NEW! ITINÉRAIRE BAROQUE 2017: TON KOOPMAN TALKS TO COLIN CLARKE

07/08/2017

Ton Koopman Talks to Colin Clarke

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Ton Koopman performing at his 2017 Itinéraire Baroque festival

I met Ton Koopman in his lovely home near Verteillac, France. Koopman’s festival, Itinéraire Baroque, had finished the night before; arriving at the house, there was a palpably convivial atmosphere, with artists featured in the festival relaxing alongside Koopman and his friends and family. The interview itself took place in a lovely, peaceful space away from the hubbub.

I ask about the story behind this festival in the in the idyllic setting of the Dordogne and how it came about? And why this area?

“We have such beautiful places here. Twenty-one years ago we bought this house, which is actually three houses that we combined, dating back to 1500. We had the help of the architect Alain de La Ville to restore it, to keep the house in as much of its original condition as possible. We have a room to sleep which is 80 square metres, because it was originally like that. So, when we came for the first holidays and I drove around, we saw all the beautiful churches. I knew the region a little bit but I didn’t know it has so many little churches from the 12th and (at latest) 13th centuries. I found all the churches were closed, so the question was, where to find the keys? Actually, they could be found easily with a little digging. I thought, is this not the ideal place to give something back? I am living with much pleasure here, I love the surroundings and would love to do something for the region. I saw those churches and thought: what can you do? They are too small to do big concerts so I thought why not do an “Itinéraire”: that’s where the name comes from, to go from one church to another, and the musicians stay in the same place. In the beginning, we had maybe 220 people, so not so much; now we are around a thousand. So, sometimes the places are too small. For example, on the Saturday, lute and theorbo player Joachim Held was in the Château de Clauzuroux, and I said can you make it with more seats? So, this was the idea; to go to a beautiful church or space which nobody knows. Those churches were actually open until the 1960s, at which point most of the furniture was stolen. Someone made an inventory of what was there and people stole all the most important furniture, and that’s why they are closed. So, I thought, OK, let’s have the churches open again and make music there. Then it became very clear that one should finish a day like that with one important concert, so the Sunday, the second day, was added … then we thought why not start Friday, and that becomes more and more a day when there were more concerts, and then the last extension of the main festival was the Thursday evening opening concert.

“The very last extension of all was to have, in May, two days, one of children concerts where the children’s choir of the Dordogne (the Jeune Choeur de Dordogne) is singing, with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Of course, the youth choir has its own conductor, and of course I have a different idea of standard than they have, so I bring them up to another level. Most of the kids I know by name. The nice thing is that many of the kids from then became volunteers in the festival. It’s a nice community. And the festival will not become bigger because I want to have holidays as well … and I’m working quite hard on other things. Another tradition is we have meals together on Saturday and Sunday in the main festival. The owners give their gardens for nothing, and the catering is really good” [I was there, and can vouch for the excellence of both gardens and cuisine].

The last communal meal was held where the volunteers stay. The owner there is the architect who restored Koopman’s house; there is a real sense of community about the whole event.

There was quite a variety of keyboard instruments on display during the course of the festival. “All of them are mine”, Koopman explains. “At home, here and in my home in Italy, I own nine harpsichords, two organs and an original fortepiano (an original Stein – not my instrument as the piano is too modern for me).” I couldn’t resist: “wait until we get to the Stockhausen question” – I like to think he thought I was kidding.

I point out that I’m delighted that he is focusing on Telemann’s anniversary this year, the 250th anniversary of his death, and that Koopman is appearing with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, an ensemble he founded in 1979. Telemann’s output was vast: how did he manage to zoom in on the pieces he picked? And how can he raise Telemann’s status? Why is Telemann seen as “below” Handel and Bach?

“It’s the mistake of the German musicologists. Around 1900, German musicologists said ‘we cannot call everyone genius, so we have some genius composers, in Germany Schütz, Bach and Handel’ (they still took Handel as a German composer); which meant that Buxtehude and Telemann fell away. These two were “Kleinmeister”. The “Kleinmeister” got a lot of negative information, they were accused of composing too much …but the musicologists didn’t realise that Telemann could compose so much on the highest level. We never say about Bach that he composed too much but Bach has more than 1100 BWV numbers, and some of those numbers have an hour’s music or more (Goldberg VariationsClavierübungChristmas OratorioSt Matthew Passion). So, it is artificial to say that Telemann, Bach Handel, they were composers not like composers nowadays, they could work very quickly on a very high level. And maybe they could work so quickly because they were allowed to stay in their own language. Nowadays a modern composer, whenever he or she is composing an opera, or a symphony, it should be different. The judges are saying ‘It’s a bit like the other one’; before, everyone was happy with the same style, because they knew it and it was successful. For Bach, when he was young, he ‘ate’ all the influences of Albinoni, Vivaldi, Buxtehude, Graupner. That is apparently not allowed in our time. I think that’s why Handel could write an opera or an oratorio in three weeks and I think Bach wrote a cantata in two days, maybe three.”

There are many Bach cantatas that we don’t have, I point out. “There are some lost. Telemann’s cantatas are much shorter, of course. Those in Harmonisches Gottesdienst can be ten minutes, and Bach would never write that; his Cantatas are sometimes 20 minutes or more. So, we count wrongly:  if we say Telemann has 1500 cantatas, only a few are as big as the Donnerode yesterday [heard in the final concert], which is a fantastic work. And so, what we try is to have different aspects of Telemann this year. I think one time we will do the same with Vivaldi, but not have the Four Seasons; we will have other things. So, I think those people were really capable to write quickly, and well.”

And, I point out, they all borrowed a lot (I quote the Bach four-harpsichord concerto, an arrangement of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins) “Yes, a few composers said, ‘I like that very much, I take that. It is for you that I do it, you will be honoured, and you will do the same with me’. So, composers were borrowing, and for Handel there are many musicologists working on that aspect: but what Handel did with it – fantastic! When you see Telemann’s Tafelmusik No. 1, Handel had a subscription on that, and he used it. After a few bars it is completely different, and it becomes Handel. If Bach is using music by Handel or Albinoni, it is Bach. So, let’s be happy that people were so creative to do that.”

I asked Ton Koopman how did he choose which pieces to feature. How did he pick, for example, one particular Trio Sonata? “The one that was played by Inês in her concert on Saturday with the group from the Hague [Inês d’Avena of Collegium Musicum Den Haag, Trio Sonata TWV 42:a4] was the one that we were going to play, then we saw the same piece, so we found another. Some people said there was too much Telemann, but I say there can never be enough of a good composer. Just enjoy it, you might never hear it in your life again.”

Could you describe what is special about Telemann? ”I think Telemann is a cosmopolitan, he is of the World. He wrote a motet for the Concerts Spirituel in Paris, I performed it once, and he copied de Lalande. He was imitating the style for himself. The Germans knew very well what happened in Italy, in France. The French thought they were much better, the Germans of course took the best from each style. So, it is an amusing story to read that. Telemann knew the French style well, he knew the Italian style well; If you start playing or listening to Telemann, there is no doubt. I heard something blind in rehearsal and I thought that cannot be Telemann – he worked with less basso continuo, the viola is playing the bass line – so he has his own style. If you look at Vivaldi’s church music, now performed more and more (before it was only the Gloria), now people realise he was in important composer who could write well for the voice as well. As a traveller from Frankfurt-am-Main, Telemann passed through France to Italy (Frankfurt is close to the French border): he felt in France everything is fine, the houses are nice, you eat well, the wines are fine, the girls are fine, he went on to Italy and he heard Vivaldi play. He said, ‘this is ugly playing, such a horrible sound. He plays quicker than we can hear the notes.’ But the case was that the pitch in Venice is very high and the pitch in Frankfurt was French pitch, a difference of a minor third. (390 Hz vs 465/70Hz). After two weeks, Telemann falls in love with the music of Vivaldi, and orders the violin concertos. Vivaldi was a crook, but a great composer and great personality. Telemann disliked it very much, but he went back. There was something attractive. The Priest with the red hair and the girlfriends …”

I mention a sense of humour in Telemann that I don’t hear so clearly in Vivaldi or Bach. The Canary Cantata, TWV 20:41, which was performed in the opening concert on July 27: “Nobody knows who wrote the text. It is a simple story which happens at home as well. A bird is in a cage; if you forget to close the cage and the bird goes out, the cat will finally get to eat it. Telemann writes a lamento on the death of the canary. I think it is fantastic, very witty. You would not expect this from Bach, who was much more serious. They were good colleagues, so Telemann wrote, when Bach died, a poem on the death of Bach. It is touching to read that.”

I point out the balance of the programmes: the “Canary Cantata”, the cantata BWV 209, Non sa che sia dolora, the flute obbligato in the Bach cantata balancing the flute and recorder concerto, TWV 52:E1. Who did the nitty gritty of the programming? “I’m guilty of that, but I left the Saturday groups freer [L’Itinéraire itself], I like to give them a chance to show what they can do. But I keep an eye on L’Itinéraire that it is not too long as people have to travel [between venues] and it is not pleasant if people are watching their watches. In the countryside, you should cool down.

“And next year is almost done. Tomorrow we will meet more to complete it. With Robert [Robert-Nicolas Huet, Koopman’s right hand man for the festival], he is responsible for the logistics, and he does a lot more. So we are good friends, he lives here (I only sometimes live here). He takes the best care.”

Who is the featured composer for next year? “Next year there is not a real featured composer. We finish next year with Bach Suites Nos. 3 & 4 and two Brandenburgs with Concerto Amsterdam. We may not go to St Astier, of course the biggest church in the surrounding area, but some people don’t hear well.”

The Église de Saint-Astier was the venue for the closing concert. The acoustic is very interesting in that in Telemann’s Donnerode, TWV 6:3, the timpani and two bass arias worked really well, but there were times in the Bach Cantata (BWV 80) when there was lots going on and where we were sitting, in the “stalls” as it were, a lot of detail got lost. Also, the choir were opposite Koopman, but the male voices were under an overhang which acted as an acoustic trap. Did they try the different areas of the church, different setups? “At first we played on the altar, at the back, that worked although there is not too much bass, but it is possible; but the problem was that less people could hear us. Because now there are people all the way around the performers. That enables say 200 people to sit well but if you sat near the stairs you had bad luck. We got complaints from last year that the singers were not to be heard at the other side. And with trumpets there is no space. Once I tried to put the choir upstairs, where the organ is, but they don’t hear anything because the balcony was taking all the sound from downstairs. There was no way to sing in tune, there was no way to play together. Then we tried soloists there, a good idea, but the soloists had the same thing. And we cannot all fit there. So do you go back to the altar and have people around the entrance? But there is Health and Safety and that is more of an issue in France because of the attacks. The general feeling is that in Cercles [the church which was the main hub of the festival] we could have maximum 400 people, and yesterday (for the Donnerode) we had 500 people in St Astier. If we get 600 people who want to come, maybe we can do the concert twice. That’s a question of money: tomorrow we meet with the financial person and we have to calculate! Also, the acoustic with people is better – six seconds as opposed to nine of reverberation.”

