Your song recital series at the Wigmore and beyond are well known. What do you gain from doing a series?
In a sense it’s a question of reinventing the wheel in my line of work. Audiences love a sense of continuity and the fact that you spend the whole evening with somebody means you get to know someone better than if you spend ten minutes with them – that’s the whole point.
From October-June you will be running a new series entitled ‘Song Lives’ – what can we expect from it?
Each evening will be devoted to uncovering a particular composer’s life through their songs. We will have Schumann, Strauss, Brahms, Debussy among others. In each of the concerts there will be unexpected songs, the early ones are always the ones people don’t know. Sometimes they look almost insignificant on the page but then when you look at them closer you might see a germ of what will come next, it may be even one bar which has a slightly different voice or harmonic feel and you think, ‘Ah, that’s where it all started.’
Have there been any songs you have discovered which you feel are real gems?
Yes there is a fantastic Strauss song I was doing recently with Christiane Karg called Am Ufer, and neither of us knew it before. The range is massive it goes from top A down to bottom G within a bar – we both thought, wow that is amazing. That is the joy of what I do, there is always stuff to discover, you are never going to get to the end.
Do you think that song has a way of reflecting a composer’s life perhaps more than other types of composition?
It’s because you have got words. A composer reacts to a set of words because of what is going on his life. The song repertoire always shows a very intimate side of somebody’s life and the composers we have chosen for this particular series have song as the musical backbone of their lives. With Schumann it shows his life with Clara, with Brahms all the various infatuations he had with different woman, also his relationship with Schumann, with Strauss his relationship with his wife and then how he was affected by writing operas. Debussy was a particularly obsessive personality, he was obsessed with a high soprano so he wrote lots of high, floaty stuff to start with but then he got obsessed with Wagner so that was totally different. For all of them their compositional style changes over the years so you have very nicely balanced programmes. You have early naïve things to start with, for example there is a lovely aria Strauss wrote for his contralto Aunt, right through to his four last songs.
When you planned the repertoire for each Song Lives concert were you trying to find a sense of connection with the composer?
I try not to be analytical in what I do. I try to be an instinctive performer, but of course you get to know the composer because you are doing things from throughout his life and see where his obsessions were. You get to know him in your soul rather than in your brain, I hope.
Most of these composers are instinctive guys rather than analytical. Somebody like Strauss was more organised and is slightly manipulative emotionally, and he knew he was doing that. He worked out the emotionally geography of a song a bit like a good film producer does, but it doesn’t make it any less moving.
You are concentrating on one composer but each evening will use two singers.
Yes, that makes the variety of colour greater. I think it’s quite difficult for one singer to do one composer for a whole evening. With Schubert you can, but with some of the others you may begin to see the formula a bit, but if you have two voices the range is greater, and therefore so is the repertoire.
Do you enjoy poetry yourself?
I love poetry. I am a word junkie. When I don’t have concerts I go to the theatre. If I am in London I might even go three times in one week. I love all forms of theatre. I’ve always been a words man and that is what draws me to songs.
Do you ever read modern poetry and think I wish that it could be set to music?
Yes and even older poetry too. When I am on tour I memorise poems for myself. The other day I tried to memorise the first speech of Richard III, just to understand the shape of it; if you do it from memory you get a different feeling of shape and sense of imagination than if you are reading it off the page. It’s right brain left brain stuff. The guys who were writing these songs knew all these poems from memory. So again you go back into their minds to see how they responded to it.
It is interesting to see the different poets the composers pick. Whether they pick famous poetry or perhaps poetry which is slightly less good, where the song is a better art form than the poem was to start with. If you start off with a great Goethe or Schiller poem you have got to write music to equal that, which must be a very different prospect to a song composer.
Do you feel that producing a series is part of your role as an accompanist?
Its part of the fun of it. It’s a great joy to be given he opportunity to do something like this. I’m always thinking about what I would like to do next.
I was thinking the other day it would be lovely to do concerts just based on the poets; to do lots of different composers reactions to Goethe, or Schiller or Verlaine or Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy. There are always those thoughts and I imagine which singers I would like to do it, and mercifully they mostly say yes!
Next recitals in the series:
Christiane Karg soprano; Daniel Behle tenor; Malcolm Martineau piano
Songlives: Richard Strauss
Thursday 17 October 2013 – 7:30 PM, Wigmore Hall
Lucy Crowe soprano; Christopher Maltman baritone; Malcolm Martineau piano
Tuesday 29 October 2013 – 7:30 PM, Wigmore Hall
What led you to work in this kind of collaborative field?
My mother is a pianist and she had a duo with her sister. Seeing these two completely different personalities make music work together and sound so amazing was great. I always knew it was fun to do collaborative music.
In 1977 I was a semi finalist in BBC Young Musician of the year and I did about two years of solo work but then I thought this is very lonely and I didn’t enjoy relying completely on myself to make music. That’s when I decided I would like to do collaborative stuff. However I’m glad that I did pursue the solo pianist thing for a bit because you then develop a technique which you rely on. I still do my Czerny exercise for half an hour every morning.
So was it always singers you worked with?
Well at Cambridge I did lots of instrumental playing. I had a piano trio for five years and did lots of work for clarinettists, violinist and so on. I did lots of chamber and song recitals, you could play a concert almost every night if you wanted to. But I had worked with singers even before that. I had an amazing teacher at my school, Richard Telfer, who was one of the founder members of Scottish Opera. He took me to rehearsals for Scottish Opera and I even got a chance to play: when I was 15 I played for Janet Baker when she did the composer in Ariadne.
