Talking Heads: Grasscut

Interview with Alec Snook

Andrew Phillips and Marcus O’Dair, known to us as Grasscut (above), make a welcome return with their fourth album Overwinter. It is an atmospheric, weather-beaten score with imaginative use of the acoustic instrumentation, blending nicely with the pair’s electronic know-how. In this interview the duo talk about their music-making to date, the writing dynamic between the two, and what they would change about the music industry if they could…

This is the first new Grasscut material for nearly 6 years; tell us what you’ve been up to…

Andrew Phillips I’ve been working on a lot of film and tv scores, won an Emmy and got nominated for a BAFTA, but have also been working on Grasscut material the whole time! (hangs head in shame) It’s just taken a long time to get the balance right! A few times I went back and started again because we wanted to develop and change as we have with every album.
Marcus O’Dair I’ve been working on writing projects, including spending a summer as writer in residence in the North Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I’m currently doing something for the European Jazz Network. I’ve also been doing academic projects, including a stint as researcher in residence at Digital Catapult in London, during which I wrote a book, and a project with British Council Mexico.

How did you guys meet and start making music together?

AP We met through a mutual friend in another band in the 00s. Marcus was a music broadcaster and journalist as well as a musician, and was full of interesting thoughts and takes on lots of contemporary music. While we were touring, I started making what turned out to be early Grasscut tracks on my laptop on the tour bus and he was really into it. I think I probably would have poked something out on a very small scale, but Marcus got Ninja Tune to hear it, brought a lot of ambition to the project, and here we are.

Do you employ largely the same techniques used while composing/scoring for TV/film when writing for Grasscut, or do you deliberately change up the process?

AP It’s similar musically really, but for the fact that Grasscut songs often start in my head as lyrics or a phrase. But like a film score, the songs I write for Grasscut are always serving a bigger idea than just themselves: these albums are not just a collection of songs over a period. Also, and I shouldn’t admit this, but sometimes I’ll be writing something for a score and save it for Grasscut, because of its tone, or because it won’t leave me alone.

What does a Grasscut writing session look like, between the two of you?

AP Our collaboration is unusual in the sense that we’ve never written music together – the music lyrics and production are my job. Overwinter is a classic example of how Marcus and I work together: I’d started Return of the Sun and a couple of other tunes in 2017; then Marcus brought Grasscut an arts commission to respond to the Wessex Film and sound Archive in Winchester, and we both worked with a film director colleague of mine there. The resulting film had a profound effect on what then became Overwinter – and there is a track called The Archive on the album as a result. So different elements feed back into the writing process. I think it takes a very special kind of creative trust to work like this, and I really appreciate it.

How has the COVID situation affected this process? Have there been any positives, musically, to come out of the enforced restrictions?

AP I’ve worked remotely with a lot of musicians during Covid on film and TV scores, but like a lot of composers I’ve been doing this for years – the recording session with the string orchestra for Overwinter in Moscow in 2019 was a remote session. You’re communicating with the conductor and orchestra via video link and hearing the sound in real time, and it can work really well. But also this year, lockdowns permitting, Marcus and I started playing together again in my studio and it was like a breath of fresh air. I just hope we get to play live more next year.

Is Grasscut a welcome distraction from the film work and writing?

AP For me they’ve come closer together in the last few years, particularly on this record. It is lovely to write without an obvious deadline, and sometimes in a freer style. But I think my work as a composer has been more affected by being known for Grasscut, so the two feed into each other now.
MO It might seem as though they’ve moved further apart for me. In 2015, when the last album came out, I was working in the music department of a university. I still work in a university now, but more in the context of art and design. But actually, I think the things I do in Grasscut – not just management and playing keyboards and double bass, but helping dream up madcap projects – are still pretty aligned with what I do beyond. The bit that *is* a welcome change is actually making music.

How has the Grasscut ‘sound’ changed over the years? Has the progression been a conscious decision or has it occurred organically?

AP I think it’s progressed organically, and been affected both by our obsessions, poetry, Robert Wyatt, Kathleen Ferrier, and what’s going on around us. When we started Grasscut some of the music was more explosive, we were having fun, the mix of samples, strings, synths and poetry felt really exciting. But though it’s always been about human experience in landscape, now the landscape has changed. Overwinter is more orchestral, darker and hymn-like I think. And also more political: I find myself writing about homelessness, a crisis of identity in this country, and our relationship with our past. After the last 5 years in the UK, what else would I write about?

Previous LPs have seen you embellishing the music with really unique conceptual extras (See: the treasure map-esque aspect included as part of 2010’s 1 inch: 1/2 Mile LP package, which led fans to a totally unique musical artefact, hidden in a deserted hamlet in East Sussex). Does the new LP have a conceptual element? Tell us the idea behind the album.

AP Our ‘3rd member’ is designer and photographer Pedr Browne, who has been an integral part of presenting all the albums. For Overwinter he has produced a 10 image sequence of stereoscopic photographs. Stereoscopy is Victorian 3D, so the images, like the songs, explore the idea of looking at ourselves and our environment through the lens of the past, to understand how we’ve got to where we are. The limited edition album bundle includes those images and a pair of stereo specs.

If you had to choose one musician/writer/artist without whom the Grasscut sound would not exist, who would it be?

AP For me it would be Gavin Bryars‘ piece Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet – a string orchestra accompanying a tape loop of a homeless man singing from 1971. I heard this when I was a teenager in the early 80s. It doesn’t immediately sound like Grasscut, but the collision of unlikely elements that heighten the intensity of the listening experience, is something that’s stayed with me, and I don’t think Hilaire Belloc would have been on In Her Pride, Kathleen Ferrier on We Fold Ourselves or Siegfried Sassoon on Red Kite otherwise.

2012’s Unearth saw you collaborating with Robert Wyatt; is there one artist you would dearly love to work with in the future?

AP Right now, composer and turntablist Shiva Feshereki would be amazing.
MO We knew Robert because I’d written a book about him, and it was humbling to have him contribute to Richardson Road. But we’ve worked with some other great people too, including jazz musicians like Seb Rochford and John Surman. Also Robert Macfarlane, who wrote liner notes for Everyone Was A Bird. Right now, I seem to be mainly listening to jazz records from the 1950s and 60s, and dub records from the 1970s, which don’t throw up a lot of potential collaborators. But I’d love to do something with David Coulter playing singing saw.

What part does the live element play on completion of a new project? Is it integral to conveying the ideas/concepts, or is it simply a necessary evil?

AP For us I think the live show is always an exciting reinvention of the record, and it brings different things out of the songs and arrangements. I really hope we get to play it live later in 2021.
MO Yeah, bring on the gigs. Obviously, one thing 2020 has shown us is how much we need live music. I realise I’m not alone in this but I really miss it, both as a performer and an audience member.