I point out it’s interesting to have Telemann in the first half then Bach to finish in this final concert, even though it is a Telemann festival. “For me, Bach is Number One and always will be. I think next to him, there are only people like Josquin and Monteverdi. But in the Baroque, Bach is Number One, and it’s a Baroque festival so Bach should have the last word.”

One of the highlights was the Telemann’s Fantaisies, played on a recorder by Julien Martin with Hubert Hazelbroucq as Baroque dancer. “Telemann of course lived longer than Bach or Handel. With Bach already around 1730 suddenly the style of his sons – he said I can write in your style as well. ‘Rococo’ is going to far, but still past the Baroque into a new area and with a fantastic way of doing that.” The event was entitled La Flûte d’Harlequin, and for me it resonated across the centuries – first to Zauberflöte, thence to Stockhausen and flutist Kathinka Pasveer in Harlequin-like costume. I also refer to the Wigmore Hall concert on 26 June 2017 (the exact anniversary) when Ashley Solomon played a porcelain flute by Meissen owned by George III. A very different sound, says Koopman: “Sweet, yes?  The flutes can break of course, but for a King that’s no problem, he can order ten more. A wooden flute is made from very strong wood, they have more sound and dynamic. I have at home a collection of eighteenth-century flutes, some 36 or 37, bequeathed to me. Four flutes by Kirst, flute maker for Frederick the Great. I don’t play, so I am not dangerous. You have to be extremely careful they don’t crack.”

I move on to Koopman’s recordings of Telemann, and his performances outside of the festival. “Two years ago, I did a cycle of Lamenti for the Burgermasters of Hamburg. Like Bach and others, Telemann liked money. So he wrote Lamenti for these Burgermeisters, about 30 minutes each. We did three in an evening. Telemann remains difficult to sell, however. In a festival like this I can do it. Same with Haydn, people are afraid he will not sell. But one should take the risk. There is no plan to do Telemann now, though. The next project is Mozart’s C minor Mass, I finished it with music by Michael Haydn. Mozart heard Michael Haydn’s music. We will perform it in Europe, plus eight concerts in the US. We also did a programme around Don Quichotte with members of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra.

“Financially this is a very difficult time. The Dutch government decided that “crossover” is much better than real Baroque: so, if you play this music with a modern trumpet you get more money, for example. So before, the English were jealous of the Dutch in terms of funding; now it’s the other way around”. I say we have the same thing, though, with radio stations and compilations and how when I was working for a certain record store so many people wanted compilations but not to move to full pieces …. “and Spotify and so on … before people bought the whole St Matthew Passion, and they could listen more. Now they say I only want to hear “Erbarme dich”. They should read about it, people need to know more.” Wise words indeed.

Which leads nicely on to Koopman’s links to education. Many people performing in the festival have been pupils of Koopman’s. “They are always people I know in one way or other. Gerhard Gnann, who played portative organ at Église Saint-Pardoux de Mareuil, is a performer student of mine, a very good organist. Also, many organists are very serious people. Gnann, like me, enjoys life, and he plays like that. And sometimes there are people who I don’t know but are recommended. I knew the flute player but not the dancer, but Robert knew the dancer … next year I plan to have some Catalan music combined with folklore on the Saturday, maybe the Friday, we will see. Sometimes we can bring in a medieval aspect; sometime, perhaps, Boccherini (who died just in time for the Baroque); even Mozart or Haydn. With the Don Quichotte concert in May we played a lot of Purcell and the children loved it. In the opening concert of the festival we played only one Purcell Chaconne (the other three were done in the children’s concert, so we added the one from King Arthur).”

Is Itinéraire unique? “Not any more. Many people have taken it over the whole world. I started it but I didn’t want to think of it as my creation. It’s such a logical idea. It didn’t exist prior to this as far as I know, when we started 16 years ago here. Now I (happily) see it in many places.”

I want to ask about how Koopman approaches a piece? Autograph? First editions? “Go back to the complete recordings I did of Buxtehude. There is an edition made just before World War II only in score in old clefs; there are some editions by [Bruno] Grusnick in the Bärenreiter edition. We compared everything. We still have the photocopies and so I said why not to have them online. You can see it online at the Buxtehude Gesellschaft, which I am president of, in Lübeck. Of course, you should compare the original sources. There is a cantata, I think No. 24, where in old editions it is written “recorders, violins and continuo” plus 2/3 singers but if you look at the originals you see there are two versions. The one with recorders and cello is a different version than the one with strings and dulcian. So, you should not do it together – it is asking for trouble with intonation. And you cannot see how that is in the only version that was there. It is important to read tablatures and to see as well that the tablature in one way is extremely precise. For example over-dotting, if it is there, it is written. So, you cannot doubt. When people play Purcell, they over-dot everything, but there is no reason to do it. What we did is try to have different rhythm in the same time, which is much richer than if you do everything over-dotted. With Buxtehude it is the same, you see a tablature, it gives a very clear beginning, but not always a clear ending. Then you see for instance that in Buxtehude in the original if the violins are playing, it could be dulcian with them or it could be violone with them. But sometimes Buxtehude finishes on a note where we could have the octave lower so I say to the violone player, why not have it lower? And that worked well. You see that the singers are singing with only the organ; this you cannot see in a modern edition, you have to see the original to notice that. And you see for instance that for example in In Dulci jubilo, a very well known piece, that often the second violin plays higher than the first. We left it like that; it is nice the second going over the first, the feeling of dialogue, that the second is ‘winning’ over the first. So, things like that we corrected. Of course, we found many mistakes as the notation of the music in the seventeenth century: you write a sharp before one note, and the next note doesn’t have the sharp unless you should write it. Many people are correcting accidentals too quickly. For the harpsichord music, there is mostly only one source, but for the organ works it is a disaster. We have the early sources from the times of Buxtehude, we have those from the students of Bach, we have sources from the students of the students of Buxtehude, and we have sources from 1840. What is the truth?” (Like a Bruckner symphony, I suggest … Ton chuckles politely. I leave it there.). “So, you have to make up your mind, you have to know about notation and tradition. With Bach, you would think the students knowing Bach’s music would maybe modernise it. Agricola and Walther, students of Bach, are important to Buxtehude. For Walther, it was normal to play with hands and feet, but not so normal for Buxtehude. Many pieces by Buxtehude don’t need any pedal, or don’t need pedal in the fugues. So, I brought it back to what it was.”

This isn’t dry Historical Musicology, I comment, but there’s an element of analytical musicology involved here. It’s bringing this out into the open, making informed choices based on historical evidence but also by looking at the music itself and cross-referencing. “And also, as a player: I am careful not to make stupid decisions because I simply like something, I have too much esteem for any composer because I am not a composer. If you have no autograph, a copyist can make mistakes and changes so you have to be careful, judging it well; what’s the value of the changes? For that you need to know the music very well. I recorded four CDs of Buxtehude cantatas in the 1980’s and that was the first recording of the Membra Jesu nostri, never recorded before.

“Many composers and interpreters can hear music much better than read it. Maybe that’s not completely fair, but you have the feeling that people listen to CDs and get a good idea, and why not? But if you record something for the first time, it is a great joy and pleasure. What a beautiful piece! I am proud – I was not the first to perform it, before me, it was performed in Lübeck in 1925 and then in Vienna.

“It is good to know that the first biography of Buxtehude was written just before the First World War by a Frenchman. There were no sources, only a maximum of three cantatas had been published. He had to read from the score and he made good decisions. What he felt good, is still good. And so, I am now working with one other person to produce a new edition of this remarkable work. We know much more now, so we can use footnotes to bring it up to date. We know he was in the army in the front line in World War 1 and he had a manuscript of Buxtehude’s music with him! – happily he survived!

“As a musician, now you should always be suspicious of the edition. Musicologists make a decision on good grounds, but as a player we make different decisions. Most musicologists are reading music and playing a little on the piano. And I work with students: for the Bach Cantatas, we use a system of colours for what you find in the autograph, and what you find in parts not written by Bach, so you can see immediately. We have many discussions about why to do this or that, and it is good because it keeps you very open and awake. At the end of the day, we perform music by people much better than us; we are allowed to make a great career and earn money, with the work of somebody else. So, we should be extremely careful not to do something stupid.”

The basis, I point out, is humility. “I hate it when you see an advert for a concert and the name of the conductor is big and the composer is small. Bach should be big, and we should be small. We should be good students, we should try to understand what he wants.”

The lineage of students is really important for Koopman. And talking of futures, the final question is eventually there will be someone else in change of Itinéraire Baroque. “Right now, my aim is to do another four years, to make it 20 years for the festival, and then we will see what we do. Robert has already said that if I stop, he will stop but maybe we find someone who can take over in their way, but in a good way. But the problem is that Robert and I are the only ones not paid apart from the volunteers, so to pay a director for a festival like this is a lot of money that we could spend on the musicians. As for the volunteers, everything in France is open, so they see that I am like them, I am a volunteer and tonight [the day after the festival finished] is the volunteers’ dinner so I go there to thank them all. We volunteer because we love the music and we love to do this here. If a new director is coming, you have to pay, unless you are very lucky. So, let’s just go on …”

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NEW! ANGELA BROWNRIDGE IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BEATTIE

07/06/2017

Angela Brownridge in Conversation with Robert Beattie

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Angela Brownridge

Angela Brownridge is one of the UK’s leading concert pianists.  She has won rave reviews for her interpretations, being compared to giants of the piano such as Solomon, Cherkassky and Bolet.  She was a child prodigy giving her first public recital at the age of 6 and her first concerto performance when she was 10 years old. She has performed with many of the world’s leading conductors and orchestras and she has an impressive and varied discography which includes the complete piano works of Barber and Gershwin.  I spoke to her about her musical background and training, the pianists and artists whom she most admires, her love of jazz and improvisation, her view of piano competitions and her recording plans for the future.

Robert Beattie: I very much enjoyed your recent recital at Cadogan Hall (review).  A number of the works which you performed then feature on the Beethoven and Chopin discs you released fairly recently (review).  I understand you are planning to release a Debussy disc later this year.  Can you tell us which pieces will feature on that disc?

Angela Brownridge:  It will feature all of the Debussy Préludes and L’Isle Joyeuse.

RB:  You obviously have an affinity for Debussy’s music.  Who are your favourite interpreters?

 AB:  I love Kocsis and Livia Rev – the latter’s recordings of Debussy were released in the 1980’s but she has faded from view in recent years.  I also love Perlemuter’s performances of Debussy.

