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king-learWell, I can’t quite wish you all a Merry Christmas any more (except to say I hope you had one!), and I suppose it’s too early for Happy New Year… Still, I’m sitting here with another plate of leftovers, grazing through my books/scores/poems etc, and thought this might be a good moment to share an exciting and inspiring discovery I made a few weeks back. The quotes listed below are just a small selection of bleeding chunks from a WONDERFUL book, probably my favourite of 2013. The author isn’t a musician (as far as I know… except as a poet, when he absolutely is, of course), but for singers/song-pianists/story-tellers/lovers of Art Song, his observations on poetic texts – and his delivery – bring so many fantastic musical images and parallels to the surface that I don’t think I’ve ever felt more eager to shake off the turkey and champagne haze and get going with 2014’s line-up of singers and recitals, more of which very soon!

Taken from On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell (Oberon Books Ltd; 2012; ISBN 978-1-84943-085-2; available on Amazon here)

‘Time could not go on as it was. The story has changed everything. What you could hear in the silence that preceded the voice was the irrepressible boiling-up of a raging need to tell.’

‘Poets were real, walked around, sat down, shouted. Poems are responses to needs, urges, hungers, thirsts, they have sprouted forth in moments like the moments we know, passing beside us now, five-to-nine in the morning, four-twenty in the day, indoors, outdoors, sun and rain, with a king on the throne, with a fool or a child or no one.’

‘But think once more of the white turning to black, of the nib putting down on the paper, … think of where person becomes poem.’

‘Three stanzas, two spaces between them, not to mention the mists at either end. Stanza is the Italian word for – look it up.’ (stanza = room!)

‘An exercise that is useful and fun with any great poem is to write its screenplay. … This way you can see how some stanza-breaks are cuts, some are fades, some are dissolves.’

‘In every poem I admire, and every poem that’s still around say fifty, a hundred, a thousand years after its maker is one, what’s signalled by the black shapes is a human presence.’

‘Make the poem bright at the reading, true in the echo, strong to the ear, right by the eye. An English translator has to make an English poet of his foreign friend, or he’s just telling you some great dream he had.’

‘As film helps with stanza-break, let photography help with first lines. Imagine any first line as a photographic frame.’

‘Regarding repetition, there is none in poetry, or at least what looks like repetition isn’t repetition.’

‘A line so grave, sublime and unbearable –

Never, never, never, never, never

– will show you there is no repetition in poetry.’ (It’s from Shakespeare’s King Lear, Act V, scene III)

‘Poetry is creaturely. What survives in it echoes corporeal phenomena: the heartbeat and the pulse, the footstep and the breath. How it echoes is different in each language, in each culture, in each age.’

‘The sound of form in poetry, descended from song, moulded by breath, is the sound of that creature yearning to leave a mark.’

‘What are my words, my ambit? How wide is the ring around me that contains what I know or what I believe? What does it mean to me to be here in the light? What does it cost to speak? What does it cost to be silent? To be gone?’

piano_lidWhen it comes to artistic stuff, I’m a man obsessed with three things: Music, Words and Voice.

Obsessions two and three have led me to this working life as one of those pianists who rarely set foot on a concert platform without a singing colleague to support. We strange creatures of course grapple with a set of challenges mostly different from those of our solo piano cousins. For me, four questions present themselves most frequently:

1 In general, is this singer free to sing his/her absolute best and serve the music and text truthfully, with me at the keyboard?

2 Am I really involved and emotionally engaged with the story-telling process, without any unwelcome pulling of focus?

3 Is my piano playing refined, rhythmically exciting, harmonically responsive and tonally colourful in its own right?

4  Is the balance of the voice mixed with my sound absolutely ideal?

When all is going swimmingly on a song recital stage – singer in full, free flight, audience hanging on every breath, word and vocal contour – the answer to all of these questions for the pianist should surely be yes. For the purposes of this little essay, I’d like to put the middle two questions to one side, as they concern things that can at least be given plenty of thought during private piano practice, without the singer.  If the first question is the most important for all concerned (including the audience!), then the last is perhaps the one that most often presents an obvious problem. Balance can be a real bugger to get right!

