Saturday, 13 February 2021

Anything but old and fusty: the young German baritone Samuel Hasselhorn talks about his recent Schumann disc, about lieder as an art-form and widening the audience

Samuel Hasselhorn
Samuel Hasselhorn

I was originally supposed to meet up with the young German baritone Samuel Hasselhorn, a former member of Vienna State Opera, when he was due to come to the UK in October 2020 for a recital with pianist Joseph Middleton at the Oxford Lieder Festival. Unfortunately, travel restrictions put paid to that, as they did to another planned visit to this country later in 2020. So finally, we managed to meet up virtually, thanks to the wonders of Zoom, to chat about his and Middleton's disc of Robert Schumann songs, 'Stille Liebe' released last year on Harmonia Mundi, as well as chatting about song recitals in general, about which Samuel had interesting and strong ideas, and about how to connect further with audiences.

'Stille Liebe' is Samuel's second disc of Schumann's music. In 2018 he and pianist Boris Kusnezow released a disc which paired Schumann's Dichterliebe, which sets poetry by Heinrich Heine, with other contemporary composers' settings of the poet's work. Samuel feels close to Schumann's music and finds that his voice fits it. He sees Schuman as being more Romantic than Schubert, but also the wider tessitura of Schumann's songs suits his voice too.;

Joseph Middleton and Samuel Hasselhorn
Joseph Middleton and Samuel Hasselhorn

For the new disc, Samuel wanted to show the variety of Schumann's repertoire, the different colours in his music, and he wanted to include not just the super-well known songs. His and Middleton's selection on 'Stille Liebe' is centred on Schumann's Kerner Lieder from 1840 which sit alongside several ballads. On his 2018 disc, Samuel had shown himself sympathetic to Schumann's settings of Heine, and the new disc continues this with five Heine settings, Tragödie, Op.64 No.3, Belsatzar Op.57, Die beiden Grenadiere, Op.49 no.1, and Die feindlichen Brüder, Op.49 No.2 plus the Adalbert von Chamiso ballad Die Löwenbraut, Op.31 no.1, and Fünf Lieder Op.40 which includes the four settings of Chamiso's German versions of Hans Christian Anderson poems.

There is an element of strangeness to some of these texts, the Hans Christian Anderson poems are not straightforward and Samuel says that he loves the story in Die Löwenbraut, describing it as creepy. But he also feels that the combination of the Heine and the Chamiso settings leads well into the Kerner Lieder, and the element of strangeness feeds into Samuel's wish to convey the variety of Schumann's songs.

Samuel has been working further on Schumann's songs as he was supposed to give a recital in Antwerp with pianist Graham Johnson (in fact cancelled). This was to include some late Schumann songs, and Samuel has been struck by the flexibility of Schumann's text setting, but also the variety in the texts he sets and the music that he composes.

Joseph Middleton and Samuel Hasselhorn
Joseph Middleton and Samuel Hasselhorn
Up to last Summer (2020), Samuel was a member of the ensemble at Vienna State Opera where his performing life was very much devoted to opera, but before he joined Vienna State Opera, he had taken part in just two professional opera productions and was known as a lieder singer. His plans continue to include opera, but in an ideal world, he would like to have a balance between opera, lieder and concert work. Though this can very much depend on projects so that a series of Passion performances or a major composer's anniversary can lead to a big commitment in one type of performing work. But Samuel would rather not classify himself and prefers to be known for opera, lieder and concerts.

After all, he doesn't use a different voice in opera and in lieder, he just makes small technical changes, and the one can inform the other. So that he can use a lot of what he learns from opera in his lieder recitals and vice versa, and he needs both lieder and opera to continue to develop his voice and to develop as a person. He does find some operatic roles more lieder like, and whilst he enjoys singing Italian roles like Belcore in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, he finds Pelleas in Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, Britten's Billy Budd and a number of Mozart roles sympathetic because of the lieder skills that can be brought to them. As a lyric baritone, the roles he finds sympathetic extend to Danilo in Lehar's The Merry Widow, Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus and the title role in Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse.

In Autumn 2020, Samuel was due to make his role debut as Wolfram in Wagner's Tannhäuser with Opera de Rouen, unfortunately, the performances were cancelled just before the dress rehearsal because of a COVID case in the ensemble. There had been some hope to save the final two performances, but even this did not prove possible. Samuel loves Wagner and loves Wolfram and his music. Much of the role can benefit from a lieder singer's skill, but the third act needs power (Samuel uses the term squillo) and dramatic ability too, and Samuel enjoys having both together in the same role.

He will return to Wolfram at some point, but singing the role is not a complete priority. He has just turned 30 and feels he has plenty of time for his voice to develop and grow, so the immediate future lies in the lyric repertoire. He does hope that in 10 years' time he will be able to sing the lighter Verdi baritone roles such as Rodrigue in Don Carlos (he admits to a preference for the French version), as well as further Wagnerian roles.

In his booklet note for the 'Stille Liebe' record, Samuel has some strong words to say in support of the song recital as a genre and its importance. As a native German-speaker singing settings of German texts, I wondered how he felt about singing lieder to non-native speakers. After all, half the art form is in the text which leads to a complex challenge. As an audience member, even if he knows the language of the song being sung, Samuel finds there are times when he does not understand fully as the song is so fast. Lieder is a complicated art-form, it packs a great deal into just three to five munites, and it can be too much even for a German speaker. And you have to remember that audience members are there to be entertained.