RB:  Perlemuter studied with Ravel of course and he was really immersed in early 20th Century French music.

AB:  I remember listening to him giving a recital of music by Beethoven, Schubert and Ravel.  The Ravel was absolutely wonderful – I never forgot it.  One of my teachers, Guido Agosti, also studied with Ravel.

RB:  Who were your teachers and how did they help shape and influence your development as a musician?

AB:  I started learning to play the piano from a very young age and first went on to the concert platform at the age of 6.  I had very little technical training in my early years but I studied with a teacher called Dorothy Hesse in my teens who helped build my technique.  I won a scholarship to Edinburgh University where I studied with a number of eminent professors including Hans Gál and Kenneth Leighton, the latter teaching me as part of a group of four in harmony, counterpoint and composition.  I studied the piano with Colin Kingsley and I then won a further scholarship to study with Guido Agosti in Rome.

RB:  I gather your time studying with Agosti was not entirely successful.

AB:  He was always singing whilst playing himself and when I played to shape the phrasing it became what turned out to be a very bad habit with me.  It was wonderful at times because you felt you were creating miraculous interpretations, but it was only masking the sound. You never really listened to yourself, and the vast amount of repertoire I was pushed to learn, and diligently did so, went without any technical help.  Passages which proved difficult and sometimes insurmountable because of the lack of time to conquer them were glossed over with the words “Signorina, if you think how you should play you will find a way.” The result of this was that I became more and more tense and after two years with Agosti I had become appallingly stiff in my fingers, arms and upper body, and had no idea how to put this right.

When I returned to London, to newly-married life I was fortunate to be told of Maria Curcio, who turned out to be everything that Agosti was not.  She was one of the world’s greatest teachers who knew everything about technique or the creation of sound as she called it, and was willing to share it in every detail. She saved me and it took several years of sporadic lessons since I had very little money.  I eventually won an Arts Council International piano competition in London which gave me money and a series of dates in important venues and I was able to study with Maria consistently for six months.

RB:  I understand you briefly fell out with Maria.

AB:  Maria had a tendency to want to hang on to students and things got a little awkward when I told her I wanted to stop having lessons.  She would occasionally phone me and say, “Darling, I’ve just received a massive phone bill – are you sure I can’t persuade you to come for a lesson?”  When I dug my heels in we stopped communicating for a while.  Many years later I met Maria at one of her masterclasses and she embraced me warmly, saying “Darling, you were my best pupil”. I cried all the way home in the car.

RB:  That’s quite a compliment considering she has reputed to have taught Argerich, Lupu and numerous other competition winners.

AB:  I don’t know if she formally taught Argerich and Lupu – I think they played for her and she would talk to them about the pieces they were playing.

RB:  You said you have enormous respect for Argerich.

AB:  I do – her performance of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit is amazing.  She is obviously brilliant at playing virtuoso repertoire but I also love her playing of Bach – it is so musical and spellbinding.

RB:  It would be good if we could hear her play more solo piano repertoire.  I also love her recording of Gaspard although I’m less convinced by some of the other recordings.  Some of the tempi she adopts in Schumann, for example, are too fast and the playing sometimes comes across as wayward.

AB:  I disagree.  I really love her Schumann playing.

RB:  I remember watching her play Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto in my teens and I was completely bowled over by her.  There’s no doubt she’s a terrific pianist.  Which other pianists do you admire?

AB:  I admire Thibaudet because of his versatility and his ability to play jazz for example.  I have also enjoyed some of Richard Goode’s playing.  Yuja Wang has a sensational technique but I am not always convinced by her interpretations.  I also feel she ought to engage with the audience a little more.  I also love some of the pianists from the golden age such as Gilels, Cortot and Lipatti.

RB:  Lipatti studied with Cortot of course although their style of playing is very different.  I sometimes feel Cortot receives bad press because of the number of inaccuracies which feature in his later recordings.  He was in his 70’s when he recorded some of those pieces and the level of musical insight is extraordinary, notwithstanding the errors.

AB:  That’s no excuse – there are too many inaccuracies in the later recordings although some of the earlier playing is wonderful, for example. his recording of Schumann’s Carnival.

RB:  You have gained an enviable reputation for improvisation, including some jazz improvisations.  Can you tell us a little bit about that?

AB:  I really enjoy listening to jazz and I started to play jazz professionally when I was first married.  In the 1970’s I needed to earn some money so I had a job working in the Cavendish Hotel in central London in the evenings.  People asked me to improvise on various tunes and I sometimes managed to land myself a Lobster Thermidor and a bottle of Champagne from appreciative audience members – although we had to give the Champagne back in those days!  I also played in a jazz club when I was in Rome and I’ve created improvisations on themes from various composers including Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Chopin.  I’ve never been able to improvise on music by Bach or Mozart but they are the exception rather than the rule.

RB:  You won the Arts Council International Piano Competition and a number of major scholarships.  What view do you take of piano competitions?

AB:  I have had some success in international piano competitions but I was not successful in the Leeds Piano Competition. I had been performing regularly on concert platforms at the time of the Leeds so I was rather surprised not to be allowed to enter the competition. My application was rejected and I never got to play a note in any of the rounds.  For various reasons I began to have serious reservations about competitions and decided never to enter another. I did relent when nearing thirty and when time was running out by entering and winning the Arts Council competition and one run by the BBC. I have since been on the jury of a number of international competitions and witnessed decisions having been made before the competition started. I hate the power competitions have in giving winners an instant top career, of which some are not worthy

RB:  You have an extensive discography and have recorded a number of award winning discs including recordings of piano music by Tchaikovsky and Satie and the complete piano concertos of Saint-Saëns (review) and Leighton.  You have also released a distinguished recording of Barber’s piano music and performed the complete works.  Some of these works are very demanding so it must have taken you some time to learn them?

AB:  I had to learn Barber’s complete piano works for Hyperion in six weeks. All of the works are very complex in texture but wonderfully musical and the Sonata is a triumph of huge power and brilliance, but with that agonizingly beautiful slow movement.

RB:  I have a fondness for Terence Judd’s recording of the Barber Sonata.

AB:  Terence was a student around the same time as me and he did play the Barber Sonata well.  His suicide was a tragic loss to the musical world.

RB:  You have also recorded a number of works by Kenneth Leighton who was your teacher at Edinburgh University.  Can you tell us about these works?

AB:  Kenneth taught me harmony, counterpoint and composition and he was an inspired teacher.  He was also an extremely good pianist and had an excellent understanding of the capabilities of the instrument.  He wrote a number of superb works for the piano including three sonatas, a set of Study Variations, pieces for his daughter Angela and a number of preludes.  I recorded his complete works for piano (review). His widow was there for the recording sessions which took place in the concert hall of Edinburgh University.  Kenneth had frequently played to us, his students and where I had given recitals and concerto performances, so it was very poignant and emotional, particularly at the end.  Kenneth’s works are wonderfully crafted and even the twelve-tone pieces, which I thought I would hate, have a musical flow to them. He found an individual voice where melody and passion are inextricably entangled with older forms such as counterpoint and fugue. I also recorded his First Piano Concerto which sounds a lot like Prokofiev (review).  The music is well worth investigating further.

RB:  Angela, it has been a pleasure talking to you.  May I wish you every success with the Debussy recording.    

NEW! THE GREAT CANADIAN ARTISTS: AN INTERVIEW WITH VIOLINIST JAMES EHNES

31/05/2017

James Ehnes in conversation with Geoffrey Newman

There are few more celebrated musicians in the world right now than Manitoba-born violinist James Ehnes; and few listeners have failed to succumb to his tonal luster, silken lyrical lines and insightful virtuosity. After initial training with Francis Chaplin, the violinist made his solo debut at age 13 with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, followed by studies with Sally Thomas at Meadowmount and Juilliard (1993-97). Ehnes won the Peter Mennin Prize upon his Juilliard graduation, and subsequently received the first-ever Ivan Galamian Memorial Award and an Avery Fisher Career Grant, in addition to the highest Canadian honours. A turning point in Ehnes’ recording career came in 2006-2007 when his ‘homegrown’ recording of the Barber, Korngold and Walton concertos with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (under Bramwell Tovey) won both Juno and Grammy awards. This was followed by the widely-praised Onyx recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto with Sir Andrew Davis.

James Ehnes

James Ehnes © Benjamin Ealovega

The past decade has seen a remarkable number of recordings: the Complete Works for Violin of both Bartók and Prokofiev for Chandos, and the Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian, Shostakovich and Britten concertos, plus a number of violin sonatas and the Paganini Caprices for Onyx. The Beethoven Violin Concerto with conductor Andrew Manze is forthcoming. Besides the many duo recordings with long-time partner Andrew Armstrong, new releases come from the Seattle Chamber Music Society and the Ehnes Quartet, bringing the total to almost 50 recordings as he approaches his 41st year. On the occasion of the 2017 Vancouver Symphony Spring Festival (when this interview took place), the adventures continued: Ehnes appeared as conductor and violinist in one concert and the violist in the Walton Viola Concerto in another. With such a bewildering array of talents and accomplishments, one can hardly run out of things to talk about! In May 2017, Ehnes was named the ‘Instrumentalist of the Year’ by the Royal Philharmonic Society. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 2010.

GN: Let’s start with the conducting. How did it all begin?

JE: I studied conducting in my school days at Juilliard, but my first opportunity to conduct a professional orchestra came almost by accident. About 15 years ago, I was doing a tour with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and one presenter had a very strange request for repertoire: they wanted the first half of the concert to feature the Webern string quartet pieces played by a string orchestra to go with a second half of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I was to give the concert as a play/direct, but it became abundantly clear at the first rehearsal that we would need twice the allotted time to prepare the Webern and, even then, we would need a conductor. So that was me, and that’s how I first conducted. I’ve done a couple of projects with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, and also in Australia and New Zealand. And I am opening the 2017 Vancouver Symphony Spring Festival with a full concert of English string works.

GN: What’s your approach to the works you are directing at the VSO Festival?

JE: There are a few pieces that I’m directing from the violin, but there are others that really cannot come off without formal conducting. It’s a challenge to lead Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro from the first violin in the string quartet, but I’ve done it before – so I know that it can be done. It’s not easy work and probably shouldn’t be attempted with other than a first-class ensemble: everyone must be really aware of how it all fits together. On the other hand, with something like the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia, this is not possible: one must fully conduct. I like the play/direct programs and I think they can be good for an orchestra because the musicians are forced to take on a more active role. As the rehearsal process goes along, you get to know different people’s tendencies and who the natural leaders are, and you eventually find a dynamic that works. Obviously, you must work closely with the orchestra’s concertmaster, and it is very rewarding if you have played with them before. I did the Elgar in Melbourne recently, and it was terrific to work with Dale Barltrop (the VSO’s former concertmaster) who is a strong leader: he led the violins in the orchestra while I played first violin in the quartet.