If you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be?

AP Genre. I find the obsession with it exhausting, misleading, and conservative. And it can end in so many playlists that feel like a padded cell lined with oatmeal wallpaper.

MO I would change the way in which streaming works, which relates in part to Andrew’s answer. But I also mean I would change the money side. I should declare an interest in this, as I’m a Director of the Featured Artists Coalition. There is great work happening with the Broken Record and Fix Streaming campaigns, led by people like Tom Gray, and now the Digital Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee are having an enquiry. But they are up against some big beasts. We’ll see.

Overwinter is out now on Lo Recordings – and a full review will follow on Arcana soon. The album can be purchased through clicking on the Bandcamp link above.

Talking Heads: Mr Scruff – DJ Kicks

interview by Ben Hogwood

When Arcana called to speak with Mr Scruff , aka Andy Carthy, about his DJ Kicks album earlier this year, we were locked down – but he was using the time productively. “I’m having a big tidy. Musically I’ve been all over the place and want to lay my hands on stuff quickly. I’ve been organising it like a record shop, just having a big clear out and all that. I know a lot of DJs who are doing the same thing. When you’re not pulling out all your records all the time your collection’s a bit static, so it’s easier to organise. I’ve got triple albums where the three albums have been reunited for the first time in about twenty years!”

Has he made any rediscoveries? “Loads! I’ve been going through whole sections like hip hop 12”s and house 12”s. Each section takes about a week to go through, and I’m listening to loads of stuff – promos I received 25 years ago. Two thirds of them are ‘see you later’, but one third is ‘wow’. You’re hearing stuff for the first time.”

We turn to his DJ Kicks compilation, widely acknowledge as one of the best mixes released this year. His approach to it is instructive. “However much you try it’s never going to be like a live mix”, he confirms. “When I started mixing in the 1980s, that was the decade of the megamix. It was still quite ‘in the moment’ but the tools at your disposal were different, and you could be more considered. It reminded me of being a teenager doing pause button edits, it was great fun!”

He starts with a long list…but inevitably elements such as copyright and clearance whittle it down. “It’s an odd one, because !K7’s initial advice was to pick 30-40 tunes – there’s your record box – and they would see what they could clear, and we’d do the mix. They also wanted a very wide ranging mix, and I said that would probably work if you were doing quite a linear mix at one tempo or texturally similar, like a box of DJ tools. This way it will probably go all over the place in terms of tempo, instrumentation and genre, by the very nature of the request. Each record is a very important piece of the puzzle, and if you lose one then the next five or six might not happen. It was a chicken and egg thing, so I did a draft mix, and then made lots of development. Then we would try and clear stuff and half of those tunes couldn’t be used, so it was a little frustrating. You’re normally used to taking records and putting them on, so I had to find ways of keeping interest and focus, and keeping the fun element of the project, without getting dragged down by the politics of licensing.”

He is familiar with such things. “Those frustrations are part and parcel of any licensing operation. On one hand you have the idealist approach – people need to hear this, this mix is beautiful, nothing should impede all the people hearing it – and when you’re DJing, nothing does impede it. Then it’s like, ‘We can’t have this one’, and I’ve had that before. You just need to get over it and keep reworking it, but not too much. You can’t get too bogged down or upset by not being able to use a certain tune.”

Was the idea to also give the listener a sense of discovery? “Kind of, but then on another level a lot of these tracks to me are classics. It’s an odd one because one person’s unknown and obscure is another person’s familiar comfort music, if you know what I mean. The recent obsession with many people of obscure ‘tropical’ music, for want of a better word, is a case in point. I’m thinking of K.Frimpong, something like that. When I first heard one of his tunes via a Ghanaian friend’s parents, I thought it was amazing and obscure, but they told me it was the Ghanaian equivalent of Sex Machine, everyone knows that tune!”

Some will be new to the listener, however. “There’s a few unreleased bits, or ones that haven’t been widely available. Quite a lot of them like the Tiger tune When, which is a classic from my youth. If you weren’t around at the time you’d be like ‘What’s that weird ragga tune by the guy with the slightly nasal, really weird comedic voice?!’ Some tunes on there like Fats Comet‘s Dub Storm are very important tunes from my teenage years. I’m not going out to be deliberately obscure, saying ‘look what I’ve got’ – the music has to be there for a reason. For me it was more about freewheeling, and the joy about putting the mix together is that each tune has to be a transition, taking it somewhere and passing the baton on to something else. With certain older tunes they are more dynamic and less linear than modern electronic productions. The transitions are very important, but that shows that if you take one tune out nothing can fill that gap, either in terms of key or lyrically. If you play an old tune that speeds up you can get from 90 to 110 bpm effortlessly in four minutes. You’re not having to do that as a DJ, the tune’s doing it for you. it builds the energy as a DJ set should do, but if I tried to do that with electronic music it might take me two hours! It’s letting each record do it’s thing, allowing the music to speak and breathe. It’s an especially important consideration when you’re overlaying lots of things, and you have to be careful not to get too much into showing off skills or obscure music. It’s nice to get technical and loopy but other tunes, let them breathe for five or six minutes. The records and audience are part of the conversation, and when you’re doing a student or bedroom mix it becomes a lot more between you and the music.

Is there even a similarity between the structure of a DJ set and a classical work? “You’ve got to have a strong start with a DJ mix, something that is arresting but also a little confusing. I think you have to have a bit of mystery, and it can be drama or ‘what’s happening here, where is this going to go’? It’s like introducing the character at the start of a film, with some plot building. After 3 or 4 tunes you’ve laid out your foundations and some reference points, so people are like ‘yeah, I’m strapped in now, let’s see where we’re going!’ I don’t think you can think too much about it at the start, other than mellow and a bit mysterious, then energetic and maybe comforting at the end. Any more planning than that and I think you’re taking out the opportunity for happy accidents, or just letting the records speak. They become part of the narrative, and it’s about how they add to the story. You’re creating a collage.”

He moves on to wax lyrical about Antibalas, and Battle Of The Species, the twelfth track in the DJ Kicks mix. “That to me is another massive classic. When the trombone comes in it’s like an elephant coming into the room! With tunes like that, ever since I received it, it brings back countless memories of seeing them live. Just the heaviness the guys in New York, like the Daptone Collective, Gabe Roth and the old school producers recording stuff on tape, recreating the 1970s but doing it in such a way that is heavy but nice to be able to introduce them in a mix without smoothing out the mad, raw energy. That’s the danger with a mix, in your rush to make everything seamless you can work against the dynamics of the music. You have to have an ear for what those tunes do. Many of these tunes I’ve played 150 times in a club, you know, so that wasn’t going to be an issue.”