I was asked to do my first song recital as accompanist when I was 14. It was Dichterliebe, Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel and Butterworth A Shropshire Lad. The singer then became the Bishop of Argyll!
When you were at the Royal College of Music you actually did joint first studies as both singer and pianist. That must have given you an amazing depth of understanding of singers?
I’d never pretend to be a singer but it’s an advantage I think. As song accompanists you need to physically be able to sympathise with what singers are doing, so that you can react instinctively. You need to know what it feels like to breathe, how the text works physically, what takes longer to say than something else. I send all my own students for singing lessons, maybe a couple a term. I say, I don’t care what sort of noise you are making it’s just the knowledge of how to sing that you need. When I was at college I ended up playing for all the singing lessons I could. I was also lucky enough to play for masterclasses for Sutherland and Schwarzkopf which was fascinating. Most young pianists play for voice lessons, so we hear what works and what doesn’t work.
As well as having a few accompanist students each year you also spend a considerable amount of your time leading masterclasses for singers and their accompanists.
Yes, I do master classes all over the place wherever I possibly can. I try to teach the song as a whole to the duo. If I do a concert in New York I will do a masterclass at Juilliard and maybe work with the young artists at the Met or whatever. My summers are basically all master classes. I go to Ravinia every year to do one of the few song courses in the States for young singers and last summer I spent 10 days in Aldeburgh running a course with Christoph Prégardien working on Schubert’s songs from 1824-25.
You also work a lot in Scotland don’t you?
I go to Crear on the West Coast which is amazing. It has stunning views over Jura and Islay. I do a masterclass for singers who are slightly older which I think is important. One year there was a lady who won the Ferrier Award back in 1984 then had 6 kids and hadn’t sung in public for 25 years. It’s also for those who have changed voice type they were mezzo’s and are now sopranos or something and sometimes we have singers who have maybe been in Scottish Opera Chorus for many years and have always had fantastic voices, but want to do a bit more.
I also do my own wonderful masterclass in Scotland called Oxenfoord with amateurs and professionals – last year we had an age range of 11-89!
What do you like about working with younger singers?
One of the things I enjoy most these days is working with all the youngsters. Getting to know them, maybe helping them a little bit as they start. Playing for somebody who has never sung Dichterliebe before is fantastic. You get their initial response to it all. People think it is mentoring from my part, but they mentor me too! I learn from them and their fresh, newer approach.
I’ve just recorded the complete Mendelssohn Songs with Sophie and Mary Bevan, and I did the complete Britten Songs with several different young singers including Allan Clayton and Robin Tritschler.
You continue to perform with a great many of today’s greatest singers, who do you particularly enjoy working with?
Simon Keenlyside is my oldest, I’ve been playing with him for nearly 30 years so we have sort of grown up together artistically. He has been a very special colleague all the way along. I was also introduced to Bryn Terfel when he was at college and played for his final recital, and then Cardiff Singer of the World. This year I opened the Wigmore for the 13/14 Season playing for both Bryn and Simon!
Susan Graham has also been a great friend and colleague – she is a great constant through my life. I have been very lucky with lots of people.
That kind of friendship must add to the music making when you are on stage performing together. A conductor may know a soloist particularly well but there will likely be a whole orchestra on stage with them too.
Yes, there is an incredible intimacy between the two of you when you perform because you are both pouring out your hearts, to each other as well as to the audience. You open all the gates, you don’t self protect. You have to know someone pretty well to do songs with him or her, you need to understand their personality.
I’ve seen the people I work with have babies and got to know their kids. For example I’ve known Magdalena Kozena’s two boys all their lives. That’s all part of the work. It’s all about humanity. Love, death, life – songs are poetic responses to fairly basic things that you need to be able to understand. You are not talking about extremely highfalutin philosophy, you are talking about stuff that really is about life. People can think songs are a bit elitist and too complicated and they are not.
Do you think that kind elitist attitude has changed over the past few decades?
I think the general attitude to songs has changed since I started. I think, wonderful though they were, Fischer Dieskau and Schwarzkopf and that sort of generation were slightly on a pedestal and they made song recitals slightly forbidding, for both young singers and for the audience. I think the likes of Simon and Bryn, Susan and Chris Maltman people have made songs slightly more relaxed. Hopefully my generation of song accompanists are slightly less starchy too. I think you see more personality in the piano playing than you did maybe with Gerald Moore or the earlier guys. The audience don’t just see you as a butler but they see what the pianist sees about the song as well.
That is often a question that seems to come up. How do you see the balance of roles between singer and accompanist?
We have equally valid but different roles. We have lots of psychology, colours and picture painting in the piano part but in the end of the day they have the words and the words are the most important thing. When I accompany I am playing the words in my head, you have to literally play the text. Sometimes when I hear solo pianists play songs they play the music beautifully but they don’t play the words. They play it as if it were a solo piano piece, not because they are too loud but because they are not playing the whole text, the sentences. They don’t play it as if they could sing it.
What is it about singers and song that you love so much?
There is such a vulnerability. They can express their whole being by singing. Instrumentalists all try and play like singers, at least all the good ones do. When a singer responds to a song there is something of themselves that comes out in the way they sing it and hopefully I respond to that too, they bring out something of myself in the way I play. After a concert with Bryn and Simon people were saying to me I sounded like a completely different pianist with the two of them. I’m not aware of it, I just react to what they give me.
It’s an extraordinary symbiosis.
Yes and you can do the same song with the same singer two days in a row and if you are both in different moods it will be different too. You make sure you are on the same page with the poem and of course you respect the composer enough to do what is on the page in terms of dynamics and so on, but within that there is massive freedom. You leave the doors open.