GN: Do you want to move to larger works?

JE: I would enjoy conducting pieces with winds or percussion, but I haven’t done that much of it yet. I’ve mainly concentrated on string pieces like the Tchaikovsky and Dvořák Serenades and the Tallis Fantasia. It’s probably natural for someone who doesn’t conduct that much to do pieces involving their own instrument: I know what it speaks about and what I want to achieve.

GN: So, on to the viola. You have been playing that for some time now?

JE: It actually started early in my association with Seattle Chamber Music Society. Around 1996-1997, Artistic Director Toby Sacks said she needed someone to play second viola in the Brahms F-major String Quintet. I was asked if I played the viola, to which I innocently replied, ‘I’ve never really tried: I don’t have a viola’. It turned out that I really enjoyed it; it was with a wonderful group of friends and Marcus Thompson, the first viola, was absolutely inspiring to sit beside. So I got to love playing the instrument, though I didn’t do much of it in the first few years. As my career progressed, I got more opportunities to set my own schedule – the best part of building a career! – and this gave me more chances to play. A breakthrough was in May 2004, when I played the viola in a Chandos recording of Hummel’s Potpourri as part of an all-Hummel CD. It was a really fun project, a beautiful piece, and that brought some attention to the fact that I did play the instrument. That was a long time ago, yet people invariably think of you as they have experienced you. I played viola in this past Winter Festival in Seattle, yet there were still many people who came up to me and said, ‘So you do play the viola’. They’ve never seen it, so it was new.

GN: Do you think that the viola is more difficult to play than the violin in terms of getting the sound you want?

JE: No, it’s just different and has different challenges. I admit that there’s something indulgent about playing the viola: there’s a depth and warmth of sound that surrounds you immediately. But for me the whole appeal is the repertoire: the Bartók and Walton concertos, Berlioz’s Harold in Italy and countless chamber pieces. And that music was written for the instrument – you can’t separate the music from the sound of the instrument. For Chandos, I have recorded the Bartók, the Berlioz with Sir Andrew Davis two years ago, and am recording the Walton in a few months with Ed Gardner and BBC Symphony. One thing that has always intrigued me is that some players that can switch back and forth between the violin and viola without a lot of trouble, but others can’t. It may have a lot to do with the artist’s physical build, but the fact remains that one can often think of violinists who play the viola, but not the other way round.

GN: You have now capped your long association with the Seattle Chamber Music Society by becoming its Artistic Director.

JE: Yes, everything started from when Toby Sacks first contacted me for the festival in the summer of 1995. I came for a week, and I haven’t missed a summer since. When she was thinking of winding down her time as Director, she appointed me the Associate Director, making for a very smooth transition when I took over 2011. She was a great inspiration, and regretfully died in 2013. Of course, it’s a much more challenging role: all I used to have to think about was just playing my pieces; now I have to make the big decisions. This mainly involves planning two festivals: a two-week festival in January and then a four-week summer festival in July. But there are other events throughout the year and a lot of outreach work, and we sponsor a young artist’s competition. We have a wonderful staff that oversees the outreach activities, so my main job is preparing for the two festivals. The festivals are really a full-time thing since I organize everything and also play in them. And when I’m performing in one, I’m thinking about the design of the next. Then, there’s reaching out to musicians who I’d like to come and play, designing programs, the whole thing… I think it’s a lot of fun – this organization has been a big part of my life. Thanks to many years of devoted work by Toby, we have a very accepting audience that trusts our performances to be first-class and the music to be worth hearing. It doesn’t mean that they will like every work we present, but my goal is having them always learn something from what they hear, and be glad to be familiar with it.

GN: You also formed the Ehnes Quartet in 2011, and have already made some recordings. How was the ensemble originally inspired?

JE: I have known my colleagues, violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard O’Neill and cellist Edward Arron, for a very long time: I was actually in a quartet with Edward in my Juilliard days. Just like playing the viola, my biggest motivation for the ensemble was repertoire – to be able to explore the vast quartet literature with three of my closest friends. Playing in a string quartet is actually quite a different experience than the kind of chamber music I have previously done. It seems one can put together a piano quintet or a piano trio and have a rewarding outcome even when the ensemble is formed very quickly. That’s not the case with a string quartet: there’s an incredible perfection and beauty to string quartet writing, but also an inherent awkwardness to it. Musicians always joke that putting three or five people together is just easier than the number ‘4’, and I know that one can put together a respectable performance of a Beethoven trio or the string quintet in half the time that’s needed for one of his quartets. Now why is that? A good part of it is that the voice leading is different and, of course, the tonal blend is unique. The string quartet has to be thicker than a string trio, which has to be clean and benefits from the bareness of the writing, while the string quintet has strength in numbers. The string quartet lies in the middle – a wonderfully inspiring medium but an elusive one to get right.

We’ve now recorded a variety of things: the Shostakovich 7 and 8, the Barber Quartet, and our most recent recording – combining the Sibelius and Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ – came out about a year ago. Before we put the group together, I worried that I wouldn’t ever really know the Bartók or Beethoven quartets. I knew them only as a listener, but not from the inside.

GN: I think it is extraordinary that you could bring the quartet to a recording level so quickly.

JE: Well, I suppose that nobody’s forcing us to make a recording, so we only make a recording when we feel that we have actually achieved something special. It was very gratifying to get some nice reviews, but that was probably incidental to our own awareness of musical development. Perhaps this reflects one upside to the recording business these days: we can do pieces that are important to us and that we really want to do. (The same goes for my own recordings.)  As a general rule, I think that recent recordings which are made properly and released by reputable companies are usually better reflections of what the artists care about and what they want to say. That wasn’t always the case in the era when recording was more automatic. For example, some of the early concerto releases were outright ‘duds’ because they were born to be duds: the violinist had never played the piece before, had never met the conductor, and the maestro had never directed the orchestra either.

GN: You have recorded a vast repertoire for both Chandos and Onyx.  Do you have long term contracts with both?

JE: My very first recording experience was with Telarc in 1995, and I signed a long-term exclusive contract. Unfortunately, that was right around the time when the entire business was changing, and I ended up making only that single CD. So I simply decided to not to sign any more long-term contracts. I now sign only recording-to-recording contracts: this allows me to be involved with a number of companies on the best of terms. For example, I’m doing the Walton Viola Concerto in June with Chandos, but I have other plans with Onyx. Both companies are complementary: Onyx is much more artist-driven while Chandos is more repertoire-driven. I love working with both of them, and I’ve had great experiences. For Chandos, I was able to record all of the Bartók violin pieces (four CDs) – more Bartók than most would ever think he wrote for the violin – and a complete Prokofiev too. Projects like those are dreams come true, and they could only happen with a label like Chandos that is repertoire-driven. The way they’ve documented these catalogues is such a gift to the musical community.

GN: And what about Onyx?

JE: Onyx focusses much more on the artist and on special collaborations involving more mainline repertoire. For example, my early Elgar concerto recording was a special ‘live’ collaboration with Sir Andrew Davis. I have a great relationship with Chandos, but it would be difficult to come to them and ask if I could record the Beethoven and Mendelssohn concertos, since their aim is to expand repertoire. Just like in an earlier era when everyone awaited the interpretations of the great concertos by the greatest current soloists, Onyx is interested in satisfying the music lovers who really cherish particular artists and probably wish to own most of their recordings. So I get to record the core concerto repertoire with them; Andrew Armstrong and I have done several discs of violin sonatas as well. Of course, catalogues are much heavier now, and I often read reviews of such releases that suggest, ‘Who needs this? There are 100 recordings already!’ But when a violinist makes a recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto, that’s not only for a reviewer from Gramophone to add to their collection of 100 other recordings, it’s also for those average concertgoers who say, ‘I want that because the work is great and I adore the soloist’. That’s why CD sales at concerts are so high: people want an enduring artefact of the artist they just saw. Onyx certainly issues high-class releases that will interest the discerning listener, but they want to hit the other markets strongly too.

GN: Yet you would be unhappy if all you could record was the standard repertoire and that was it?

JE: Absolutely – and it is wonderful that we can still maintain a focus on both the mainline and more obscure. I would not be happy without the sense of discovery offered by Chandos. For example, I recorded the reconstructed Janáček Violin Concerto recently. When you look at the printed editions of this long-forgotten score, they are exceptionally clean, but if you go back to the original sketches, they are almost undecipherable. To be Janáček’s copyist must have been the worst job in the world. It makes even late Beethoven scores look really clean and legible!

GN: One thing for sure is that you have made an unprecedented number of recordings over the past decade. You are already reaching 50 releases. Can you give some insight into how you have done this?

JE: True, there are years where I put out so many CDs that people on the business side of things say, ‘That’s not smart – your own releases are cannibalizing each other, and we’re not able to focus attention on each new release’. But I suppose the main factor is that I take advantage of new recording opportunities when they arise, and many can come together. Even when I recorded the Elgar concerto back in 2007 for Onyx, I was doing a run of eight performances with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis, and the recording opportunity suddenly arose. I thought, ‘This is the time that it has to happen. I’m never in my life going to have better opportunity’. It was an interesting experience: it had to be a live recording, and it was also the year that the Festival Hall was closed, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall had to be used. We drew on two of the concerts at the smaller venue, just in case extraneous noises intervened.

Another example is when Chandos got in touch, saying, ‘We’re in the middle of an ongoing Berlioz project with Andrew Davis. Do you want to do Harold in Italy?’ The project was going to happen with me or without me, and if I had said that it doesn’t work for my discography and this and that…then how many future chances would I have to record this wonderful viola piece? For me, it’s very much about seizing the opportunity when it’s there. Even my next big release – the Beethoven concerto with Andrew Manze and the Liverpool Philharmonic – just seemed to happen in the right way. I was the artist-in-residence with the Liverpool Philharmonic this past season, and the conductor has a really special relationship with the orchestra too. Circumstances made me to think ‘now’s the time to do it’. People asked me if I had consciously waited until I was 40 to record the Beethoven, but that really had nothing to do with it. It’s nice to have a certain amount of control over your career, but there’s a lot that happens when it happens.

GN: It is interesting that you mention the Elgar recording. That effort, plus the recording of the Walton, Barber and Korngold concertos with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under Bramwell Tovey – which won Grammy and Juno awards – really seemed to move your career forward.

JE: True, both recordings garnered a great deal of international attention, and it was great that Onyx perpetuated the life of the Vancouver Symphony CD. It was originally a CBC recording and was a very special Canadian collaboration for me. Winning the Grammy was so unusual and unexpected.

GN: Do you ever have the temptation to re-record some of your earlier CDs?

