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Bo Skovhus on Brahms and the sounds of Vienna

01 August, 2022

The great Danish opera singer discusses the uplifting power of Brahms’ German Requiem, how Haydn and Schubert created the sounds of Vienna, and reflects on thirty years of working with Simone Young.

This month, acclaimed Danish baritone Bo Skovhus appears in two concerts with the Sydney Symphony: as a soloist in Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem, conducted by Simone Young, and in a recital of songs performed with award-winning Australian pianist Andrea Lam.

We spoke to Bo to delve deeper into his career, his love of Lieder, and the universality of Brahms’ message.

You have worked with Simone Young a lot, across a wide range of genres. What is she like as a conductor? What is it that keeps drawing you together?

I have known Simone now for almost 30 years. We first met when we worked together in the Volksoper in Vienna. Even then, it was clear that she absolutely knew what she wanted, and always had a clear idea of how pieces should be done, but that she still had an open ear for suggestions.

It’s very special when you have a close personal relationship with someone you also admire artistically – you get to make good music together, and then enjoy each other’s company offstage as well!

Your Bo Skovhus in Recital program is dedicated to Lieder, or art song, which you have performed and promoted throughout your career. What is it about the art form that you love?

Lieder is so intimate. You only have a pianist, the music and the words to create an atmosphere. And with these things, you have to catch the attention of the audience.

I am singing songs by Haydn, Schubert and Robert Stolz, who are all composers who lived in Vienna either for a time or all their life. I think it is interesting to show the variety of what this great city has to offer musically.

Schubert composed these songs in 1828, the last year of his too-short life. But it is amazing to hear how modern it sounds. He offers a major stylistic leap forward from Haydn, who had been so influential and had been dead for less than 20 years. Schubert really is taking a huge leap forward, and establishing a path that leads directly to Romanticism.

When we think of Haydn mostly we think of his chamber music and symphonies, and his songs aren’t as well-known. What can you tell us about the songs you have selected for this recital?

Haydn wrote an enormous amount of music, but because of that I think people sometimes dismiss him as ‘simple’, or ‘everyday’, which is absolutely not the case. His music – including these songs – is extremely sophisticated and not easy at all to do, especially for the pianist.

Tell us more about Robert Stolz – his is not a name that we hear often in Australia.

Robert Stolz is like Schubert – he has this ability to write incredible tunes that get stuck in your head. In the 1920s, 30s and 40s he was the best song writer in Vienna, and very famous, especially for the music he wrote for films. The two songs I am singing are from his films, and I am sure the audience will recognise the tunes, even if they don’t know that they are by Stolz.

You are also performing in Brahms’ German Requiem. What is unique about this piece?

Before Brahms, most Requiems were based on the Catholic Bible, with a very Catholic sense of seeking forgiveness for the dead. But Brahms was Protestant, and his German Requiem is more about providing comfort for the living.

I performed this piece many years ago with the great German conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, who had just lost his wife. He told me that Brahms’ Requiem was the only Requiem he could conduct because it comforts you.

I am sure Brahms wanted to compose something that was more than just a normal Requiem. I think it was important for him to compose something with German text, so the audience would understand what is being sung, and not in Latin, which was the normal language for a Catholic requiem.

What is it like to perform the work? And what would you like our audience to take away from the performance?

It is a very moving piece, both the music and the texts. Life has an end for everybody, and we should not live as though we will be here forever – we must recognise our responsibility to pass things on to the next generation.

The work says that we should not be sad for the dead, as we will soon be reunited. I think that’s a wonderful thought. And I hope the audience will walk away uplifted, and with peace in their minds.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra presents Bo Skovhus in Recital on 5 August. He also performs in Simone Young conducts A German Requiem from 5–7 August.