There was an upside to wrangling over copyrights and permission. “The licensing provided some opportunities, because you might get to a certain point in the mix where you have to wait a week or two for things to come back, and you can listen to it from a less technical point of view. It’s good fun, and for me the challenge was trying to combine hard electronics and free, life affirming, organic music in a way that didn’t feel incongruous. Sometimes when you’re overlaying stuff you can lose the up and down dynamic, so it has to be more side to side or push and pull. The joy of playing with these different dynamics is mind boggling at times, the creativity that is inherently possible in mixing. It doesn’t detract from the narrative, and you can almost create a completely new tune! I never lose the joy in that creation of hearing two things that go really well together, whether they are from the same genre or not. In the early 90s I used to mix reggae over techno because the tempos went together – say 140 or 70bpm. There are so many different combinations, and they are unlikely but if you trace them 30 years back you can the genres lived next door to each other. For me though it’s the oddball records, the unclassifiable mutants, hopping and skipping around – they are the real heart and soul of the DJ sets. They really do help get you from A to B!”

These tunes fit in with Andy’s principal philosophy. “What I’m trying to do is connect with the feelings I get when I listen to something new for the first time, then try and pass it on to other people. You’ve got to at least awaken curiosity and excitement in people, and constantly look at it from different angles.”

The beauty of this – from my own point as a listener – is encountering new discoveries such as Andy Ash’s Ease Yourself. “Andy is a producer from Liverpool”, Carthy recounts, “and he sent me a CD of this tune about 15 years ago. From quite a mysterious sort of hazy drum and flute thing, it’s very effective, and I found that getting from something that was percussive and jazzy to some house stuff, it was the perfect transition record. Also in itself, in a dark club, it’s pretty intense. For some reason I remembered that tune, and it’s never been released. For two or three years I played that at every gig, and luckily I found the CD and it still works! He’s great, and a lot of his stuff is house tunes that sample the jazzy end of late 1970s soul. It’s a really nice thing, and that’s happened a few times. The Drymbago tune Chupacabra, they grew out of a regular night we had been running at Bangor University for over ten years. Bangor’s not the first place you think of for an appreciation of African and Caribbean music, but I love these incongruous situations where a whole scene can spring out of a small group of people’s love and obsession about certain kinds of music. This country is full of little scenes like that. It’s another of those brilliant head scratching moments!”

What is the ideal length of a Mr Scruff DJ set? “It depends. As much as it’s nice to play all night, it’s also nice to play alongside other people, to keep it free and easy. I’ve done it on my own for 15-20 years, so it’s been nice in the last few to do some back-to-backs. As long as people are versatile you can have a good back-to-back, a musical conversation. I would say 4-6 hours, depending on the venue. With festivals you have to go a bit shorter, but because I’m so used to playing for a long time, three hours feels like a bit of a rush. I love the whole thing of playing for a long time, as you can build a relationship with the people in the venue, set your own scene.”

There are moments of the live experience that Andy finds genuinely odd. “I do find when the support DJ is on people are standing around until the headliner comes on, which I find really weird. I’ll just swan in and everyone’s cheering for me, but these local people who are here week in and week out, who have actually created the whole scene which is the reason I’m here, you’re not giving them any love or attention. That’s a bit of a disconnect in club culture because of their reliance on headliners, but it’s also down to promoters and the way they curate their nights. If you start relying on headliners you’re going to attract a crowd who have this expectation. People are setting the bar too high and spoiling their own enjoyment, saying, ‘I can’t enjoy this music unless it’s played by someone who is sufficiently well known’. Sometimes I’m queuing up a record that they’ve played, and then suddenly people are getting into it. I’ve not started yet, but you’re dancing, because you think I’m DJing! It’s really weird, and at that point I’ll grab a microphone and give this person some respect. You can’t stand still for them and dance to me!” That said, there are so many community-based nights where that isn’t a problem. That might be remedied in the current climate where you can’t have these massive events.”

We move on to discuss the impact of the pandemic had on Andy’s personal life. “I spend so much time with people and loud music, so I’ve not felt a mad urge to replace my personal life with a screen. That’s been quite nice, getting outside and chatting to people I happen to bump into in the park. I’m in the luxury of not having to worry about my venue or festival, so it is an opportunity to rethink – where my money’s going, where I shop, who I’m banking with. One thing that hasn’t really been a big debate is why are these viruses happening? We need to behave a bit more as a species, aside from votes and that kind of thing. You think, what can I do in my everyday life to improve relations with me and the people around me, and make sure that I’m not inadvertently treating people bad by virtue of the companies that I’m supporting with my money. In a barrage of information where e-mails are flying at you like the credits from Star Wars, it’s kind of nice to take stock for a bit. Most of us are like rabbits in the headlights most of the time!”

Mr Scruff’s contribution to the DJ Kicks series is on !K7, and can be purchased from their website here

Talking Heads: Beethoven 250 – Angela Hewitt

interview by Ben Hogwood

When Arcana spoke with Angela Hewitt, we were just a few weeks into lockdown. Since then, she has been able to complete her recorded cycle of all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas for Hyperion, concluding with two of the titans – the Hammerklavier, Op.106, and the final sonata, Op.111, both of which are due for release next year. She gave generously of her time so that we could discuss Beethoven’s works for piano.

For her recordings, Angela wrote all the notes accompanying the sonatas. “I put a lot of time and effort into those”, she says. “I enjoy it, and it’s important for me to know all those things, and there are so many interesting details. I try to make them notes that everyone can read, so that they’re not too technical. With so many notes that you read they can be boring, and you have no idea what people are talking about. I like to situate it within the life of the composer, what’s going on and how the music relates to it.”

The Hyperion cycle was carefully planned, placing a well-known sonata such as the Moonlight alongside others equally deserving, to give them more exposure. “I did that for two reasons”, she says. “One was because I thought it was more interesting than doing the groups together, like the three Op.10s or the three Op.31s and the last three, like everybody else has done, and because when I started the project there were some sonatas I had to learn. In the earlier records I put the ones I had played a lot, in my youth or up until then anyway. That’s partly why it worked out that way, but each record makes for a very interesting recital.”