This brings us to the real reason for this post. The subject of whether or not a piano lid is fully opened often seems peripheral, hardly crucial, and yet I’ve witnessed (and taken part in) so many heated discussions on it! For my part, it’s usually a case of very delicately persuading well-meaning promoters/stage managers/relatives that they’re commenting on what is a purely musical decision for the performers alone to make, and that their forthright opinions on the matter are akin to telling a string quartet that they should change their seating formation or bowings…

As with so many areas of the accompanist’s job, flexibility will always be needed on our part here, and the final decision on the height of a piano lid in a song recital must ultimately be made by one person: the singer. This will for me always be a given, as a crucial part of answering the first question in my list above. They have to stand right in front of our instrument, and so the height of the lid affects hugely the amount of piano sound that they will be surrounded by.  That said, I think there’s room for more experimentation with open lids, and that it’s a shame to automatically assume that the short or half sticks are the only options available to us, or that we should always play it safe. I’m probably opening a can of worms, but here follow some of my humble musings on the matter!

In some situations, it soon becomes obvious that the piano will almost certainly need to be half closed, or worse:

– If the instrument is horribly bright and brassy – a concerto warrior better suited to slicing through symphony orchestras than giving a singer a bed of sound – it will soon give the singer a headache on full stick, even if sensitively handled.

– With extremely well-established or some ‘old school’ singers, many years (or decades…) of hearing the piano sound emerge from below the ear – or in some instances even from within a totally closed casing – mean that a fully-opened piano will simply be too disorientating. Plus, they’re famous and sell the tickets, and we’re not and don’t, so if we want to get hired again, what they say goes, obviously 🙂

– At the other end of the spectrum, fledgling students or very young singers with particularly delicate voices may soon find themselves pushing and forcing their vocal technique, as they can’t quite believe that they will ever be heard over the full piano sound ringing in their ears.

– The pianist may need/want more practice at hearing a voice ‘through’ their own sound, and more feedback from professors/colleagues, or simply more work on refining technique, voicing, colour and soft playing.

This last point reminds me of the first of three personal ‘Eureka!’ moments on the subject of open piano lids, in which I realised that it could partly be something that’s tied to particular countries and their differing musical cultures. i) Back in 2004, I was in Berlin, observing one of many Lied classes given by Prof. Wolfram Rieger at the Hanns Eisler Hochschule. We were in a small room, with a rather bright and forthright Steinway B, and yet the lid was fully opened for every single singer/pianist duo that came for a lesson that day (as – I soon realised – was always the case). Rieger made clear that managing the instrument was the pianist’s responsibility, that we would come across some really beastly pianos out there on the recital circuit, and that a bad workman blames his tools! The pianist students were constantly getting used to dealing with a bright instrument and balancing well, while at the same time enjoying the the possibility of exploring the full range of tonal bloom and colour a fine piano is capable of. The singers, it follows, were constantly getting used to singing with the support of a full ‘halo’ of piano sound in their ears, and trusting their duo partner to handle balance effectively. An open piano was the norm. It goes without saying that I’ve never, ever, seen Wolfram Rieger perform alongside a singer with anything other than a fully opened instrument, no matter what size the voice, such is his control and finesse. ii) A few years later, during the ‘Das Lied – International Singing Competition’ in Berlin, it struck me as interesting that the default stage setting for competitors included the lid of the huge Steinway D up on full stick. There were very few balance problems with the duos I heard, and the interesting pianists were able to produce some beautifully atmospheric colours and textures. They also dared to take the piano sound down to the merest whisper, without the singer feeling naked or robbed of support. iii) A year or so after that, I gave a recital with a German singer in Switzerland. We arrived at the venue for rehearsal and discovered a nine foot long beast of a Steinway with enormous bass and middle registers. I, British to the core, made doubtful faces and timidly suggested it might be better for the piano lid to come down to half, whereupon the singer looked at me as if I’d just suggested we give the concert wearing nothing but our underpants. We kept it open, I listened like mad, and we had a fantastic time.

In the UK, on the other hand, in conservatoire Lied classes the piano is usually completely closed. As a quick fix in small teaching rooms, this certainly keeps more of the piano sound away from the singer’s ears, but the pianists surely don’t listen for balance as carefully, and certainly don’t have to work as hard to maintain real control over our instrument. In UK singing competitions, the default setting for the piano is usually half stick. With half-closed instruments, certainly as an audience member, am I alone in often feeling frustrated at the resulting ‘hardening’ of the sound, the lack of tonal bloom, and the fact that the piano isn’t actually any quieter at all? I’m reminded of power showers. Instead of a pleasant, round-edged water jet that fills more space but does so gently, we’re on the receiving end of a sharp, pin-pointed laser beam that goes straight for the point between the eyes.

In concluding then, shouldn’t we be braver when it comes to at least experimenting with opening the piano lid to its full height more often? If the pianist is armed with solid technique and control, along with some experience in the art of accompanying singers, and cares deeply enough about achieving ideal balance, if the singer is comfortable with the sensation of a rich bed of supportive sound surrounding them from above as well as below, I would argue that we all open ourselves up to a richer palette of sounds and colours with with to tell our beautiful stories.