JE: I did record the Paganini Caprices again. They were originally done back in 1995 when I was 19. I liked that recording, but I wanted to do it differently now. I think of each recording as a unique point-in-time effort, but I have also learned from following my own favorite musicians that second attempts are not always improvements – at least from the perspective of the listener. When I re-recorded the Caprices, I definitely thought they were better than my first effort, though there are still those who might not agree. The only approach to recording is to aim for something that is closest to your ideals at the given moment. I think of my old recordings as old photographs of myself. I know who I was, I don’t dislike the pictures, but I’m not necessarily the same person now.

james-ehnes-4973---5x7

James Ehnes © Benjamin Ealovega

GN: We are all looking forward to your Beethoven recording, yet I cannot help but think what it would be like to be collaborating with such a famous, path-breaking period violinist as Andrew Manze. Did he ever gently suggest any period slides or ornaments to you?

JE: No, not at all: Manze has gone beyond his earlier specialization now, and is a very fine and perceptive conductor of later music. I love working with him. His just-released Vaughan Williams CD with the Liverpool Philharmonic is really amazing,

GN: But the reality is that you have never been attracted much to authentic style, selective vibrato and so on in performing Baroque composers, Mozart and the early romantics?

JE: The idea of authenticity can mean so many different things. It’s also a funny term: for example, do you mean authenticity for the listener or the performer? I certainly share one thing in common with every other violinist who plays Mozart, which is that none of us have ever met Mozart and none of us have a definitive idea what performances of his music sounded like. We know what’s on the page of a given edition of the score, and it all comes down to what we think that means. But then, there’s personal taste, what style you have grown up with, whether you think the music really sounds better with little or a lot of vibrato, etc. It’s undeniable that if Andrew Manze and I played the same Handel sonata, it would barely sound like the same piece. Nonetheless, I would like to think that what we’re trying to say comes from the same place since we share the fundamental ideals of musical clarity and artistic integrity. We’re both trying to express ‘authenticity of feeling’ in our own terms.

GN: You seem to have an amazing ability to pick up new repertoire quickly. Is that true?

JE: The amount of time that it takes to learn a piece is very much related to all the other activities going on at the time. At this stage of my career, there are plenty of things going on, so I am almost always in the position of playing one piece while learning another. It’s very rare that I can take a block of time and just concentrate on learning a piece. If that were possible, yes, I can learn new pieces quickly. But remember that initial learning is not fine tuning, and the latter takes time too.

GN: So how exactly do you build up a concerto to performance level?

JE: There are real stages to the learning process. At first, it’s just mechanical work, learning the notes and then getting a sense of the shape, pace and proportions of the piece. I will learn it up to 90% and, if I get the chance, it’s then best for me to put it down and let it sort of sit and settle before coming back. I think it’s critical that you know the entire orchestral score and, if you have any questions of why something is there, you must figure that out before you proceed. Even so, what’s so tricky about playing a concerto for the first time is that you simply can’t prepare for having the orchestra around you in three dimensions. That is one of the most fun parts of the experience, but it’s also the most nerve-wracking, and you have to make a lot of adjustments. For a new piece, you really have to figure out how to make things work in a very short amount of time. You may have been learning the violin part for months, but all of a sudden you have the first rehearsal for an incredibly complex concerto, and the sound is all around you, and the performance is happening the next day. This is where you really have to dig in.

GN: Many observers are amazed at how you can make the most forbidding passages (e.g. the cadenza of the Elgar concerto) come off with so much apparent ease. Are there works that you find genuinely difficult to play?

JE: That’s a perfectly-timed question. The most difficult challenge I have ever faced is the concerto by Aaron Jay Kernis, which I just premiered in Toronto a month ago and then played in Seattle as well. It’s a wonderful piece, extremely demanding but worth it. Here’s a work where there is the greatest difference between just seeing the score flat and actually hearing it in full dress.

GN: A few general questions to close. Undoubtedly, you produce a most beautiful sound from your ‘Marsick’ Strad. I have always wondered how arduous it was to find the instrument that was right for you.

JE: The search for the Marsick Strad was indeed arduous, as was the process of acquiring it for long term use. I won a competition for the use of the Canada Council Strad when I was 18, and played on that for five years – but I’ve been playing the ‘Marsick’ Strad ever since. Of course, I’ve had to play on a variety of borrowed instruments temporarily (for example, when I’m having a new fingerboard installed), and have done concerts with these. But in my professional career, I’ve just had the two main instruments, both Strads. Incidentally, my viola was made in 2013.

GN: I know artists dislike to be labeled, but a question that some colleagues have debated is whether you fit the tradition of a ‘Juilliard violinist’, citing some aspects of your technical precision and sound production. Do you ever think of yourself in those terms?

JE: Not really. Perhaps there was a time when the designation meant something, but I think one of the greatest virtues of Juilliard is that there’s so much diversity in approach. It’s funny that people who have never seen the school in action still come up with the idea that it’s sort of a factory where everyone sounds and plays the same. This cannot be true. Even the incredible school of playing connected with Ivan Galamian and the related, but still different, school of Dorothy DeLay bred considerable diversity in the great violinists produced. Possibly one can identify different ‘sounds’ with different teachers, but there are so many different instructors there. My teacher, Sally Thomas, gave an enormous amount of freedom to her students, and that alone allowed them to sound more individual than students of other instructors who demanded stricter adherence to ascribed bowing, fingerings and the like.

GN: I also understand you used to be a fine pianist when you were younger. Do you still play?

JE: I don’t perform much on the piano anymore. I haven’t really played in public for about five years, since right before my daughter was born. But I love to play the piano.

GN: A slightly sentimental question: after all your international experiences and acclaim, how special is it to come back and perform in your own country?

JE: It’s absolutely special. I have known so many people since almost my childhood, and they have always supported me to the fullest extent. I first met Maestro Bramwell Tovey when I was 11 years old.

Geoffrey Newman

I am grateful to Matthew Baird for recording assistance and Kelly Bao for the transcription.
Previously published in slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com.

NEW! PIANIST KIRILL GERSTEIN IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN

07/04/2017

Kirill Gerstein talks to Geoffrey Newman

Kirill Gerstein © Marco Borggreve

Kirill Gerstein © Marco Borggreve

Kirill Gerstein has become an increasingly esteemed visitor to North American and European concert halls, moving quite a distance from his original Gilmore Young Artist’s Award in 2002, his debut recording for Oehms Classics, and the initial intrigue over his jazz training. Gerstein was awarded the coveted Gilmore Artist Award in 2010 and subsequently produced an enviable string of CD’s for the German company Myrios, virtually all of which have received strong acclaim. These include the Brahms Viola Sonatas with Tabea Zimmermann, the 1879 version of the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto, the Liszt Sonata, and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. His recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes has just been released. Read more

NEW! BARITONE MICHAEL VOLLE IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL COOKSON

26/02/2017

Michael Volle talks to Michael Cookson

MV

Michael Volle

Michael Volle one of the leading baritones on the international stage today is a recipient of eminent German Theatre Award ‘Faust’ and in 2008 and 2014 was named ‘Singer of the Year’ by opera magazine ‘Opernwelt’. In a 2008 interview with Jim Pritchard for Seen and Heard, Volle had yet to sing Hans Sachs a role which has since established him as one of the greatest acting baritones of his generation. A pinnacle of Volle’s career was singing Sachs in Stefan Herheim’s production of Die Meistersinger at the Salzburg Festival 2013.

For this Berlin interview I caught up with Volle in 2016 in a restaurant close to Gendarmenmarkt just after he had completed the day’s rehearsals for Tosca. Volle was playing Baron Scarpia at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater with Angela Gheorghiu in the title role. A few days later I reported from the opening night of the production (review here) with Volle giving a stunning performance as Scarpia making a menacing, red wine swilling chief of police scheming, depraved and violently lustful. I have seen many renowned Scarpia’s, notably Tito Gobbi on film with Maria Callas and Ruggero Raimondi. In live performance more recently I have been captivated by the performances of Scarpia by Bryn Terfel, Erwin Schrott and Juha Uusitalo who have set the bar extremely high, but Volle is up there with the finest.

Volle first came to my attention in 2013 during a magnificent performance in the role of Guy de Monfort during a live cinema relay of Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes from the Royal Opera House, London (review here). In addition I greatly admire his CD release Michael Volle – A Portrait a recital recorded in 2012 at Munich on the BR Klassik label. The collection comprises of opera arias from Mozart, Wagner and Verdi, orchestral transcriptions of Schubert lieder, Millöcker and Lehár operetta, Verdi’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah (review here).

Volle grew up in southern Germany where he sang in his church choir and played violin in local orchestras. A pupil of Josef Metternich he went on to study with Rudolf Piernay at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London. A late starter Volle didn’t begin performing in opera until he was thirty. From 1999 to 2007 he was a member of Zürich Opera with roles that included Beckmesser (Meistersinger), Eugene Onegin, Golaud (Pelléas et Mélisande), Marcello (La bohème), Count (Le Nozze di Figaro), Barak (Die Frau ohne Schatten) and Wolfram (Tannhäuser). In 2007 Volle joined Bayerische Staatsoper singing title roles in new productions of Eugene Onegin and Wozzeck and further roles like Count (Le nozze di Figaro), Kurwenal (Tristan und Isolde), Amfortas (Parsifal), Wolfram (Tannhäuser) and Amonasro (Aida).

Volle has performed at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden including new productions of Jochanaan (Salome), Dr. Schön (Lulu) and Jack the Ripper, and Kurwenal (Tristan und Isolde). He has also performed in the Opéra National de Paris, Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona and the State Operas of Vienna, Berlin, Dresden and Hamburg, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and is a regular performer at the Salzburg Festival and in 2007 and 2008 appeared at the Bayreuth Festival as Beckmesser (Meistersinger) and will return in 2017 as Hans Sachs (Meistersinger). In 2014 Volle made his debut at Metropolitan Opera, New York as Kurwenal (Tristan und Isolde).

Michael Cookson: In your career who has been the most influential?

Michael Volle: That’s a very difficult question because there are quite a few episodes in my biography that involve influential people and they all form part of this destiny of mine. It’s not by chance I call it a destiny. It started with my parents because I grew up without knowing that I would become a singer or musician. But at home there was music all around my family. I grew up with seven brothers and sisters and four of us are artists. There is an actor, another singer and my sister is already retired as a flute player. So music to us at home was a common occurrence. The next person to influence me, I would be about eleven or so, was an amateur violin teacher, a private teacher, who gave me the joy of music and the chance of playing together with others in music. Initially I played the violin and then around twenty or so I changed to the viola. When I was 25 I came into singing. [MC: Late to start singing] Yes, it was, very late.

