08 February 2024

P.R. Jenkins

Karajan artists: Hermann Prey – joining the world class

In 1954, Karajan made one of his legendary Philharmonia opera recordings in London. It was Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” and a not yet 25-year-old singer was asked to sing the demanding part of Harlekin. Hermann Prey, who was destined to be one of the most popular German singers of the 20th century, had recently married his wife Bärbel and recalled the circumstances of the unexpected offer in his book “Premierenfieber” in 1981.

“End of June, at the end of the season in Hamburg, I was asked to sing the Harlekin in ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’. The recording would take place 9 to 11 July with Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra. […] Bärbel wondered: ‘Why are they asking you?’ ‘It’s my friend Fritz Ganss of ELECTROLA. […] Obviously, someone backed down. I’m the stand-in. Look at the cast. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Ariadne, Rita Streich as Zerbinetta, Irmgard Seefried as the composer, Rudolf Schock as Bacchus, Karl Dönch as the music master… This is world-class… But the problem is – I haven’t studied Harlekin.’ ‘Then you have to do it.’ ‘In eight days?’ ‘Easy.’”

Prey worked intensely on the rhythmically tricky part and then flew to London for the recording. “Of course, everybody tried very hard to satisfy the maestro. The session with the recorded tapes was very exciting. The soloists sat around the boss, who praised and criticized and we tried to read his facial expression when our voice sounded from the speakers. We expected a reaction, maybe a nod, maybe a smile. […] At the same time, I watched the producer Walter Legge and the technicians […] and was astonished what they were able to do.”

It was the only time Karajan conducted Strauss’ subtle chamber opera in its entirety. Next time Prey and Karajan met was in the last days of 1958 for an unorthodox New Year’s Eve concert in Berlin: Stravinsky’s “Canticum Sacrum Ad Honorem Sancti Marci Nominis”, a 20-minute work for choir, orchestra and two soloists written three years before, and Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. In the 1960s, Prey and Karajan occasionally worked together at the opera houses in Vienna (“Tannhäuser”, Prey as Wolfram) and Munich (“Fidelio”, Prey as Don Fernando) and performed constantly in Haydn’s “Creation” in Salzburg and Berlin. The Salzburg concert with Gundula Janowitz, Kim Borg and Prey’s friend Fritz Wunderlich was recorded.

In 1974, Prey performed one of his favourite roles, Papageno in the “Magic Flute”, with Karajan as conductor – but not as director. That turned out to be a problem. Karajan hated Giorgio Strehler’s staging. Therefore, the production was only performed six times. A collaboration for Wagner’s “Meistersinger” unfortunately didn’t happen. Prey recalled:

“Herbert von Karajan is a fantastic orchestrator at the piano. Years ago, when he tried to persuade me to sing Beckmesser with him, he played all the respective scenes of the opera. He sat at the piano, played and sang every part, Beckmesser, Zorn, Moser, Eisslinger, Nachtigall, Ortel, Foltz, Schwarz. And David and Sachs. And Eva. It went on like clockwork. I hardly managed to turn the pages quick enough. Back then, I hadn’t the courage for Beckmesser. I found I wasn’t ready for the role. Today, I regret it.”

In 1986, 32 years after his recording of Harlekin, Prey appeared as music master in James Levine’s recording of Strauss’ “Ariadne”. The cast of the main characters was truly Karajanesque: Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Agnes Baltsa and Kathleen Battle.


We’ve prepared playlists with Karajan and Hermann Prey. Listen to them here.

Hermann Prey: “Premierenfieber”, Kindler, München. 1981

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