These problems are part of the reason why lieder is so niche, but Samuel feels that there are ways forward towards widening the understanding of the art-form. Translations are helpful, though they need to be good, but he also favours pre-concert events to explain the songs. It is also important to have the songs in groups though not lasting more than 20 minutes as after this point people's concentration evidently drops. Samuel clear feels strongly about the importance of the song-recital, but he does not want to change the art-form, instead, he feels we need to explore ways of linking it to people more. For his first recital at the Wigmore Hall (during the 2017/18 season, having taken Second Prize at the 2015 Wigmore Hall Song Competition) Samuel introduced the second half, explaining why he had chosen the songs. In some cases, not much explanation is needed (for Winterreise for instance), but even here having a pre-concert event to explain the songs in more detail is helpful.

Samuel thinks that artists can get better at explaining their programmes to the audience, if a programme has meaning to you the artist then it is helpful to share this with the audience. There is so much potential in the lieder repertoire, so much variety, yet it is a complex form combining music, text and more, so an artist should use everything they can to bring the art-form to the people. Samuel isn't a fan of dumbing down or simplifying things, but if the concept is too complicated, then people will stay away and his feeling is that artists need to explain more, to share more with the audience.

Samuel Hasselhorn
Samuel Hasselhorn
In his booklet note, Samuel talks about the art song being regarded as old and fusty, as irrelevant and artificial, and he suggests that part of this might be the desire for 'event experiences', 'the bigger, the louder, the gaudier the better', events that are about impact rather than content. I was interested to find out his thoughts on the ideal size for a recital venue. He finds traditional recital halls such as the Wigmore Hall ideal for recitals but has also had good experiences from house concerts with an audience of just 30 to 50. For these latter, people are so close to the performers that it is a very intimate experience, different to a concert. Both are, to Samuel, valid and he has had good experiences with both types of performing.

Though a true pianisissmo played and sung will carry at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as an audience member Samuel wants to be far closer to an artist than venues this size allow. He wants to feel a greater level of energy between artist and audience and feels that with bigger venues the repertoire needs to be chosen with care so the singer can adapt to the acoustics.

Samuel is the type of performer who, on stage wants to invite the audience to him, and in a big hall the concentration required from the audience members can be tiring. He feels that we need to be more understanding of the energy needed between audience and performer. There are personal things too which can affect an individual performance, a preference for a particular acoustic, instrument or even the placing on the stage.

Looking ahead, Samuel is lucky enough to have plans. He has an all-Schubert recital disc, again on Harmonia Mundi planned for recording later this year. The working title is Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe - Faith, Hope, Love. He wants the selection of songs to refer to the devastating things that can happen to a person, not just the pandemic but other events such as terror attacks or losing loved ones, and wants to suggest that the way forward is through faith, hope and love - faith/belief in a better world, hoping for the future and loving and being kind.

During the pandemic, Vienna started to schedule concerts again from July 2020 and if Samuel had been in charge he would have scheduled recitals with a strong positive theme. He points out that when the pandemic started, singers would share on social media songs which meant something to them personally, and often these were about death which Samuel feels is an awful message. So he wants to create something with positivity and good spirit. To help heal people.

Samuel has clearly thought long and deep about the idea of the song recital today, and the art form obviously means a lot to him and he has some quite strong words and ideas. In these troubled times, he had hoped for more lieder recitals, rather than lots of live-streamed opera, to provide more meaningful things for people. And when there were recitals, they were often given by starry names, why not instead of having a Jonas Kaufmann recital link him to a young singer [this is in fact something that Barbara Hannigan's Momentum Artists is doing]. Singers need to be on stage, it is part of growing as an artist, to give your art in front of people rather than just a computer screen, and Samuel feels that the industry has been at fault in concentrating just on the big names. After all, last Summer in Vienna the 100 audience members that were allowed to attend recitals at the Staatsoper would have been just as eager to see a recital by a singer from the ensemble, not just a big name.

The same is true of programming recitals, and Samuel welcomes the fact that some halls invite singers to suggest programmes so that the art form is not just about big names, but about people with interesting things to say. He agrees that we need to change something in order to make more people interested in lieder, but it needs to be a change to the way the art-form engages with the audience rather than changing the art-form itself.

Samuel grew up singing in children's choirs and church choirs and continued to sing in vocal ensembles till his early 20s. This means that he grew up singing works like Bach's Passions and there is a lot of concert repertoire that he knows both as a chorister and as a soloist. At the age of 15 or 16, he fell in love with making music as a singer; he was performing Brahms' Fest- und Gedank-Spruche (a cycle of three motets for double choir that Brahms wrote in 1889) and found it wonderful music, and was struck by really making music using your body and your instrument, not to mention the social aspect of singing in a choir.

From the age of 18, he studied singing at Hanover University of Music, Drama, and Media, spending four years concentrating on Baroque music and lied, but not forgetting opera, acting and more. At the age of 22, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire for a year, and since 2014 his teacher has been in New York (which means that lessons are currently done on-line using Skype or Facetime). But from 2015 to 2018, Samuel did a series of recital tours in the USA, and during these he would have lessons between each recital, working on whatever concerns that had come up in his performing, he found it a nice way of combining performing and teaching and in many ways was like doing a doctorate, working in-depth on a particular programme.

Samuel Hasselhorn on disc:

  • 'Stille Liebe' - Robert Schumann Lieder - Samuel Hasselhorn, Joseph Middleton - Harmonia Mundi [available from Amazon, from Hive]
  • 'Dichterliebe' - Samuel Hasselhorn, Boris Kusnezow - gwk records [available from Amazon]
  • Live at the Queen Elisabeth Competition 2018 - Samuel Hasselhorn, Joseph Middleton - Queen Elisabeth Competition [available from Amazon]


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