Thanks for reading, and If I’m soon lynched by a mob of irate voice teachers, you’ll know why…

 

imageA few weeks ago, the time came for me to slide my beloved Lieder scores onto the back burner for a little while and gather some nerve for one of my rare forays into full-blown opera: a new production of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos directed by Katharina Thoma. I arrived at Glyndebourne on Easter Monday evening, those familiar stones etched in a sharp, clear evening light (see photo). Yesterday morning, clutching my pencil and Ariadne score like the new boy at school – butterflies in my belly – I finished my coffee and made my way across to our first rehearsal. We gathered in the historic Organ Room, and after brief introductions and a few hugs between old friends and colleagues, were all ready and eager to work.  Bathed in an eerie scarlet glow from the (much-needed!) heaters, we huddled our team together around the piano for the first time. Silence fell, Vladimir Jurowski looked over to me at the piano, raised the baton – along with an expectant eyebrow – and with that lit the fuse. A few seconds later, Sir Thomas Allen’s rich baritone rang out and flew to the ceiling, and my nerves couldn’t help but scarper to make way for my fast-rising excitement. What a thrilling experience! A what a score!
Watch this space for further updates as we sail towards opening night (May 18th)
In other news, I’m happy to report that the recently released CD of Schubert’s Winterreise I made with Matthew Rose for Stone Records (see previous posts) has been selected as Gramophone Magazine’s ‘Recording of the Month’ for April!
My song scores may be on the back burner, but of course time flies, so I’ll soon be snatching bits of practice between Ariadne rehearsals for an immediate return to recital work, starting the day after the opera premiere(!): Britten, Tippett and Vaughan Williams with Mark Padmore at the Sacconi Festival in Kent. Beyond that, there are some lovely engagements waiting in the diary with Sumi Jo, Markus Werba, Angelika Kirchschlager, Andrei Bondarenko, Sylvia Schwartz, Adam Plachetka, Sarah-Jane Brandon and Louise Alder.
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Is it just me, or is there something satisfying about the way in which February is both come and gone before we know it? Even if the chilly bite of January’s wind so far refuses to do the polite thing and allow the kinder weather through, the approach of March alway seems to bring for me the feeling that the music world is happily chugging forward at full steam once more, the citrus scent of the Spring and Summer Festivals in its nostrils.

surtitles pic

The first Lied in London recital, Schubert’s ‘Schwanengesang’ with Mark Padmore went down well. What a treat it was to sit at the piano in support of such a fine communicator of text and subtext! His command of German – the way the vowels make their twists and turns at just the right moment, as if from the mouth of a native singer – is astonishing. The projection of English surtitles (you can just make them out in this photo, taken at our final rehearsal) gave me a few sleepless nights as I wrestled with projector formatting and Microsoft Powerpoint on a Mac etc etc, but the venture was definitely worth it! It certainly caused plenty of lively debate and discussion following the concert. The gratifying thing was that, on the whole, and despite a few reservations from a couple of audience members that missed having entire stanzas to take in at their leisure as the songs passed by, people thought they were a good thing, and that they enhanced the experience of listening to songs in a foreign language. Mark enjoyed the fact that eyes were up and engaged with him, as opposed to buried in printed copies, and several people (myself included) were happy about the absence of rustling pages in those magical, delicate moments! Interested as to which way the overall balance of opinion might swing, we placed this sheet by the door, for people to mark accordingly as they left. surtitles sheet
It speaks for itself! In response, we’ll be aiming to provide the titles for at least one concert each year.

Following a few days of song coaching for the wonderful Jette Parker Young Artists at the Royal Opera House, it was time to pull down my trusty suitcase from the top of the wardrobe and think about heading to Berlin. The plan was to travel over and listen to Thomas Quasthoff’s ‘Das Lied’ competition in its entirety; a luxury for a song nerd like me, and a lovely way in which to hopefully discover some strong new ambassadors for the art form, as well as test my own ears against those of a prestigious jury!