When recording a new set of sonatas, does the pianist have to some extent ignore the recorded history around the pieces, and go with what they feel themselves musically? “Yes – very, very, very much so!” she says emphatically. “Especially with the famous sonatas but also with the others, there is so much taken for granted ‘because that’s how it goes’. When you look at the score it’s not at all how it goes, and not at all what Beethoven wrote. There are so many examples you could take, but one that comes to mind is the beginning of Op.10/3, with absolutely no crescendo before you get up to the ‘A’. That’s just one tiny thing, you really have to look at the score. I really enjoyed that aspect of it, and I am also determined to learn the Hammerklavier without going to listen to how every Tom, Dick or Harry plays it, because actually I don’t know the piece that well. It will be rather exciting to learn such a piece just looking at the score and learning it from what Beethoven left us.”

She was influenced in this way of thinking by other performances she had seen. “When I heard the early music people like Roger Norrington, and his Beethoven cycle back in 1987-88 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, I remember all those concerts vividly to this day. It completely changed my way of looking at Beethoven. Up until then of course I enjoyed it, but I didn’t quite get it. You hear a lot of the interpretations, and I was living in France up until 1985, and people used to say ‘Oh, C’est Olympien’ – it’s Olympian when anybody played it, you know, and I just thought it was incredibly boring!”

The orchestral concerts turned Hewitt’s thinking around. “I never really got it, but then I heard Norrington and John Eliot Gardiner do it and I thought ‘Wow, that’s what it’s about!’, with the excitement in it and not dragging those slow tempos. It was just an eyeopener and I remember going home after those concerts, going to the Beethoven sonatas that I already played, and applying that and thinking, ‘Now I realise what I have to do here. Not just with Beethoven but Mozart as well, but Beethoven especially. That was a huge stimulus to me and one where I took the best of what I heard and applied it to how I felt. It really gave me a different way of looking at them.”

I share my own experiences of ‘getting’ a composer, which can often begin with a quest to try and understand the music, waiting for the penny to drop. “I also think it’s very important when you approach Beethoven to go from Baroque training rather than when you go back to him from being a Romantic pianist specialising in Chopin, Liszt or Rachmaninov. That’s totally the wrong direction. When you look at his music as coming out of the Baroque and early Classical it completely makes sense. You have all the training in counterpoint and harmony, and his own love of Bach, having played The Well Tempered Clavier. When you look at his music horizontally like that and clean it up, you pay attention to articulation and get the fingering to match that. Beethoven was the first to use the pedal, and use it to great effect, but not just to apply it systematically. If you get that right it really makes a big difference.”

We agree about the importance of silence in Beethoven’s music, too. “You hear that in Op.7, in that slow movement – that’s one of the best examples of how expressive a silence could be. My music teacher said he was very good at that, and used to circle the rests on the score as expressive, you know? That’s something that is very hard to teach, because either a student feels it or they don’t, really. You can fill that silence with expression but it’s not an easy thing to do unless you feel it. Beethoven was a master of that, and yes, that Op.7 is a beautiful example.”

She notes the physical demands of playing Beethoven’s music. “After Bach I find him the most demanding of composers. People might say that Beethoven wrote stuff that is a lot more technically demanding than Bach, but in Bach you cannot cheat and it demands so much musical intelligence. You have to put everything in there yourself, you know. Bach is the hardest to bring off really well I think, but the problem with Beethoven is that the more you give to it the more you get back, the more you see what’s there and the more difficult it becomes, in a way! It’s quite easy to bash your way through the Pathétique sonata, but if you really want to play it well then that takes an incredible amount of work.”

Hewitt often pairs the two composers in concert. “Often, I will give Bach / Beethoven recitals, with a substantial Bach partita or suite in each half along with a Beethoven sonata. Those are always incredibly exhausting and demanding programmes, probably much more than people realise. I worked hard at the Beethoven Waldstein sonata and came to it quite late, because when I was young, I couldn’t stand everybody banging away at it, it just sounded so dreadful! When I got to it just a few years ago I could see what was in it and really enjoyed playing it. I don’t think it’s his greatest sonata but it is a wonderful performance piece when you can bring it off. If you look at every detail in it then it and want to play it well it is very difficult. I do find he is extremely demanding on the interpretative level but on many levels, not just technically to manage the notes which is often hard enough, but to make sense of it and find the right mood and colour.”

Does she get the sense of the enormous amount of Beethoven’s personality is in the music? “Of course. It’s totally different from Bach. Of course Bach’s personality is there, and there is great joy in his sense of the dance which is in every note he wrote. Beethoven really, when you play all the sonatas you realise what a personal document it is, what a personal confession. They tell of his whole life, because they start in his early years and go almost right to the end. What I wanted to say about that too is that the more you open up yourself playing Beethoven, and I almost mean physically when you’re playing, you have to think that you’re opening up your body and letting it in. The more you do that the more you see the incredible immensity of what he was saying, and also I think the diversity. He wrote music of such great tenderness too. We think of Beethoven as being ‘crash bang wallop’ most of the time, which he is at times, and you take something like the Emperor concerto where he is both. You take the piano writing after those opening flourishes, it’s marked dolce – which is gentle – which a lot of people don’t really do. A lot of that concerto is marked pianissimo as well, even in the brilliant movements. He had an immense tenderness, and the opening of the fourth concerto is an obvious example. Sometimes I think that’s lacking in interpretation.”

We share a great love of the three sonatas Op.31. “They are all fantastic, aren’t they? I learnt the Op.31/3 first, and recorded it some time ago, in about 1988. It’s a wonderful piece, the Hunt. I must play that piece again, once I’ve learned the Hammerklavier I will go back and play the ones I haven’t played for a while. Then there is the Tempest, which I left until the year before I recorded it. I adore that piece, it is one of my favourites to perform, and the slow movement is so gorgeous. It’s unique among the sonatas, it is very declamatory, and it speaks in a different way to the others. Who knows about the title, but it does have something very special about it. Then the G major, which I never understood when I was young. I looked at this thing and thought, ‘What the hell is that’, you know?! Then after doing some work now I understand it. A musician friend asked me the other day to learn that slow movement again, so I could play it again. It’s very operatic and very, very difficult to do. It has to be very poised, and you have to be the orchestra too! That’s another thing in Beethoven – that you have to be not just the pianist but a really good conductor and orchestra too, because so much of this music you can hear the orchestra in it. I tell students that in masterclasses, I get them to play and then conduct, to sort out the timing. You have to be a pianist, a conductor, a singer, an orchestral player even!”

Hewitt has also recorded the sonatas for piano and cello, with Daniel Müller-Schott as her partner. “They are fantastic pieces too. The A major, Op.69, I played when I was living in Paris in my early twenties, with chums at the conservatoire. It is the most wonderful piece. I’m making my way through the violin sonatas as well; I’ve done four or five. I want to finish those eventually; I think it’s good for pianists to know those works as well.”