Almost without realising it at the time I did lessons in singing with the next important person in my development who was a chorus director with the Neue Vocalsolisten, Stuttgart, also a professor of conducting at the university and he was really the first vocal teacher for me. The next influential person was an accompanist and teacher at Stuttgart High School where I was studying. I didn’t learn singing with him but I worked with him and he was the next person who pushed me towards my goal as a singer. He once said forget the university, you must go to Josef Metternich a well known German baritone who was celebrated in Italian repertoire from La Scala to the New York Met. Then in London at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama I studied with professor of singing there Rudolf Piernay. Studying with him was the next event on my path. So you can see that I cannot mention a single person who was solely influential on my course through music.

MC: I recall tenor Piotr Beczała telling me that whilst singing in the cast at Linz at the last minute he was invited to the Zürich Opera to take over the evening’s performance from a tenor who was ill. Thanks to that he was unexpected offered a contract there. In your career did you have a similar big break?

MV: Well my career wasn’t like that. In my Fach as a baritone I am not sure we have the same opportunities for a big break. It’s something that more likely happens to tenors and sopranos. We baritones do not have the same focus as tenors and sopranos with their glamorous roles. I must say I love Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann as singers. I know them well and I have sung with them; they are extremely fine singers, the best solo artists of course in the glamorous arena. There is too the mezzo Elīna Garanča one of the superstars who is also part of this glamorous world. In former times there was Alfredo Kraus – what a man, what a singer – and Nicolai Gedda but not quite on the same level as the others. Of us baritones the only superstar in the last decades has been Plácido Domingo and for a short time Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and there is also my hero Bryn Terfel of course but we baritones don’t have the same glamour. Nine years ago in 2007 I did Beckmesser in Meistersinger at Bayreuth (review here). This was a big explosion in my career.

Before that I think with the start of my contract at Zürich Opera in 1999 I was ready for the final level in the world of opera singing. This happened step by step. I was a member of the Zürich cast for eight years up to 2007 and then I did four years at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich up to 2011. So Zürich was a very decisive time in my career because I met a lot of famous colleagues and directors and we did a number of DVDs. [MC: The right time for you!] Yes, this was the right time for me. In former times I was very anxious and I thought why do I not have this success? But you are young and want to be everywhere like all the others on the scene. There I gradually learned about being patient. The success did come, and month by month, sometimes day by day I achieved more and more success. I’m very content about that.

MC: What about success that comes early for singers?

MV: It’s not good really to have careers where success comes quickly. You see I was not ready in former times for this career because now I have no problems whatsoever with the pressure it brings. I have had sufficient time to grow up and now I know that as baritones the ice is very, very thin but we have a little more time to survive if we have problems compared to tenors and sopranos. If they crack once or twice then ‘splat’ it’s nearly impossible for them to come back without their reputations ruined. Thankfully much more patience is given to baritones as we are not in the spotlight to the same degree. I’m 56 now and although I don’t know for how long I can continue to sing I can sing as long as everything is ok with my voice.

MC: How has your voice changed over the years? Can it improve?

MV: Absolutely. You cannot stretch an individual voice to unlimited regions as there are of course limitations. You are never allowed to go to the edge of those limits. You must always stay within those limits or your voice will not survive for long. Whether the voice is improving well you will have gained much more experience. Of course there is on the one hand this process of ageing. This is a physical thing and women’s voices tend to lose their freshness sooner – the higher voices earlier than the lower ones, both female and male. Yet there are a lot of female singers who sang in a special way until their sixties and seventies and further in some cases. But you must be very careful to be convinced of yourself so the audience don’t say well she or he was wonderful, but now it’s time to stop singing. You have to decide to stop singing yourself so the audience say what a pity she or he had to stop. It’s very dangerous ground.

Now I feel much more relaxed. Of course it’s more routine, but in the best sense. It doesn’t feel like a job of work which would be bad. You must however feel a range of emotions like tension and joy and suspense all the time. My wife Gabriela Scherer who is 21 years younger than me has restarted her career as a mezzo-soprano. Last Sunday she had her opening as Ariadne in a new production at Lübeck. She’s not a beginner but after having two children and a career break she has restarted. This is very interesting for me too because I realise fifteen years ago I was at that same level of self-discovery again and presenting myself and fighting against challenges that exist. Now my fire is very strong but if there is something around which is not good I now have more patience and I’m more relaxed. I can’t tell you how satisfying that is for me. It’s all a question of experience.

MC: How do you find learning new roles?

MV: Ah, this is also a question of experience. Because you are used to learning people will say I can’t imagine how you remember all that. But as singers you see it’s our job, our work. Other people work twenty years at a job doing something that I can’t imagine being able to do. [MC: So it’s just part of the job] Yes, it is. I started my first contract in 1990 and now I have been in the business twenty-six years. There are not so many roles that are new to me now. There are quite a few in Italian opera but in the German and French mainstream roles there is not so much for me anymore. I hope there will be an Iago, a Rigoletto, a Germont in Italian opera and some Puccini maybe, let’s see. But the German roles that I’ve got require only renewing and redoing so they are not so much work anymore.

MC: I get the impression that if you didn’t do any new roles you would be happy with those you have already done?

MV: Absolutely. I don’t know but maybe in ten years time it might be different. I was asked by casting director Peter Katona at Covent Garden to do Enescu’s Oedipe but sadly I wasn’t free. My friend José van Dam said to me years ago if I had to do only one opera then it should be Oedipe. It’s an absolutely great work and a new production was given at Covent Garden in the 2015/16 season. It’s not a mainstream work but it’s wonderful music. As I said before, I started when 25 in 1985 and I have done a lot of contemporary works as well as traditional opera in my twenty-six-year career, works that I have only ever sung once. Of course that happens and it’s all part of your general education and it adds to your experience. But over the last few years I’ve reached the level where I am in a position to choose what roles I want to sing. And I am very grateful and happy about that mainly because this allows me more time to spend with my family.

MC: We all hear about opera directors, who are not necessarily from an opera background, presenting often shocking and sometimes wacky productions. Do you ever get asked to do things that you don’t really want to do?

MV: I love to sing. That is the finest thing but I’m very happy that we live in a time where for decades the playing and the acting are important. Because if it wasn’t important then we wouldn’t need to do six weeks stage rehearsal. I like to work and to be experimental. You have only two possibilities when you start a production. First you stay with the production and you must stay with it to the end. Or second which happened to me ten years ago at Bayreuth in Meistersinger where the tenor as Stolzing said on the second day to the director “I can’t do that. I must leave”. This was good both for him and the production. [MC: Why do you say that?] Because he couldn’t stand aspects of the production so it was better that he went.

Another case was at Munich in Rigoletto with a Planet of the Apes theme or something, which was a curious idea and maybe not too good. The tenor left the production just four days before the opening and this is not correct especially as it works against his colleagues. But that doesn’t mean I have to accept everything. A good director knows this and has to fulfil his ideas but with the material he has with us. So if something doesn’t work for me I must say something to the director and tell him or her that we have to change, because with this I am not as good as I possibly could be. If I have to do something that I am really fighting against inside then this has a direct influence on my level of performance, and normally this approach works absolutely and you can handle that.

MC: Do you often find yourself working with the same stage directors on a regular basis?

MV: There are directors that I love to work with again and again and they have different attributes and ideas. For example there is Christof Loy, Claus Guth, Stefan Herheim, Harry Kupfer and some of those I have worked with several times. It hasn’t always been at the same high level but was always very interesting and rewarding work where you do not come home at the end of the day rehearsing saying to yourself let’s end it subito [immediately]. But it can be a totally different encounter as my wife has discovered in her career. I must say how lucky I have been with my experiences and there have been only two or three names on my black list or ‘rat list’.

Other aspects are the reviews and the press coverage that you read which are sometimes totally different to the audience reaction. I had that happen in Salzburg last summer with a half new Così fan tutte directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf. It was a good work but the press were so upset and nearly every one of them said you can’t do this, but it was a huge success with audiences and we felt wonderful. The same with music director Ottavio Dantone, who comes from a baroque music background – a wonderful, stimulating conductor – and the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra played with such freshness it was marvellous. One Vienna critic said “it is impossible to do Mozart like that today” and another from the Vienna press said “This is the only way to do Mozart today” so it is a personal viewpoint. For me I realise that it is much more important what the audience think and how it reacts to the work.

MC: Do you have a particular stage director that you enjoy working with?

MV: I have been lucky to do three productions with Norwegian opera director Stefan Herheim. I did a celebrated Meistersinger in 2013 at the Salzburg Festival. In autumn 2013 at the Royal Opera House, London we did a new production of Les vêpres siciliennes (The Sicilian Vespers) which will be redone next autumn and I’m looking forw ard to this. [MC: Yes, it was magnificent. I reviewed the DVD/Blu-ray of this production (review here)].  It is an incredibly good production.

Michael Volle (centre) as Guy de Montfort, Les Vepres Siciliennes 2016, photo courtesy Bill Cooper - Royal Opera House

Michael Volle (centre) as Guy de Montfort in Les vêpres siciliennes (c) Bill Cooper

Last summer I was in Bregenz for my first Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) and I played the four villains. I must admit that I didn’t understand every one of Herheim’s schemes because he comes up with numerous fertile ideas. A lot of people, including my wife, thought it was the best production she had ever seen. A big part of Herheim’s success is that he doesn’t just think of the theatrical aspects he loves the music. You see he is so musical because he grew up as the son of an opera cellist and he plays the cello himself so he knows the opera world, which is the ideal platform for an opera director. What I like is that everything he does serves the music so well, he is never against the music. He is so full of productive ideas about images and lighting etc. Some people are afraid to work with him because his agendas are so big and demanding, especially for the technical department of the house. But the results are almost always spectacular. For example, recently one of the greatest things was in Amsterdam with Mariss Jansons’s conducting Herheim’s new Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades) by Tchaikovsky. People like to work closely with him because he is extremely inspirational.

At the ROH I did the Montfort in Les vêpres siciliennes with Antonio Pappano, who is one of the greatest music directors, also Jack the Ripper in Lulu and Kurwenal in Tristan there in London with Tony who is so enthusiastic and attends right from the first day. Tony knows of course the stage director in Lulu and Tristan who is Christof Loy such a wonderful stage director. Tony Pappano is not only responsible for the music; he has a close collaboration with the stage director. He knows a lot about singing and he is truly with the process. These are the best conditions to have and to work with. This is the ideal way.

MC: What about other conductors you admire?