A phone call from my agent soon had my suitcase back on top of the wardrobe: Andreas Haefliger, due to perform with Markus Werba at Wigmore Hall, broadcast live as BBC Radio 3’s lunchtime concert, had had to withdraw, and could I jump in? When I discovered that the programme comprised Schubert’s Harfenspieler Lieder, Wolf’s Michelangelo Lieder and Schumann’s Dichterliebe, I immediately agreed, and after hanging up went straight to my shelves to crack open those scores for some serious practice! Markus – he of seemingly endless energy – arrived in London the day before the recital, following a performance as Don Giovanni in Italy the night before. We rehearsed for three hours in the afternoon, were up for an early breakfast the following morning, did our sound check and marked through everything in the hall at 10.00am, and before we knew it, the red light was on! He sang brilliantly. It’s that beautiful, chocolate-like quality in the sound, coupled with a natural, totally engaged way with the text (and singing in his own language; my envy here knows no bounds!). The Wigmore Steinway was a darling, as always. The concert is available on BBC iPlayer until Sunday March 3rd, if you’d like to have a listen (direct link here).

Louise AlderAnd so, talking of March 3rd, to the next pile of scores and the next concert: Lied in London part II, with fast-rising star soprano Louise Alder. If you’re in London, do please come along!

Sunday, 3rd March; 6.30pm for a 7.00pm start49, Queen’s Gate Terrace, South Kensington, London SW7 5PN

No tickets sold: suggested donation £15.00 (or £5.00 for full-time students). Wine and cheese included!

Here’s the programme:

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)    Quatre Chansons de jeunesse

Pantomime; Clair de lune; Pierrot; Apparition

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)      Drei Lieder der Ophelia Op. 67

Wie erkenn ich mein Treulieb; Guten Morgen, ist’s Sankt Valentins Tag; Sie trugen ihm auf der Bahre, bloss

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)        Tre Sonetti di Petrarca S. 270

Pace non trovo; Benedetto sia ‘l giorno; L’ vidi in terra

INTERVAL

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Enfant, so j’etais roi  S. 282; Comment disaient-ils  S. 276

Henri Duparc (1848-1933)

Chanson Triste; Romance de Mignon

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)  Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon    

C; Fêtes galantes

Ralph Vaughan Williams   (1872-1958)

Orpheus with his Lute; Silent Noon

Roger Quilter  (1877-1953)  

Fair House of Joy; Love’s Philosophy

Lied in London 2013!

Mark PadmoreIt’s cold out, and you’re already fed up with your January detox, so it must be time for a cosy song recital followed by a cheeky little slab of stilton and a glass of wine or two, no? Now in their fifth year, the intimate Lied in London house concerts are nearly here again. Please join us!

Address: 49, Queen’s Gate Terrace, South Kensington, London SW7 5PN

Recital 1 – On Thursday January 31st, we are honoured to present world-class tenor and Lied artist Mark Padmore (photo by Marco Borgrevve) in a performance of Schubert’s late collection of songs, Schwanengesang. This event will be an exciting and special first for us, as the usual printed translations will be replaced by clearly projected English texts, allowing for seamless understanding of the poetry as the songs are presented. 7.00pm for 7.30pm startWine and cheese to follow. No tickets sold – suggested donation: £30.00 (full-time students, £10.00)

Recital 2 – This concert brings a fast-rising star soprano to Queen’s Gate Terrace: Louise Alder on Sunday March 3rd. Winner of the 2012 Maggie Teyte Prize for French Song, she was a big hit as Susanna in the Royal College of Music’s recent production of Le Nozze di Figaro, and was earlier this month described as ‘a radiant performer’ by the Telegraph. We’ll present songs by Debussy, Strauss, Satie, Rachmaninov and Poulenc6.30pm for 7.00pm start. (Please note earlier start time!) Wine and cheese to follow. No tickets sold – suggested donation £15.00 (full-time students, £5.00)

Winterreise coverHappy 2013!

Almost exactly a year ago, Matthew Rose (bass – and no doubt about it… What a voice!) and I teamed up with award-winning producer Sébastien Chonion and engineer Philippe Petit to spend four exhausting days in the bleak Suffolk countryside recording Schubert’s late masterpiece, Winterreise, for Stone Records. Well, it’s finally ready! (If you’d like to pop back and read my daily posts as we went along, you’ll find them here.) As well as hopefully doing Schubert justice, it comes in a lovely, shiny hardback booklet sporting Victoria Crowe’s beautifully stark painting, ‘The Shortest Day,’ and includes texts in German and English, articles by Warwick Thompson and Susan Youens, and, as computer files on the CD itself, a new, transposable, edition of the score. All for a few quid! The full release date is January 28th, but it’s already available through the Stone Records website.

In other news, and as we’re on the theme, I recently spent a day happily ensconced in the studio with soprano Ruby Hughes, for the BBC. We recorded delicious songs by Debussy, Poulenc, Wolf and Brahms, so if you’re a radio 3 listener, keep an ear out as you make your lunch or drive to the shops over the next few weeks!