Of the Beethoven works that don’t feature the piano, Hewitt has her favourites. “The symphonies I adore, they are all fantastic. The Second Symphony has always been a favourite. There is some surprising stuff in the songs. I’ve done many of them, in the last year at my festival, and accompanied Anne Sofie von Otter and Anu Komsi. There is some amazing stuff in the songs. I found out the other day when I was writing the booklet notes for my variations disc on Hyperion that there are some 150 folksong arrangements, even Auld Lang Syne! I didn’t realise that.”

Her disc of the Variations was released on Hyperion in September, and she is keen to expand on the pieces. “Everyone talks about the Diabelli Variations, but the Eroica Variations has been one of my big pieces since 1990, when I first played it at the Beethoven festival in San Francisco. I also did the Piano Concerto no.4 with Sir Roger Norrington that year. The Eroica Variations are on the new disc, and there are some of the variations that are very amusing, too. I did the God Save The King and Rule Britannia ones as well, which were a hoot, and I did two Paisiello ones which were easy but charming, pieces that pianists can really work on and improve their way of playing. I also did the beautiful Variations in F major Op.34 which I did as a teenager. It’s great to capture the character of each variation and then to make a whole out of it. It’s a very important work and shouldn’t be put aside as a piece of lesser importance. It’s important to know how to play the variation sets well.”

The C minor variations, from my own concert experience, can be eye-popping too. “They are terrific really, and of course it’s a Baroque theme, with a chaconne rhythm and everything. When Beethoven heard them live, he said, ‘Who wrote that?’, and someone said, ‘You did!’, and he said, ‘What an ass I was in those days’, or something like that! It’s a terrific piece and makes a great impression. What an imagination he had, and what a sense of overall architecture. That is a really important thing when you are playing Beethoven, you need this sense of overall architecture, of where you’re going. It’s not enough just to play the notes well, you have to make a shape out of the whole thing. You see that especially in the later sonatas but also in the early ones. It was an interesting experience for me learning the Op.111 sonata last year. Like the Waldstein sonata it was a piece I had heard a lot in competitions as a kid, and I thought I never wanted to play it. Now of course I have had incredibly moving experiences playing it. I’ve only played it twice live, once as part of my festival in the beautiful church in Perugia. In something like the second movement variations you really have to find an overall shape, and in Op.109 too, which is very difficult to bring off. I found that very hard.”

She learned the shorter Bagatelles much earlier in life, “when I was a kid, at my first recital when I was nine! There is a Rondo in G major too which I used to play, but I haven’t played them for many years. The concertos of course I have played, and the Triple Concerto too. I have conducted nos.2 and 4 from the keyboard, with the Britten Sinfonia, which was wonderful – to get it just exactly how you wanted it. I’d like at some point to do the others like that. If you do have an extraordinary conductor that’s wonderful, but there are some things in the Emperor concerto where you would like some extra elasticity sometimes, and that isn’t really possible unless you’re conducting it yourself.”

Her interpretations usually draw positive reactions. “Orchestras have played those pieces so much that they are so familiar with them, and if you put in something different, really looking at the score and what is there, then you notice a point at which they sit up and think. I think it’s still possible to get incredible excitement out of playing a piece that is so well known from the musicians themselves.”

Away from Beethoven, Hewitt has an unexpected connection with Manfred Mann, who she met while travelling. “I was going up to Helsingborg to play the Goldberg Variations in a festival”, she begins, “so I flew to Copenhagen. I got on the train to Helsingborg and it was the rush hour. I had to run to get on the train and found the first-class compartment, and there was just one seat left. I got on just as they were closing the doors, and shoved myself into the seat and collapsed, you know. I noticed there was a man sitting across from me with this rather eccentric looking hat on, and he looked a bit eccentric. I thought he looked harmless! So, I pulled my laptop out and started typing away, and then at Malmo everybody got off except for a few of us. He stayed on, and he asked if the train was going on. I moved over to the table adjacent to us because there was more room, and I took a phone call. Then, at one point, I can’t remember how we started talking, but his opening line was, ‘Do you always work on your laptop with such good posture?!’”

She laughs. “Well, I used to be a dancer, so we got on to how I play piano, and he said, ‘I play a bit of keyboard’, and then he started asking me questions about fingering, if you’re playing an E flat major scale very quickly what would be your best fingering to jump up and back. So, then I guess I said I was going up to play the Goldberg Variations, and he said he listened to the Art of Fugue all the time and has an LP of it. Then he said, ‘Are you travelling all alone?’ I had to go to a hotel in Helsingborg, but it was close enough so that I didn’t need to walk, and I said, ‘Do you know which direction I should go?’ He said, ‘I’ll take you there’. He couldn’t believe I was travelling all alone with all my luggage. We said goodbye, and then the next day I went out to practice, and when I came back into the hotel, there he was in the hotel lobby! He was handing me a letter, which I read, and then through the letter he put his real name, which is Manfred. Through the letter I realised who he was, and there was an e-mail address, so I wrote to him and said ‘You should have told me! Anyway, I’m going to practice the Goldberg tonight, in a hall, if you’d like to come, I’ll play it for you. He and his friend couldn’t get a ticket as it was sold out, which was why he had written to me. I gave him a private performance of the Goldberg Variations, which blew him away, and at the end he said. ‘I used to think I was a keyboard player!’ He has written to me several times since then.”

Perhaps inevitably, talk turns to the dreadful mishap Hewitt suffered back in February, when her beloved Fazioli piano was dropped during a house move. She appears to have dealt with this incident with the same poise with which she walks out onto the stage at the beginning of her concerts. “As I wrote somewhere, I had three nightmare days where the press of the whole world was after me. it was absolutely incredible – I couldn’t believe it. I put something on Facebook because I had to put something about my plans and made sure I had written it really well so that if it was reused, I didn’t mind if the whole world saw. Then the next day the Guardian was phoning my agency and trying to find out who the firm was. There were only 4-5 people who knew who the moving firm was, and that’s been their whole life – I didn’t want to shame them, because it was a very unfortunate accident. It just ballooned, it was the top story under the Coronavirus – and then CNN called! I was marooned in Italy which was a good thing because it was isolated, so I couldn’t go into a studio. I had no peace for three days; I was completely exhausted! I couldn’t go speaking about it on television though, I didn’t want to say anything else. It was really a lesson in how the media works these days, and how careful you have to be with what gets out there. On the other side however, you could say it was terrific publicity which you couldn’t buy! In the early days I was walking around, and people stopped me and said they were so sorry about my piano. The press loves a story, that’s for sure, but I’m still so glad I didn’t give any of those interviews. I think a lot of people would, just to be on CNN – but one has to preserve one’s dignity, you know what I mean!”