MV: As I mentioned before there are big differences. The most important aspect is the context of the relationship with the conductor. You don’t have to be best friends, that wouldn’t be right. But you must make a connection in the short term. You must be very close so you can trust each other explicitly. Certainly the conductor is the boss in the relationship. Of course no performance is like another, this would be boring even if it is performing difficult contemporary music; like say in Wozzeck or something because it not as simple as one, two, three, it’s more with emotion or with breathing. This is a thing not every conductor can do, being able to breathe with the singers. Also every orchestral player must also be able to breathe with the conductor too. It is the same with the voice which must feel the conductor and then you can rely on him. If you can’t rely on the partnership then you cannot do the best possible in your job. This makes all the difference.

Even if you have sung a role 20 or even 50 times and suddenly somebody comes and brings new aspects to the role or new ideas, that can make you very happy because it’s never dead, it’s very invigorating. Also your own way of singing changes over the years. In five years – maybe even one year – I will sing my Scarpia very differently. Working with others fluently as a team is an ideal situation and makes me happy. If not then it’s a one-way street and I’m not interested in that at all.

With regard to individual conductors I love to perform with Franz Welser-Möst. I had eight years working with him at Zürich Opera and I had incredible music experiences with him working with different types of music. I remember exactly a time at the beginning of 2010 I did Die Frau ohne Schatten with him at Zürich and I did Tannhäuser in Munich with somebody else, no names. One day in Munich it was terrible as I had a morning stage rehearsal with the orchestra for Tannhäuser and I had to catch a plane to Zürich in the evening. In the morning the conductor in Munich didn’t please me at all conducting this incredible, highly emotional music of Wagner that was not really together. Then by contrast in the evening in Zürich with Welser-Möst I felt at that moment that I didn’t need the music if I watch him. The way Welser-Möst conducts the music, it’s flowing, it’s expressive and it’s quite wonderful. It was a real difference how I felt about the two conductors.

MC: What do you think about the perceived lack of charisma that is often mentioned about Welser-Möst?

MV: In opera we don’t talk about charisma and a person’s character in our daily business. It’s only my opinion because it is not tangible. You can judge someone technically if a high ‘C’ is wrong or the coloratura wasn’t good, but the rest is indefinable. If you watch clips of Furtwängler or Solti conducting for example they conducted oddly but there must have been something they transmitted that captivated audiences.

Another great conductor is Jimmy [James] Levine. I was so lucky to meet Jimmy in Munich when he was chief conductor of the Münchner Philharmoniker and we collaborated on a concert version of Beethoven’s Fidelio. I did a chamber recital of Schoenberg with Jimmy on piano which was excellent and I remember doing a Brahms Requiem with him in Boston some years ago. Then he became ill and I was worried that I wouldn’t have the opportunity of working with him on the opera stage of the Met. Then some eighteen months ago I was asked to do a revival of Meistersinger at the Met the final time of the staging by Otto Schenk (review here). Unfortunately I could only do two performances. One of them was streamed live to cinemas I think it was at 11am in New York and 5pm in Europe. I mention the time because Jimmy is very ill. For the previous evening he was extremely exhausted after a long performance of around five and a half hours and he did it pretty well too. The next day when we started at 11am he sat there in his wheelchair that had been pushed to the podium in the orchestra pit. He turned around to acknowledge the audience who applauded him fervently. At the end of the performance I nearly cried when I saw him from the stage when he congratulated me from the pit. He was so with the singers and a lot of people say he is one of the finest opera conductors we have had. Of course now he has stopped [as the Met’s music director], but it was incredible being together with a conductor who has done the work some sixty to eighty times. In his hands, Meistersinger felt like something new. You feel that the conductor is getting some inspiration from you too. It’s give and take and the results make you very, very happy.

Michael Volle (Hans Sachs) & Annette Dasch (Eva) in Meistersinger 2015, photo courtesy Ken Howard - Metropolitan Opera

Michael Volle (Hans Sachs) & Annette Dasch (Eva) in DieMeistersinger (c) Ken Howard

MC: With this production of Tosca you are rehearsing, a revival, I’ve noted that leading performers arrive on different days?

MV: During a production you have to know precisely about all the different elements because you haven’t much time to create a lot. Because we do not work again with the stage director we work with his assistant. The stage director has told us in a few words the main philosophy the production. Then the rest is our turn and we bring it in. It’s not the best approach. It’s all about timing. A performer arriving at a later date is not the best thing, but there are no hard and fast rules for everything. Sometimes you may need six weeks of rehearsal on the other hand two weeks is enough and six will be too long. [MC: So you have to work flexibly?] This particular production of Tosca is not new; it’s from 2014. I have done it before. I’ve done it in Vienna and I’ve done it at Deutsche Oper Berlin. I have of course my own ideas of the role and the character and let’s see what input comes from my colleagues.

MC: Some people might be surprised by the collaborative nature of opera production and may think the stage director is in attendance right through to the opening night.

MV: No the director won’t be there. Sometimes at festivals that might happen like that even in the following year. For example in I will be in Bayreuth next summer, and the year after that, for two seasons as Hans Sachs in a new Meistersinger. Barrie Kosky from the Komische Oper, Berlin is the stage director. There the director will again be in attendance the following year, but for less time. For the first production in 2017 there will be six weeks of rehearsals and the following year maybe two to three weeks. With Philippe Jordan conducting I’m sure we will all have a great time. I’m looking forward to it and the crew is wonderful there too.

MC: How do you handle on stage problems with other cast members?

MV: That’s difficult to answer. You see I’m very addicted to human harmony. I was brought up and educated like that and it is not the worst thing to be. If I do an opera production that I love then I must have harmonious conditions around me. If someone jeopardises that I will be very upset because nobody has the right to introduce a bad atmosphere into a production. There are of course some colleagues for whom it is more important to show off how beautiful and talented they are than to be part of a team. The really big performers in opera never act like that. I remember when I worked with bass-baritone José van Dam for the first time. For example suddenly he was there on stage and I didn’t realise it, such was his lack of arrogance. For forty years or so José was one of the greatest singers in the world.

Plácido Domingo too, I met him once in Salzburg and he came over and said meekly “Hello I’m Plácido”. A friend from Zürich once told me there was a Gala performance with Plácido who came one hour before the performance, had a short talk with some advisors on stage and then said to this colleague on stage “Martin please don’t be angry with me if I might mix it up and come from the left side instead of the right in this scene”. Martin was speechless that someone – who is on a different singing universe – consulted him in such a collegial way. But this is the greatness of the man. [MC: Such humility!] Of course! He is so open to colleagues on the lower ladder of hierarchy. This to me is the star quality of the man. Not like the men and women that burst in with loud voices saying in effect “look at me, look at me!”

MC: Can you think of operas that are neglected and deserve to be staged more often?

MV: Well the first that springs to mind is Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy an opera I love so much because it’s such an individual piece. There is a special atmosphere in the work. It’s very difficult to play and to sing my role Golaud,, but I think that it’s not such a big hit for the audience because of its libretto and subdued action, However the atmosphere it generates is really special. I do not sing Berg’s Lulu anymore of which I have done five productions. It’s hard work for me, but I do love to perform Wozzeck; I could perform it every day if I had the chance. It’s so-called ‘modern music’ and the story is pretty cruel; brutal even. You see I mention this opera from the viewpoint of the singer although it’s only a third or a quarter of what I sing in my most significant opera Meistersinger as Hans Sachs. Wozzeck is for me so exhausting every time I perform it, yet I feel so content and so exhausted afterwards, just like I would after a Meistersinger which takes about three or four times as long to perform. But Wozzeck is an incredible work which I have sung three or four times but with only one new production. It’s really amazing.

There are a lot of operas that deserve to be produced more often and it’s a shame that they aren’t. There was a time when conductor Gerd Albrecht was especially known for championing the music of Jewish composers Zemlinsky, Schrecker, Korngold and the music of Krenek too. Although I find the librettos not too bad the music can be indifferent and not as clear as you find in Italian opera Verdi and Puccini, and even in Wagner and Strauss. I believe one must be entertained in a way which is not over complex. If you are forced to think about something too much people will not have much patience with that.

MC: What would you say are the most technically difficult roles that you play?

MV: My Wagner roles are really very hard to perform. Hans Sachs is the hardest work I have to perform for my Fach. It is the longest, very challenging and testing to my stamina. With two intervals it takes around five and a half hours. It is so demanding for example in the third act you don’t stop singing. It’s really like an endurance sport as it feels so physically demanding. You can’t do this at the start of your career. You see experience, stamina and also good technique is essential to success. You have to be an economical singer putting your reserves of energy in the right places and save energy here and there because it increases in arduousness.  Before the end of this mammoth five and half hours there are two extremely long monologues and if you survive those then everything is fine. The Wozzeck too is also a very demanding role – both mentally and physically – because you have to sing this modern music as beautifully as possible. But it is a much more expressive role as you have to sing, shout and talk and all his has to be controlled otherwise it will crack your voice. Something also very difficult is to sing is a three or four hour long Baroque opera. Yes, this is also highly demanding.

MC: I don’t associate you as a singer of Baroque music. Is that fair?

MV: Well I don’t get asked any more to sing Baroque opera. Normally I’m not asked for Mozart either. Mozart is for me my music God, as is J.S. Bach. I find it hard to understand how people can write music as incredible as that. It’s medicine for the voice. But some people say that if you excel in the so called heavy roles like Verdi, Puccini, Wagner you cannot any longer sing Mozart: Oh bah! I say. This is not meant arrogantly, you see in my career I am more and more able to handle my voice in a good way, in a flexible way. I did Mozart’s Così fan tutte at Salzburg this summer and this later year I will do a recording with a period instrument orchestra of solo Bach cantatas and will do concerts with them. Although it is not true, unfortunately some people in decisive positions say you cannot go from heavy roles back to doing Mozart. So you need someone who trusts you.

For me as a German it’s hard to understand what I got told in past years. I was in a very famous opera house doing The Merry Widow and I said I wanted to do Pique Dame or Eugene Onegin because I especially love them and the Russian conductor there told me no, we have of course the Russian singers for those. Ok, then I asked to do a Marcello from La bohème or something. No, we hire Italians for that. Ok then, I asked please give me Mozart and I am told oh no, we hire the English or American colleagues who have the more neutral voices. Why? But this was just one conductor.

I am very lucky that Peter Katona, casting director at the ROH admires me and trusts me to sing. I did my first Scarpia at the ROH as a German singer and this is very unusual. Now more and more I am getting Italian roles. In two years I will sing Scarpia at the Met, I will sing Iago at the Met and other roles there because someone trusts me and thinks I will succeed there. It’s a bloody business! So now it is easier for me to do Mozart because it’s not much work vocally, it’s written very easy for me, now that I have done Don Alfonso in Così, I don’t have to worry about my voice. It was a lot of work the whole evening and a lot of action involved but it went very well. The audience enjoyed it and I received pretty good reviews. I truly hope some casting people will realise that I just need to do Don Giovanni and need to do the Count in Figaro. Let’s see what happens. Let’s see!