It’s always good to wake up the ol’ grey cells and exercise a different part of the musical mind, and this week’s Park Lane Group Purcell Room recital with Louise Alder (soprano) did just that. The rhythmic and tonal complexities of Oliver Knussen’s Whitman Settings, along with the added pressure of a fiendishly difficult world premiere by Colin Matthews (with the great man himself sitting in the audience!) just about finished us both off, but our audience seemed very appreciative, and the reviews were good, so it was worth all the blood and sweat in the end. Future recitals with Louise (including a Lied in London concert in March – details coming soon) take us back to more familiar territory, with programmes including songs by Strauss, Rachmaninov, Quilter, Vaughan Williams, Faure, Poulenc, Duparc, Hahn and Satie. Actually, looking at the latter part of that list, I can feel a French recital recording coming on….

 

 

 

Putting aside the fact that my local supermarket started selling mince pies in Christmassy boxes before the end of September, I love Autumn, and especially in London. As the final chords of the Proms die away, the concert halls and opera houses are all springing back to life with their new seasons, and there’s something lovely about dashing around on my bike in the fresher weather, gloved and rosy-cheeked. I had a week or so of said dashing around, coaching at the RCM and for the Young Artists at the Royal Opera House, before leaving the city for the first recital of October: a concert in Norfolk’s beautiful Holkham Hall with baritone Andrei Bondarenko. A severe Autumn chill (far too fresh to be even remotely lovely…!) had already crept into the stone floors and walls, so we half froze to death, but of course had a lovely time performing together again. The cold set me up well for the next concert up in Yorkshire: a suitably bitter and snarling reading of Schumann’s Dichterliebe from baritone Benedict Nelson, as part of the Leeds Lieder Festival’s Day of Song. Having just about adjusted to the bite in the wind, the next two concerts (with Andrei once more) took me to the sun-drenched paradise that is the Italian island of Ischia. The mercury hovered around 26-27 degrees for the whole time that we were there. (I took this photo as we waited in Naples – in the lovely dusk light – for our boat.)

This flitting from ice-box to sauna set me off thinking about a performance I gave a few years back with Matthew Rose (bass); the programme was Schubert’s Winterreise, and we sang it in a Kent church on a very hot Summer’s day. About two thirds of the way through, as the songs continued to freeze over and grow numb with cold, I remember feeling very odd indeed, the blazing sunshine pouring relentlessly through the huge stained glass windows and deep into the fibres of our black clothing. It made very aware of just how cold the music was. This strange feeling of contradictory temperatures popped up again a few times during the coachings and recitals I mention above. First, working on Wolf’s balmy and empassioned Spanisches Liederbuch in a nippy, morgue-like room in the bowels of the Opera HouseNext, rehearsing Neapolitan songs with Andrei on that grey, cold, listless afternoon at Holkham Hall. Third, again with Andrei, sweating it out in the near-tropical warmth of Ischia, but singing some of Tchaikovsky’s most hopeless, Winter-filled songs. It’s difficult to pin down what such experiences may bring in terms of better understanding a song or its text. Still, surely, a heightened awareness of the potential importance physical setting can play (even if only imagined in the performers’ minds) in unlocking the emotional core of a song can’t be a bad thing? In coachings and rehearsals, I often ask singers to consider directing the song in their own mind as if it were a fully staged mini-opera; it’s amazing the difference a few notches on the imaginary thermometer can make to tonal colour, energy in the breath, and the expressive impact of consonants!

The day before we left Italy, an urgent phone call came through from the Oxford Lieder Festival to say that Robert Holl (bass) had had to drop out of a recital (with Rudolf Jansen, piano) that was due to take place there two days later, and could I help save the day? Following a frantic round of calls to several singers and agents back in London, it emerged that the wonderful baritone Roderick Williams was free, and that he was up for a seat-of-our-pants performance of Schumann’s op.39 Liederkreis and op.35 Kerner Lieder. On arriving back in the UK, I reminded my fingers of the notes, met up with Roddy on the day of the concert (at 4.30pm!) for a quick rehearsal, and before we knew it we were taking our bow in the Holywell Music Room. In the end, the freedom we felt to take musical risks – owing to the circumstances – was extraordinarily liberating, and we had a cracking time together, thanks in no small part to our brilliantly supportive and responsive audience.

Next up, I’m hoping for more sunshine as I journey down to Sydney and Melbourne for two recitals with super-soprano Sumi Jo (this is one of my favourite photos, from our first recital together in Brazil – photo by Fabio Zanzeri). Hopefully, on my return, I’ll finally be in the mood for a mince pie or two!

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