You can listen to excerpts from Angela Hewitt’s Beethoven discs on the Hyperion website here – and for more information on the pianist herself visit her website here

Talking Heads: Beethoven 250 – Cyprien Katsaris

interview by Ben Hogwood

Celebrated pianist Cyprien Katsaris is on the phone to Arcana from Paris. We are to talk about the music of Beethoven, which he has celebrated with the release of a fascinating new box set, exploring a number of different corners of the composer’s piano output. Not for him a disc of sonatas – this includes some of Beethoven’s earliest and latest works, plus familiar utterances in unexpected guises, for instance Saint-Saëns’ and Musorgsky in arrangements of movements from the string quartets.

Cyprien is an extremely generous interviewee, and our chat is punctuated by musical examples given on the piano of his Paris apartment. He is also incredibly good-humoured and engaging. We begin the interview by discussing his first experiences of Beethoven’s music, which on the way reveal important aspects of his upbringing.

“We used to live in French Cameroon in the 1950s”, he says, “and I was raised there because my family emigrated from Cyprus. My parents were among the few people who had an LP collection, and I remember very well my first Beethoven listening was the Pastoral symphony and the Ninth, because they had those LPs. This could explain why I went into recording the transcriptions by Liszt of the nine Beethoven symphonies in the 1980s for Teldec, because since I was a kid I loved that music. I was always wondering if it was possible to enjoy this music with my own fingers on the piano, so you can guess the shock when I found out about those transcriptions, which were published by the French publisher Durand.”

He is a natural storyteller who draws some unexpected parallels. “As you might also guess, when you like something and you can’t get it, you want it more. It’s like having a girlfriend who is very beautiful, but when I walk down the street and I see another woman I want her even more because I know that I cannot get her. When I say this to my girlfriend she laughs, you know?! The same thing happened with the Pastoral symphony, and that could be the explanation for my very strong attraction towards transcriptions. I always try in my life to keep a balance in my concert programmes and recordings between normal, standard repertoire and forgotten pieces or transcriptions.”

His contribution to Beethoven’s anniversary is A Chronological Odyssey, a set of six CDs available on his own Piano 21 label. “The idea came to me in April last year, because I was wondering what to do for the 250th anniversary. Doing the 32 sonatas again did not seem like a good idea. There are so many, and I was told there are more than 70 versions. The idea was to do this chronological odyssey, mixing standard repertoire and transcriptions, and I also had a photocopy of the Kreutzer Sonata arranged for piano. I have had that for several years, and received it from a musicologist at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn. He told me that the second movement was arranged by Carl Czerny. Nobody knows who did the other two movements, maybe Czerny and maybe someone else, and I was wondering if I should record it. That was the perfect combination, and the Spring Sonata too. They sound so nice on the piano. I only found out then that the Mozart and Beethoven sonatas, and the cello sonatas, are not written for violin and piano, but for piano with violin.”

We turn to Beethoven’s output of sonatas for solo piano. “As you know there are not 32 sonatas but 35”, he tells me, “because you have to include the first three ones that Beethoven wrote, known as the Electoral sonatas. I also wanted to include a rarity, the 2 Preludes in all 12 major keys. There is also the small Ritterballet, a commission from Count Waldstein. On the day of the premiere the Count said to the audience that he was the composer! It’s crazy. There is a piano transcription by Beethoven himself.”

Katsaris does also include some well-known works, such as the Moonlight and Appassionata sonatas. “I made a selection of eight sonatas in addition to the youth sonatas, and I tried to be careful about the combination of personal ideas and the information written by Beethoven himself on the score, considering that the pianos now are different to his years. For example, in the last movement of the Appassionata Sonata, it says Allegro ma non troppo, and almost all the big names who recorded or played it played it too fast! This is not what Beethoven wants. Of course it is a temptation to do that, but it’s not what he wrote!” By way of illustration he sings the theme. “These little details are important, in order to respect the wishes of the composer.”

A good deal of detective work has resulted in the unearthing of some unusual arrangements. “I have spent all those years – I’m 69 now – and I have been in libraries, specialist shops of antique scores, and sometimes you are lucky and sometimes not so lucky. Saint-Saëns, by the way, his anniversary is next year. He died in 1921, on 16 December – the exact anniversary of when Beethoven is supposed to have been born. I had invitations for a Beethoven recital in Bonn in May and September, where I was going to play the Symphony no.9 in a two-piano version with my good friend Etsuko Hirose. She lives in Paris, and won the Martha Argerich competition. We were going to play the Symphony no.9 together, and then I have an invitation on 16 December into the Beethoven Haus with several musicians playing a piece each. I hope the confinement t will allow us to do this. Saint-Saëns arranged for piano three movements from string quartets, and Musorgsky two movements from the last quartet, Op.135. It’s quite fascinating, and also the Wagner transcription of the Symphony no.9. It’s not as good as the Liszt version, but Wagner discovered the music of Beethoven when he was 18 years old, and he claimed that Beethoven and Shakespeare were visiting him in his dreams. He copied the Fifth and Ninth symphonies entirely, and transcribed the Fifth, so I wanted to include that transcription. It also allowed me to cover all the scores in my collection. Some of them I was not even aware of!”

There were more arrangements to come. “I found out about Louis Winkler, who made these great transcriptions of the Spring Sonata and some other pieces, and as I explained in the booklet, he did a lot and transcribed so many things! There was also Franz Kullak who transcribed the last movement of the Violin Concerto. It’s all very fascinating, and the idea was to have a chronological order from the very first transcription when Beethoven was 11 or 12 years old, up to the very last one. I didn’t even know that Beethoven wrote the short canons which he used to call a musical joke, which is very interesting and funny!”

He recounts his thoughts on Beethoven’s first work. “The very first piece is based on a march by Dressler. They didn’t find out where this march comes from, and I remember a German musicologist told me 25 years or so ago in Berlin that we pianists only play 2% of everything which has been published for the piano in the 19th century. Anyway, this piece is variations by a kid, and it could be considered in the beginning a little bit boring. I decided to change the tempi of the variations to make it a little bit more interesting, but this is not of course the only way to perform this piece. You can stay in the same tempo, like the theme. My argument is that when you consider Beethoven was a great improviser, like Mozart, Chopin, Bach or Liszt, the problem of composing music is that you have just one version put down in writing. For example, Chopin, when he played the same piece again, would change tempi, dynamics, the notes, even – we found several versions.”

