Covering Bach to Britten, he’s a leading vocal Evangelist
Interview by James Reel
Born in England, raised and educated there and in Germany, tenor Rufus Müller has the great Baroque oratorio tradition in his blood. He is recognized as one of the finest Evangelists in the Bach Passions, thanks not only to his superb vocalism but also an ability to meld characterization with evocative musical storytelling in parts that, a few decades ago, were considered too staid to showcase a tenor’s full abilities.
“My Evangelist is very action-packed,” Müller declares. “It becomes much more a question of character, and I don’t do a watered-down version of ‘character’ for oratorio. I deliver Messiah with a fairly good punch, too.”
During the 2015 Tucson Desert Song Festival, Müller is working on a less monumental scale, collaborating on a recital with guitarist David Leisner for the Tucson Guitar Society. Their program includes music by Leisner himself, as well as Benjamin Britten, Franz Schubert and Manuel de Falla.
Müller, who has performed intimate programs with guitarists, period fortepianists, and the sensitive modern pianist Maria João Pires, notes that his recital approach is subtly different from his oratorio bearing. “The fortepiano has so much more a range of soft dynamics, but it doesn’t go as loud as a modern grand, so I can try many more nuances at the quieter levels,” he says. “And certainly compared to a modern piano the guitar works within a more restricted dynamic compass, but I don’t feel as if I’m holding back much with it. The advantage is that I can really take things down to the softest I like, depending on the acoustics of the hall, and David is such a sensitive player anyway.”
As is evident from his Tucson program, Müller does not sing exclusively Baroque and Classical music, but the majority of his appearances do seem to involve works of the 18th century to some extent—not surprising, considering that in his youth he was a choral scholar at Oxford, where choirs alternate Renaissance polyphony with lush Victorian settings. Müller says that without being a white-voiced period-practice specialist, he does remain sensitive to the special needs of early style—mainly by using a narrower vibrato, not eschewing vibrato altogether. This keeps Bach on a vocal continuum that glides smoothly through Schubert on to Britten, allowing for stylistic nuance without isolating any particular period or composer.
“One size doesn’t fit all, but a good technique can serve for everything you need it for, from early music to opera,” he says. “When I first went to study with Thomas LoMonaco in New York, his studio was very much geared towards opera. I was a slight anomaly among his tenors in that not only did I not do much opera at the time but I continued to do a lot of song and oratorio, which I had done since I was very young. He didn’t fundamentally transform me into an opera singer; he taught me to expand the delicacy I grew up with whenever I need to, whether it be emotionally, or acoustically for a big environment.
“You have to scale the vibrato and the voice to the particular music you’re singing, whatever that may be. It isn’t just a question of singing Bach differently from Brahms. The way I sing Schubert is different from the way I sing Brahms.”
Although England’s production of opera singers has been spotty, it is undeniably preeminent—in competition with Germany—in generating choral singers, oratorio soloists and masters of art song. Müller seems almost literally to have been born to it. He claims he was singing before he learned to speak. He joined his first church choir when he was six.
For his choral trial at New College, Oxford, he had the audacity to offer a song from the cycle Frauenliebe und –leben. “They were completely bemused why I would bring a Schumann song to a choral trial, and a woman’s song at that. They said, ‘Didn’t you bring anything sacred?’ And I said, ‘Isn’t all music sacred?’ You have to be very young to get away with audacity like that.”
After spending most of his teen years in Germany, at age 19 Müller was invited to join the Tallis Scholars as its youngest member; within a few years it would professionalize into one of Britain’s finest early-music vocal ensembles. He also joined the famed Consort of Musicke, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Emma Kirkby. Between the two ensembles he was covering a full range of secular and sacred repertoire, largely unaccompanied. Meanwhile, in the mid 1980s he also started his solo career, “doing Bach and Messiah and some later things, some misguided,” he says. “I was told my voice wouldn’t be heard in the opera house, so I came over to New York and started retraining in my early 30s, and never looked back.”
His operatic roles are centered mainly in the 18th century (he’s gotten especially enthusiastic notices as Tamino in Mozart’s Magic Flute), so it isn’t as if he is holding forth as a dramatic Verdi tenor or heroically holding his own against a Wagnerian orchestra. He describes himself as a “heavy lyric” tenor, which makes him ideal for singing full-bodied but not overbearing earlier material as well as for delivering Romantic art song without worrying about overpowering it.
As for Schubert, Schumann and beyond, Müller says that sort of music is as much a part of him as the English choral tradition. When Müller was young, his father would often play recordings of German Lied and opera singers like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and from the time he was 14 he attended boarding school in Germany, completing his immersion in the German language. (He even fulfilled his national service requirement musically, not as a vocalist but as a trumpet player in the German Luftwaffe.) “I feel as comfortable singing in German as I do in English,” he says.
He’s doing both in Tucson (Spanish, too, with Falla’s Seven Spanish Popular Songs). He opens with a Schubert set, then moves on to Leisner’s music. “David’s compositional style is lyrical and grateful for a singer,” Müller says. “It’s not plink-plunk. And yes, it’s got its brash moments, but the music is deeply lyrical and you can tell by the way David plays the guitar that he would compose that way, too.”
Before the Falla will come Britten’s Songs from the Chinese. Müller and Leisner have performed all Britten’s music for voice and guitar, which is a rather brave undertaking, so closely is Britten’s music for that pairing associated with guitarist Julian Bream and tenor Peter Pears. Müller is not afraid of comparisons to Pears, a quintessential English tenor, with all that category’s familiar benefits and peculiarities (the ungenerous would note a high, nasal tone). Müller admits he himself sounded like a typical British tenor before he studied with LoMonaco, but then shifted away from the attenuated English choral sound to develop more of an Italian timbre; these days, he says, he sounds more like a German tenor, because he uses more color in a voice that now “has more beef to it, a different ring at the top.”
Speaking of beef, Müller is enthusiastic about his Tucson program because, from Schubert to Leisner to Britten to Falla, the program has “different musical flavors one following another. It’s going to be a bit like a Julia Child cooking show … except I trust I won’t drop anything.”