I woke up this morning to the news that tenor Peter Schreier had died on Christmas Day at age 84. At first I wasn’t going to write about him, since he was such a well-known and universally admired tenor, but after reading an absolutely horrible “appreciation” of him on another blog (which shall remain nameless, and will its author), I felt impelled to do so.
With the exception of Inge Borkh, this is the first modern-era singer I have written about on this blog who I never heard in person. One person who did hear him reported to me that his voice was small; well, I rather expected that. Another told me that despite his false modesty, he was really quite vain and always expected to be admired, but since he had nothing but rave reviews from the time he was a boy alto in the famous Dresden Boys’ Choir that was probably to be expected. The important point was that he was always a great artist, not just after age 40 when so many singers finally seem to realize that interpretation means as much as sheer voice.
My first experience with him came in 1968, a year after I discovered Fritz Wunderlich via recordings—a Mozart aria recital on Decca-London, conducted by Otmar Suitner. For those who have never heard this album, I urge you to do so. At age 33, he was already an intelligent, musical and interesting singer, and the voice had not yet picked up that slightly dry, “sandpapery” quality that came into his voice two years later and stayed there for the rest of his life. In fact, I would go do far as to say that in its own way his voice on this recital was nearly as beautiful as Wunderlich’s. I thought so in 1968 and I still think so now in re-listening to it. Moreover, the repertoire on his follow-up Mozart LP was quite unusual for its time, including arias from La clemenza di Tito, La finta giardiniera, Lucio Silla, Il re pastore and Idomeneo, all operas I hadn’t heard by then, including the most technically difficult of all Mozart tenor arias, “Fuor del mar” from Idomeneo (including the trill). I was convinced immediately that we had a new major light tenor star in our midst—and I was not mistaken.
But what surprised me the most about Schreier over the years were two things. First, that as good as he was in that 1968 Mozart recital, only two years later one could hear him growing as an artist, a feat that few singers even then did not always manage to achieve, and second, that despite the growing dryness and sandpaper quality of his voice, I still found it beautiful the same way I find Tito Schipa’s rather small, dry voice fascinating. For an Italian tenor of his time and place, Schipa, too, was an excellent artist, but by the end of the 1970s Schreier had clearly surpassed him.
Those who praise him posthumously point to his singing of Bach’s Evangelist in the St. Matthew Passion, and he was indeed very fine in that music, but for me the real quintessence of Schreier was his lieder singing. This, for me, was his real forté aside from the Bach and Mozart. Even though he did an outstanding job singing Max on Carlos Kleiber’s studio recording of Der Freischütz, I don’t think anyone was fooled into thinking that he could carry off that role in the opera house. Schreier was never going to force his voice, and his musical instincts were too sensitive to try for heavier repertoire anyway.
In the 1980s he began conducting some performances for recordings; one of the first, and best, of these was his Philips recording of the Bach Mass in b minor on which he also sang the tenor part. But by this time, except for what seemed like his perennial assumption of the role of Tamino in Die Zauberflöte, and only (it seemed) in the smallish confines of the Vienna Opera house, Schreier wisely began concentrating on lieder as his principal means of communication. My sole disappoint with him is that he stuck to Mozart and the early Romantics, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann. He rarely if ever sang Mahler and, like so many classical performers, stayed away from 20th-century music as if he were allergic to it. This was a real shame since, with his exceptional powers of interpretation, he could have done wonders with a well-chosen repertoire of modern songs, proving to people that he was indeed a versatile artist and not one locked into the old-timey composers. With that being said, he made some extraordinary recordings of standard lieder that I feel will stand forever as models for later singers, particularly his Beethoven lieder. His recordings of that composer’s songs are among my all-time favorites, particularly his stunning 1984 recording of An die ferne geliebte with pianist Walter Olbertz, his longtime accompanist whose playing was every bit as good as Schreier’s singing.
I found it amazing to learn that he didn’t sing his last stage performance of Tamino until the year 2000, at which point he was 65 years old. Schreier often said that he wanted to abandon the role by the mid-1980s because he was painfully aware that he no longer looked the young prince, but that the Viennese public wouldn’t stand for it. As long as he could still competently sing the role, they also wanted to see him do it, so he did.
As I mentioned earlier, I never saw Schreier in person either as a recitalist or an opera performer, so I really can’t judge his presence adequately, but if there was one German tenor of the past half-century whose records I would bet would last forever, I would surely put my money on Schreier. I can’t honestly say that I will “miss” him because his voice on records is part of my DNA, and that is the only way I knew him, but at least I’m happy that he died peacefully and lived long enough to see his reputation firmly cemented not only on both sides of the Atlantic but literally everywhere in the world.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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