The same applies here. “When you look at Beethoven maybe I am maybe the first pianist who recorded the four versions of that famous theme of the last movement of the Eroica Symphony. He wrote it first as a dance, part of a group of dances for orchestra with piano arrangements, and then he used it again as the last number of his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. Then he uses it again in the last movement of the Eroica Symphony, and his Eroica Variations Op.35. It shows that sometimes they have these different ideas about a theme. We know he was a great improviser, and from the writings of Carl Czerny that he played quite fast and full of fire. I think that allows some freedom, especially in the Variations, and especially those that could become a little bit boring if you don’t add something a little bit more spicy. Of course Beethoven was a kid, and his teacher probably told him to keep the same tempo, but I think there is a probability that if Beethoven played that piece as an adult he would play it in a different way to when he was under the guidance of that teacher. What a pity we didn’t have recordings earlier!”

Cyprien also includes the Fantasy, published as Op.77 in Beethoven’s output. “What a difficult piece!” he exclaims. “This is a perfect example of what could have been an improvisation of Beethoven, right? It is a very interesting piece, and not often performed unfortunately. I don’t know if that is because it’s difficult. Is it because when a pianist wants to include the music of Beethoven in a program it’s always sonatas, and sometimes variations, and almost nothing else? I found out that some colleagues don’t even know about the existence of this piece. It’s a pity because it’s a great piece, and it’s interesting to have an overview between the first sonata and the last one.”

He has a special place for the last of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas, published as Op.111. “The last sonata is of course this great masterpiece. It’s all written in the booklet to the release, but it is expressing so much of what were the feelings and philosophy of Beethoven. With the Fantasy, you have at the end this strange theme which could be an embryo of the Ninth Symphony and the Ode To Joy theme. The same thing happened with Mozart. We are going to release the complete concertos in a few months, live recordings made in Salzburg, and one theme he used in his Piano Concerto no.8 in C major K246, and this theme he uses again a little bit differently in a later concerto, also in C major, and again in his last C major concerto, no.25. It’s so interesting to find out about all these connections. I remember about 15 years ago I made a CD devoted to the family of Mozart, the father and his son. I recorded one of the three sonatas of Leopold Mozart, which is a strange situation because he was a violinist but has not left any violin pieces! I found in his Piano Sonata in C major that the second movement contains some elements which are obviously used again by Mozart the son when he wrote the divine slow movement of the Piano Concerto no.21. This means that he remembered the slow movement of his father’s sonata.”

Katsaris is on something of a roll. “When I met your former prime minister Tony Blair at a dinner, I went to the piano of my friends and I improvised. First, I played the British national anthem, and then I improvised on the Warsaw Concerto, and Rule Britannia, and I asked him how many times did you meet the Queen in those Tuesday meetings? He could not remember because he did not write it down. But you know that Beethoven wrote variations on God Save The King and Rule Britannia, don’t you? On one of my CDs called Album d’un voyager, I recorded a piece, a set of variations on Rule Britannia composed and published in London something like 200 years ago by a French composer called Latour. He was established in London, and that was in my collection of old scores. Many people were writing fantasies, potpourris and variations on old tunes from Wales, England and Scotland.”

Our time is sadly up – which gives me time for one last question, on how Cyprien has reacted to lockdown conditions. “I am practising continuously”, he says with characteristic enthusiasm, “even without the confinement. I practise every day of the year. Life is too short and I have too many scores to still learn before I pass away! I have decided I will not pass away for several decades more. I practise every day except for the day of the concert. If you have a nice dinner in the evening you will spoil it by having a dinner before, so I always do not play on the day of the concert itself. The confinement here does not concern me at all.”

Beethoven: A Chronological Odyssey is a 6D anthology of the composer played by Cyprien Katsaris, and released by Piano 21. You can listen to the collection on the Spotfy link below, and you can explore purchase options at the Presto website

Talking Heads: Beethoven 250 – Chen Reiss

interview by Ben Hogwood

If you ask a classical listener to name their favourite works by Beethoven, it is unlikely that the vocal works will sit towards the top of their list. This is partly due to the invention and inspiration of Beethoven’s instrumental works, but also because the vocal works have been rendered unfashionable, and therefore easy to dismiss, for decades.

While Arcana have been listening to the works of Beethoven it has emerged that this verdict on the vocal works is less than fair. With that in mind it seemed only right to seek out a performer whose love for the vocal works of Beethoven has really come to the fore in this, the composer’s 250th anniversary year. Soprano Chen Reiss has made a number of contributions, headed by a disc of arias for Onyx Classics with the Academy of Ancient Music and Richard Egarr. In the course of our discussion Reiss, born in Israel and now living in the UK, sheds new light on these neglected works.

Our chat finds Reiss on holiday. “I’m on vacation! she says excitedly. “I have two children, and I have been locked down with them in Vienna since March, and we couldn’t go anywhere. Now they have been to school for a bit but not full time, it was an arrangement of three days a week, something like that. Since the end of June they are on vacation completely, and it has been quite a challenge at times, as parents. Luckily I wasn’t working, so I could deal with it, but I’m not used to being a 24-7 mum!”

She responds warmly to my observations on the vocal works heard so far. “I’m very glad to hear you saying that. Beethoven has such a reputation of writing badly for the voice, which I don’t understand. His writing is challenging, that is true, and that may have kept a lot of singers away from his music – but the music is fantastic, you know, as he is a genius after all. Anything that he writes, even if it is not the best in his standards, is much better than many other composers. When I did the research for my CD, it was also a surprise for me how few recordings there are of his vocal music. Everybody is recording the Ninth Symphony and Fidelio, but only these. With the arias that are on my CD, a lot of them are early works, that were not published in Beethoven’s lifetime. After the research that I did with some scholars, I found he approved the pieces to be published, and they just didn’t manage to happen. Each aria has an interesting story behind it. That was the reason why I did this CD, not just because it’s Beethoven year but because of a strong belief that these arias belong in the main repertoire and should be performed as often as Ah! Perfido.”

Her reference is Beethoven’s most popular work for solo voice. “Everybody is singing Ah! Perfido, and I agree that the form and dramatic development of the piece is probably the most complete. It was written later, but the earlier pieces are also excellent, and very interesting. Beethoven was a revolutionary composer, and you have one foot in the classical tradition, maybe Haydn or Mozart, and the other foot is already in the future. Maybe the sound of the early pieces reminds us more of Haydn – not Salieri, in my opinion – and even though he wrote them before he started with Haydn he knew his music and was very much in the period. We shouldn’t forget that Beethoven wrote those works around 1790, when Haydn was still active. The music of Mozart was also very much known to Beethoven, and so you hear the influence of those masters.”

