First of all: what are we to call you? Song pianist? Collaborative pianist? Accompanist? I know it’s a hotly debated topic…
Haha. I hate the word collaborative pianist. Song pianist doesn’t really work as I also play a lot of chamber music. But ‘accompanist’ to me does not feel derogatory in any sense. To accompany someone is to be a companion, to be with them, to be together. But at the end of the day, it’s a label, and whatever we’re called doesn’t really bother me.
Glad we got that sorted. So you’re in residency at the Wigmore Hall throughout this season, as an ‘accompanist’ for a dazzling array of vocal talent. That must be exciting?
It’s been a long time in the planning and yes it’s really exciting. It feels serendipitous in a way as that’s where it all started for me [James won the Pianist’s Prize in the 2009 Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition.] A lot of things that have happened began there…
So you obviously feel very at home on Wigmore St?
When you go to other halls in Europe, you realise that the Wigmore is incredibly precious – from a point of view of acoustics, its history, the fact they are so supportive to song, to chamber music, to new and upcoming artists. It’s a really iconic place and more and more I realise how spoilt we are to have it right in the heart of London. There’s amazing variety on the programming, it’s very affordable. Yeah, it’s pretty special!
How did the series come about?
John [Gilhooly] and I came up with the idea and when we were talking it was clear he wanted a variety of established and younger artists, to get a balance across the series, with a range of repertoire. And what’s most exciting is that the series also includes two new commissions. Nico Muhly is writing a partner piece to Britten’s canticle Abraham & Isaac which will be sung by Iestyn Davies and Allan Clayton in December, and Judith Weir is writing something as a companion piece to Ravel, for March.
How involved were you in programming those new commissions?
I saw Allan and Iestyn sing together and I thought it was an amazing combination and that it would be a great thing to programme something new for them. We’re all young artists, and I think it’s nice to champion something new. Nico is very good at creating atmosphere and telling stories so it seemed a natural fit. We’ve been going to & fro with text, it’s very exciting.
How involved have you been with curating the rest of the series?
Many of the artists are friends so we’ve generally chosen the programme together, doing stuff we know and love. It’s always a conversation: you can suggest pieces, but they always have to feel comfortable.
Some of these artists will be making their song debut…
Yes, people like Anna Huntley, Jonathan McGovern, Johnny Herford, Sarah-Jane Brandon. To be there beside them as they make their song debut at the Wigmore will be very special.
It sounds as though you almost feel a sense of responsibility towards them?
Well, many of these artists I’ve studied with; I’ve been playing for their lessons since day one; I’ve seen their voices change unrecognisably. And it’s a very privileged position to be an accompanist – sometimes you have an incredibly intense relationship and the singers end up great friends and it doesn’t feel like work at all.
As well as your young contemporaries, many of whom are BBC New Generation Artists, you have also worked with some of the greatest lieder singers of our time, people such as Ian Bostridge and Mark Padmore. Do you learn as much from younger artists as from more established singers?
I learn a lot from both! I feel very lucky to work with so many amazing singers.
Accompanists are often a rather undersung bunch, but being such a regular Wigmore fixture over the course of the season, are you hoping that the audience will start coming for you, rather than being drawn by the singer or the repertoire?
I think a singer will always be the one that draws the audience, but hopefully this shows a little bit of what we do. It’s quite a misunderstood profession – I think often audiences don’t realise how much of a partnership it is. People like Graham Johnson and Malcolm Martineau have been pivotal in my development, and pianists like that, they’re not just playing the notes in a concert. They have often programmed the whole thing, they’ve found songs that suit specific voices, they’ve done so much more than it may appear.
Apart from Johnson and Martineau, who else do you consider your major influences?
I find you can learn from all different genres. Gerald Moore’s early recordings are often my go-to; but I find Brendel, as a soloist, his stylistic awareness is amazing. The young pianists Behzod Abduraimov and Daniil Trifonov are really exciting; I’d definitely go and watch them. And outside of piano I love string quartets, opera, exhibitions, museums, films… I think it’s really important to try and digest everything that’s available, especially in a city like London where you can go to something incredible three or four times a day.
Many of your song partners are also making names for themselves in opera – Allan Clayton, Iestyn Davies to name but two. Is it instructive for your recitals to watch them on stage in a narrative drama?
Yes, I think seeing them in opera definitely has a bearing on what we do because ideally a recital should be as engaging and exhilarating as any opera. The main thing about song is being able to tell a story. You are the director, the manager, your own conductor – it’s taking the energy from opera and condensing it, and that’s hopefully very engaging and enthralling.
How do you think the singers enjoy the balance between stage work and recitals?
In my experience, many singers find it really liberating to do recitals. They have the score, the way they want to interpret the music, and only having one person accompanying you means you can be a lot more adventurous with your musical ideas.
There’s a tremendous range of repertoire programmed across the Wigmore season – Schubert, Strauss, Brahms, Flanders & Swann, Thomas Adès to name but a handful! Where does your musical heart lie?
Song pianist, accompanist, whatever we’re called these days, it’s very unique that we get to do so much different repertoire: we don’t have to specialise in one genre, and no matter who we’re working with we can explore a huge variety of styles and languages. I love that, of course. But for me – well, it’s probably Schubert, Schumann, Brahms – the German hearty stuff I really love!
And it’s not all song on the Wigmore bill: in January you’ll team up with the Heath quartet to play Mozart and Elgar. Why did you decide to throw instrumental chamber music into the mix too?
It’s lovely to do chamber music. I’m always trying to find narrative qualities to any music, and where song is quite a miniature form, say 2-3 minutes of something, in these bigger chamber works you have sometimes 20 minutes, half an hour to tell a story. It’s dealing with macro forms rather than miniature moments, and it’s fun once you’ve realised you can bring different skills to both.
How do you find the experience of working with instrumentalists rather than singers?
I’m always amazed by how much more horrible chamber musicians are to each other! I guess it’s not so personal when the instrument isn’t your self, your body. It’s not that you mollycoddle singers, but their instrument is inside their body, whereas I’m hiding behind a great slab of black wood. I have such huge respect for the fact singers have to face an audience, head on, and make these beautiful sounds. I think because pretty much all people can sing a little bit, they feel they have the ability to criticise singers. But in my view, what opera singers have to do is superhuman.
The season-long ‘Introducing James Baillieu’ series begins on 27 September 2015 at the Wigmore Hall. Visit the Wigmore Hall’s website for more information.