MC: Has anything amusing happened to you on stage?

MV: Ha, ha, oh yes. I remember very precisely a couple of amusing incidents in my first year in the opera house. This was in Mannheim, south of Frankfurt. I sang some one hundred and thirty performances in around twenty different operas in my first season. It was perfect for me being on stage every second or third day as it gave me a lot of security and was great experience. For example, you play Figaro for two weeks then six weeks break and so on then you and your colleagues get used to that. In the big ensemble of The Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai – such incredible music and very funny libretto – there was a colleague who was around thirty years older than me, he had a good evening and was in a joking mood, then suddenly with a pair of scissors he cut the braces on the back of the soloist who was performing the big aria. In another incident he was holding a watering can for the garden flowers and then out of the blue he watered the head of another soloist. Me, as a beginner, I just stood there and I couldn’t sing in the sextet for laughing, and the conductor went mad because everyone on stage was laughing so much.

My wife played a servant once in Elektra and the curtain should have risen twenty centimetres so that all the servants were required to put their heads underneath and sing but the curtain didn’t move, not a single millimetre. The conductor was going crazy as he and the audience could not hear a thing. My worst case was as Amfortas in Parsifal. It was my first entrance and I was to be carried in on a stretcher from the back of the stage – all timed to music – and then I was supposed to have been laid down at the front of the stage, in front of the conductor. Backstage the stage manager normally calls “Amfortas on stage please” and I also usually listen to the music. In this case I should have come on much, much earlier but that day for some reason I didn’t do it and I wasn’t called. So I listened for my music but when I heard it I knew it was much too late to go all the way to the back. They had already begun to enter the stage carrying the empty stretcher – but without me on it! A colleague spontaneously sang my first three words for me. Somehow I walked across the stage towards the stretcher and lay down on it, sang the rest of my aria. Best of all the conductor hadn’t noticed what had happened. Thankfully I didn’t get boos from the audience. This is the funny side of our bloody business.

MC: Do you read your reviews?

MV: Yes, I do. I must admit I’m very pleased if I receive a good review. This summer as Don Alfonso in Così at Salzburg I read some criticism which was disappointing as I was very content with the production and everything else. Tony Pappano tells me that he has stopped reading reviews. There are critics who are frustrated individuals, I know them, who wanted to be great artists, instrumentalists or singers, but they have the ability to write so they get a job in a newspaper then they have the power which enables them to get their revenge. I reckon that’s how it was some hundred or two hundred years ago and I think little has changed.

I remember my first appearance at a higher-level opera house. I was in Paris doing a small part in Lohengrin and there was a famous British soprano who played Ortrud. At the end she was so massively booed by the large audience. I was shocked standing so close to this storm of boos. She stood there stoically and took those boos and I thought she must die hearing all this. On the outside she seemed to take it all well, but on the inside, well it must have been terrible for her. In today’s times, now immediately after the last note of an opera you can read on the internet terrible criticism, personal criticism written there from a laptop or smart phone. But these are our times!

Michael Cookson

NEW! PIANIST ALEXANDER KARPEYEV IN CONVERSATION WITH ROBERT BEATTIE

23/02/2017

Alexander Karpeyev in Conversation with Robert Beattie

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Alexander Karpeyev (c) Julian Dyson

Alexander Karpeyev has been a major prizewinner in a number of international piano competitions including first prize at the 2007 Dudley International Piano Competition.  He studied at the Moscow Conservatory and with Joan Havill at the Guildhall School of Music in London.  He is a noted exponent of Medtner’s music and recently defended his doctoral thesis on the performance practice of the music of Medtner at City University of London.  Last year he organised the first International Medtner Festival in the UK and he is the curator of the Pushkin House Music Salon in Bloomsbury Square which showcases Russian chamber music.  He recently gave a superb recital in Kings Place which focused on Russian music composed immediately prior to the Revolution of 1917 (review).

I asked him what specifically attracts him to Medtner’s music.  I also spoke to him about his recent concert at Kings Place, his work as the curator of the Pushkin House Music Salon and as Artistic Director of the International Medtner Festival, and his future plans.

Robert Beattie:  Many congratulations on your recent recital at Kings Place.  I particularly enjoyed your performance of Medtner’s Sonate-Ballade.  It is a great tragedy that Medtner’s music does not feature more often on concert programmes.  What draws you to this composer and who are your favourite interpreters of his music?

Alexander Karpeyev: Medtner was one of the last defenders of the Romantic musical language.  His music is special and it can be something of an acquired taste.  He was held in very high regard by his contemporaries.  Rachmaninov said to him, “You are, in my opinion, the greatest composer of our time” while Glazunov called him the, “firm defender of the sacred laws of eternal art”.  He was a brilliant pianist himself and knew how to exploit the capabilities of the piano. He was also half- German so in a sense he brings together the German and Russian musical traditions.  He only recorded two of his own piano sonatas – the Sonate-Ballade and the Sonata Tragica – so these were clearly important works for him and that is why I wanted the Sonate-Ballade to form part of my recital.

Rachmaninov was one of the earliest advocates of his music and the English pianist Edna Iles also championed his music throughout the 20th Century.  Iles had the advantage of having studied with the composer for twenty years and she specifically concentrated on how to play a number of the tales, sonatas and songs as well as the three concertos.  Gilels helped to revive Medtner’s music in the 1950’s and he recorded the G minor Sonata.  With regard to Medtner advocates nowadays, I have enjoyed listening to Berezovsky, Milne and Hamelin.

RB:  Who have been the major influences on you as a musician?

AK: All of my teachers, including Alexander Myndoyants and Vera Gornostayeva at the Moscow Conservatory and Joan Havill at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama have helped shape my musical personality.  Nikolai Lugansky has also been an extremely helpful informal tutor and I have learned a lot through talking to him about music.  I also listen to a vast amount of recorded music including opera, symphonic and chamber music and this helps to inform how I approach and play particular pieces.

RB:  Your recital at Kings Place focused on music written immediately prior to the Russian Revolution in 1917.  Why did you decide to focus on music written in this period?

 AK:  I always feel there is a sense of something beautiful dying in 1917 with the Romanov family.  All of the composers who featured in my recital left Russia after the Revolution.  Rachmaninov did not support Bolshevism and his family estate, Ivanovka, was seized by the Leninist authorities and his house was burned down.  He never forgave this and he and his family left Russia for Scandinavia at the end of 1917.  Prokofiev also left Russia in 1918 for the US and then Europe and he only returned to Russia in 1936.  I also wanted to include Grechaninov in my recital as he was an important composer of sacred music.  He and Medtner both left Russia a little bit later and both settled in Paris in 1925.  Stravinsky was travelling around quite a bit both before and after the Revolution but I felt it was important to include him in the recital.  The period from the middle of the 19th Century to 1917 represents a Golden Age in Russian music and literature and the compositions written in the years leading up to 1917 are a final blossoming of the music written during that very important period.

RB:  You are the curator of the Pushkin House Music Salon in Bloomsbury.  Can you tell us about the work of Pushkin House and which concerts will be featuring in the music salon?

AK:  Pushkin House is a charity which supports and promotes Russian culture in London and beyond.  We have begun to run a series of monthly chamber music concerts in the music salon which are designed to showcase Russian chamber music.     Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva will be playing piano duos by Stravinsky in April, Igor Golovatenko and I will be performing songs by Golovanov in June and the Navarra Quartet will be performing works by Beethoven and Shostakovich in July.  Dinara Klinton will also be giving a recital next month featuring Liszt’s Transcendental Studies and the International Medtner Society will be having its Inaugural concert at Pushkin House in May.

RB:  I saw Dinara Klinton performing the Liszt Transcendental Studies very recently and she was terrific and I also saw Golovatenko give a superb performance in Donizetti’s Poliuto at Glyndebourne.  You are also the Artistic Director of the Medtner Festival – can you tell us a little bit about that?

AK:  We set up the Medtner Festival in 2014 and it has now become a regular festival.  It features a series of talks and concerts all dedicated to the life and work of Medtner.  Dinara and Igor are both personal friends and I have known Igor for many years as we were both students at the Moscow Conservatory.  He is a very accomplished conductor and cellist as well as being a world class baritone.

RB:  Do you have any projects in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?

AK:  I will be performing in a series of recitals across Canada and France in the comings weeks and months.  Soprano, Sofia Fomina, and I are also planning to do a recording of Medtner songs for Hyperion.  I have my ongoing work organising concerts for the Pushkin House Music Salon and I am planning to organise another Medtner Festival next year.  I am also planning to turn my dissertation on Medtner into a book.

RB:  It sounds like you will have your hands full over the coming months.  Thank you very much for talking to us.              

NEW! THE SOPRANO ELISABETH MEISTER: FIGHTING BACK FROM WHAT LIFE THROWS AT YOU AND INSPIRING OTHERS

03/01/2017

Fighting Back From What Life Throws At You And Inspiring Others: Jim Pritchard Interviews The Soprano Elisabeth Meister

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Elisabeth Meister

One of the highlights of the recent concert performance of Die Walküre for the Saffron Opera Group was Elisabeth Meister’s wonderful Sieglinde. Peter Reed in Opera magazine described how ‘gathering depth and brilliance’ she ‘built towards an orchestra-surfing “O hehrstes Wunder!” of pulverizing grandeur’. On this site I said she just ‘got better and better’ and how ‘Meister is an intelligent singer who knows how to project her voice, and she achieved extraordinary heights of passion in Act III without pushing the voice beyond its limits.’ (For full review click here.) I also mentioned how Elisabeth was – with this performance – returning to singing after something of a hiatus to her singing career, which was set to have a meteoric rise after leaving the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. Elisabeth has a remarkable – and inspirational – story to tell which involves losing and regaining her singing voice. Read more

NEW! MONICA HUGGETT IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN

17/10/2016

MONICA HUGGETT IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN

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Monica Huggett © Hiroshi Iwaya

If one wanted a broad picture of the evolution of historical performance, with intriguing little nuances revealed along the way, there would be few better musicians to talk to than Monica Huggett. She has been an unremitting force for four decades, well known from her early association with the Academy of Ancient Music and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, and these days as Artistic Director of the Portland and Irish Baroque Orchestras, and Adviser to the Juilliard Historical Program. This interview traces the violinist’s experiences from the time when the authentic movement was just gathering momentum. Most important are her insights about how historical performance has developed out of a number of contrasting approaches that have cross-fertilized each other. Equally interesting are her ideas on where historical scholarship and performance practice still have room to grow, what she wants to achieve from an orchestra in interpretation, and how she has maintained an undiminished inspiration all this time. The interview took place in conjunction with the Vancouver Bach Festival in August 2016, where Monica Huggett directed the Pacific Baroque Orchestra in the Complete Bach Orchestral Suites (review).    Read more

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