Tell me about your new project, the Myrthen Ensemble?
The name comes from the composition Robert Schumann wrote as a wedding present for his wife Clara in 1840 – the myrtle is a German marriage symbol, and the Myrthen Ensemble [Middleton and singers Sophie Bevan, Clara Mouriz, Allan Clayton and Marcus Farnsworth] will explore the marriage between words and music, singer and pianist, imagination and sound, and performer and audience.
Well, I think music making like this is! These are four singers I absolutely love working with; I have a huge respect for their artistry and we’re all very like-minded – they’re as passionate about song as they are about opera, and we’re all very excited about exploring less well known works in the art-song repertoire.
Why did you come up with the idea?
I’ve always enjoyed making music with others; the life of a pianist can be lonely but the great thing about chamber music is that you're never bored, you're always musically stimulated by someone else and that's why I love being an accompanist. And ever since I was studying at the Royal Academy of Music and my professor Malcolm Martineau pointed out that I shouldn’t just be playing chamber music all the time, I should also be working with singers, I have been absolutely hooked on the song repertoire. I’ve always loved poetry and art. For me, songs are the perfect way to combine music, text and visual imagery. But it’s difficult to find situations to put on song concerts with more than one singer, they’re often so busy doing opera, so it was a deliberate attempt to make that possible.
What’s on the horizon?
We’ve got a three-day Residency at Aldeburgh this month; a space where we’ll have the time and freedom to rehearse without the pressures of London living and all that brings - picking up the phone and answering email, catching Tubes. There’ll be nothing else going on except the chance to relax and really get inside these songs. We’re performing an informal concert there, and then our London launch concert is on March 29th. We make our Wigmore Hall debut early next year.
Tell me about this first programme?
I’ve called it ‘Songs to the Moon’. In the opening half, we'll perform solos, duets, and quartets by Schumann and Brahms. In the second, there’s a short English song group and then French duets and solos by a mixture of known and less well-known composers, including Szulc, Bachelet, Chausson and Duparc. I’ve found that audiences really respond to a themed concert, whether it’s grouped by poet or by historical event or by something more abstract in theme, like the moon. There is a plethora of songs written about the moon, so this programme will hopefully explore how people look to it for comfort, or for inspiration, or when they’re in love and so on. Its mystery is something we're fascinated by as humans.
Do you enjoy curating such programmes?
Yes, I’m a complete song loser! I have dozens of these programme ideas floating around in my head! Of course, this is nothing new, the inspiration for this type of song programming owes a great deal to Graham Johnson and his trail-blazing way of presenting the song repertoire with his Songmakers' Almanac. A few years ago I won the Geoffrey Parsons award which gave me a Wigmore concert in which I could programme whatever I wanted. Inspired by Graham's programming, I came up with an idea to present postcards of Spain by non-Spaniards which I called ‘Colours of Spain’ and it’s really gone from there; I think audiences relish those sorts of evenings, rather than just two straight song groups and a song cycle.
Is that partly because they are responding to the text too?
Yes, I think because it’s now such an established thing for the song texts to be printed, there’s a fascination with the poetry that there perhaps wasn’t thirty or forty years ago. Going to a song concert now, people can explore the ways in which a composer takes a poem and an image and from that image the song is born. I think it’s fascinating to give it that literary context.
Was it challenging to launch a new group in these testing times? How has the reaction been so far?
Well, I should point out that the Ensemble will play a fairly small part in what we all do for the rest of our working lives – the singers will still be flying off to opera houses around the world and I’ll still be working with lots of different artists. But it’s a pleasant diversion and something we all feel passionately about, so it’s very encouraging that the response so far has been absolutely brilliant. The Wigmore Hall got back to us immediately and slotted us in very soon. BBC Radio 3 have already offered us a week of lunchtime concerts and we’re talking to various festivals about 2013-14. I’m really thrilled by the response.
Why do you think it has been so positive?
I think the ensemble brings a slightly different flavour of performance style; the interactions between the four singers and a pianist will be something people really enjoy. It helps that we’re all friends. And the timing is good: audiences at places like the Wigmore have been going up and up, because I think people really enjoy a concert where the repertoire plays as much a part of it as whoever’s singing. That said, it may also be because our four singers are absolutely amazing! [Chuckles] Of course, I may be a bit biased.
Surely not. Tell me more about these amazing singers?
They are all artists that, while you're listening to them and watching them, you're drawn into the world of the song they’re singing. They are always themselves - they all have remarkable instruments, but it's what they do with them that's special. With Allan and Marcus, there’s always this feeling they are being completely honest with you when they sing – there’s no front, no stage persona that they hide behind: they just walk on stage and of course they’re true to the character they’re singing but it’s such an open and honest interpretation. Sophie Bevan – well, she’s completely fearless, she has the most remarkable technique that you’re never even aware of; it’s always at the service of what she’s doing musically and emotionally. You feel like nothing is being saved, she’s always giving 100% - that’s pretty awesome. And Clara has this wonderful Spanish temperament, there is something very noble about the way she sings while at the same time there's a vulnerability. When you’re in a concert with her, you’re never aware of all the work she’s done before – she too just lives in the moment and goes for it. They’re all incredibly special artists, in their different ways.
What about other work you're looking forward to this season?
It's full of lovely projects. This summer I'm at the City of London and Cheltenham Festivals for the BBC, then I'm in Vancouver with Sir Thomas Allen, and I go back to the Ravinia Festival in Chicago. Next season I've got my Amsterdam Concertgebouw debut accompanying Katarina Karnéus, and a Bath MozartFest recital with Christopher Maltman. I also have a CD with Amanda Roocroft being released and I'm making one with Jonathan Lemalu in August.
What do you think of Eric Sams’ point, recently quoted in the Guardian, ‘that the whole song repertoire is a piano art form rather than a singer's. After all, the great Lieder and song composers were pianists’?
[Laughs] Well, I suppose it’s a little unhelpful to think of it as either! But singers like Sophie, Clara, Allan and Marcus are interesting to work with, not least because they are concerned with the piano part, which so often mirrors what they are thinking by either setting up the atmosphere of a song or commenting subtly on their character’s state of mind. It is an equal partnership in a duo. I love a concert when you feel there’s a real dialogue being passed between singer and pianist, or, and this can be just as exciting, there is an intentional tension of doing opposite things. Just as much as the pianist might look to the singer to colour words in certain ways, or draw the listener’s ear along by telling story clearly, the opposite is true too.
Are you hoping to reach a new audience for the art-song form?
I feel passionate about songs and I want everyone to hear them, just as anyone who has something in their life that makes their life better wants to share it with other people! But I’m not going to be doing any sort of gimmicky, crazy promotion, no – it's essentially an intimate and thoughtful art form; I hope the songs speak for themselves.
© Clemency Burton-Hill