upon a student in what was then East Germany, since it gave him an excellent education and allowed him to travel; he says that he discovered the strength of his feelings about music from his own teacher and from then on never looked back.

He is now able to list not only Schreier as his mentor but also Fischer – Dieskau, with whom he had lessons for two years. ‘It was so good to be taught by him, since he was so kind, so open, especially when we were alone; with others present he seemed nervous, diffident… he would sing all my music in my notes, which were very high for a baritone! I think that many of his pupils who were baritones came away sounding like him; it would be difficult not to be influenced by such a teacher, but I think I had it a little easier in that, being a tenor, it was not so easy for me to copy him, or indeed so obvious a comparison to make between a pupil and teacher when their voices are in the same range.’

Ullmann’s repertoire is already quite wide, and includes such works as Britten’s ‘Serenade’ which is not often seen as the preserve of non – English tenors. ‘I love that music! I learned the English from friends over here, and it is so wonderful to sing; when you see the score it looks so high and so difficult but when you actually sing it, it is so beautifully set for the voice that it seems easy. I would say this is true for all of Britten that I have sung; the tenor writing is very high but it’s also gentle, elegant and expressive, and unusually good for the voice.’

His operatic career began with the First Prisoner in ‘Fidelio’ in 1991, and he recalls with amusement how he was later called from Denmark and asked to sing Florestan, a role much too heavy for his lyric tenor. His great love as far as opera is concerned is the major Mozart roles, and he has already explored most of them, completing his exploration with his first Tamino in Klagenfuhrt in December. He considers Belmonte to be the most challenging so far; ‘It is musically difficult, especially the first aria and ‘Ich baue ganz,’ but I also think that it needs more acting than you sometimes find – directors seems to think that all Belmonte needs to do is stand there and sing, and I have never understood this, since his part in the story is potentially so exciting. In a way it’s like Ottavio; he is also considered passive and sometimes stupid, but he’s not, he is simply a gentleman but one who will fight for what is just and good.’

Ullmann is at present contemplating further excursions into the Baroque opera world, although he does not find this without its problems; ‘I am told my voice is too small for bigger houses but when I have actually begun working with conductors in such houses, they say I’m fine, and conversely, I have had auditions with people like Philippe Herrhewige who say ‘Oh, your voice is too big for this kind of music! In German speaking countries they expect the big voice, but in England you can sing with a smaller, lighter voice in different kinds of repertoire; it’s also true to say that in some countries promoters think that concert and recital singers like me are not able to act on stage, but I think they get a pleasant surprise – I hope so, anyway!’

He is already well recorded for so relatively new a singer, and will soon record the St. Matthew Passion as well as works by Telemann and Schubert; ‘It’s difficult to establish your own identity on record, but that’s what I want to do; I listen to many other singers but I want to find my own voice, my own timbre.’ Invited to suggest some pieces with which he’d like to be introduced, he chose ‘Frohe Hirten’ from the ‘Christmas Oratorio,’ which indeed displays his lovely, buoyant freshness to perfection: Schubert’s ‘Du Bist die Ruh,’ which I heard him sing at his debut recital and which he performed with a skill and grace which belied his youth, and finally ‘Un Aura amorosa’ which he acknowledged is difficult but shows the voice like nothing else!’

I wrote of his singing at his London debut last year that it had ‘…a real sense of rhythm, perfect diction, lovely tone and poetic phrasing,’ and that his fortes had ‘just the right sense of release without forcing the tone,’ and it is safe to assume that audiences such as those at this year’s Schubertiade will be equally delighted with the art of this fine young tenor.

 

Melanie Eskenazi

 

 

 


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