Her opinion of the pieces, as a singer, has never been in doubt. “I do think they belong in the main repertoire, not only because they are good vocally. Maybe you need to practice them a little more, but then you would practice a Donizetti aria too. Of course you have the Italian masters, where the music sits in the voice much more authentically than Beethoven, because he wasn’t really in my opinion thinking vocally at this point, it was instrumentally. For example, the concept of ‘solfeggio’ in the voice, that is the transfer between the register of the mid voice to the high voice, it didn’t exist with Beethoven! Many times he writes in that particular part of the voice, which is not so comfortable, and this is why one needs to have a clear tone, and not just a dramatic plan but a vocal one too. This is a challenge, but it is the case for the music of Bach too. It’s not like Beethoven is the only one. Bach writes in a very instrumental way, and there are some recitatives that lie in the solfeggio area and are not so comfortable. Beethoven is not the only composer to do it.”

Reiss has done a good deal of background reading. “I found from research that Beethoven did not do it on purpose to upset the singers, not at all. He actually had contact with the singers and constantly spoke with them, and he wanted to get their input and improve his writing for the voice. In my opinion this is also the reason he went to have lessons with Salieri, and we shouldn’t forget that when he took these lessons he was already an established composer. He felt that to write for the voice was not as natural for him as writing for the piano, which was his instrument. He chose Salieri, who was the master in Vienna at writing for the voice, and I think that although musically there was no comparison with the genius of Beethoven, Salieri had a skill of writing for the voice. That was why Beethoven studied with him.”

When performing Beethoven, Reiss is keenly aware of the role played by her allies. “The other challenge in Beethoven is not so much for the singer but more for the conductor. In many of the pieces he writes for the voice in a very low register, and not very loud, but he would write passages where the orchestra is really loud. Beethoven was relying on the fact that he would have good conductors conducting his music, and that they would know how to balance. His writing is very dramatic, in Ah! Perfido especially, but also in Primo amore.”

She elaborates on the latter piece, an earlier work for soprano and orchestra. “You really need a good conductor for this piece because of the dynamics and the balance. There are a lot of different sections in this aria, and they have very different characteristics, so it is really down to the conductor to create magic and for the orchestra to be very soft and transparent, but also to give the oomph and the drama when needed. We definitely rely on the conductor!”

This approach extends further. “My arguments here also apply to the Missa Solemnis”, she says. “I have spoken with several big conductors, and they have said it is really not an easy piece to conduct, and that it is very challenging because of the balancing. The orchestra is large and there is a quartet of singers, so in order not to cover them you have to really take a delicate approach. When the music is written as forte the orchestra does not have to blast, it has to be relative to the quartet of voices that you have. You really rely on the fact that you have a good conductor to give the right interpretation of what is on the page.”

Would this explain why Beethoven’s vocal works were not so well known; that he had trouble finding the right conductor for them as much as the right singers? “I am not sure what the reason is”, she says honestly. “There is an aria on the CD from the Cantata on the Accession of Emperor Leopold (Fliesse, Wonnezähre, fliesse!) and there is a rumour I read that orchestras of the time did not want to play it because it was unplayable. For an orchestra of today that is no problem, because our technical level is higher than it was 200 years ago. Physically it was a problem, but that became musical too. You need very sensitive musicians to play it, because it is very technically challenging not just for the soprano but for the soloists in the orchestra – the cello and the flute solos are not easy. Beethoven was a challenging composer, he wanted to push the boundaries as much as he could. The pianists back then found his music challenging, maybe not so much now because if you play Rachmaninov or something then Beethoven is not quite so difficult.”

Reiss expands her thinking to consider other operatic composers. “I do agree that Verdi or Puccini wrote for the voice in a more confident way, but I’m now learning Zaïde, the early Mozart opera, and I’m finding similar challenges to Beethoven. There are long phrases where you need impeccable breath control, which in my opinion is not easier for the voice. That is no reason not to sing it, though! Primo amore shows what I love about Beethoven, in that he was very human. He writes about very fundamental feelings and he writes about them with his heart on his sleeve. It is romantic but not pathetic, it is substantial and filled with feeling. Today they would probably give him Prozac, because he was someone with very grand feelings! Those feelings are very true, there is no melodrama. I don’t want to insult other composers, but there are others who were melodramatic. Some of the French and Italian composers wrote on a very grand scale.”

The accompanying interview for Chen’s Beethoven release features not just conductor Richard Egarr’s clear enjoyment of the music, but also Reiss talking about how she really identified with how Beethoven was feeling, and that he felt he was reflecting what a lot of us feel in relationships and romantic situations in his music. “He was misfortunate with love”, she says, “but then who could stand up to his standards? At first, I chose the arias that I thought were good for my voice and also good dramatically. I find the orchestras love them too, as it gives them the possibility to shine. If you think of a composer like Donizetti, it’s not as challenging for the orchestra, and I think they like challenges. There is so much character in the writing for the orchestra in these pieces, not so much ‘oom-pah oom-pah’ as there is in Salieri or a lot of the Italian composers of that time. Here the orchestral players are just as important as the singer. I really enjoyed working with Richard and the Academy of Ancient Music, because they took this role and played with real gusto and passion.”

On the Odradek release, Chen sings the substantial aria Tremate, empi, tremate (Tremble, guilty ones, tremble) with tenor Paul Armin Edelmann and bass Jan Petryka. “My ambition was try to record or sing the Beethoven music that is suitable for my voice”, she explains. “In July this summer I was supposed to do the Missa Solemnis, which I have never performed before. Unfortunately it was cancelled because of COVID, but I did learn the piece. Other than that I managed to do everything. I sang in Lenore, which was marvellous, and then Fidelio itself, and these arias. The only thing I didn’t do was this trio, so I’m very glad that we found the possibility to record it in another city. It was a coincidence that I met Thomas Rösner, the conductor. It was in Liege where I was singing, two years ago, and he said, ‘I’m doing a disc with the Piano Concerto arrangement of the Violin Concerto, do you think we could do something?’ We thought we could do the Mozart aria Ch’io mi scordi di te?, and I said, ‘Listen, there is a Beethoven trio I would really like to record’. When I did this Tremate it reminded me a little of the trio in Fidelio with the Father and the two lovers. Marzelline is thinking that Fidelio is a man, and she’s in love with him, and the father basically gives his blessing. It is of course a different story altogether, but the ending is very dramatic. I think it’s a very good piece to perform as an encore in a concert, wouldn’t you agree?”

Given the way the voices combine, and the dramatic third part, she has a strong point. “Yes. I think it is very well conducted, with the middle part which has these beautiful long lines. I think it is an early piece, and of course Beethoven has these dramatic parts, which come later, but he also has a very good sense of lyricism and melodic beauty, a pureness which reminds me very much of Mozart and Haydn. You see it in these early works that he was more classical, and then he became much more dramatic. The third version of Fidelio, which we play today, is much more dramatic than the first two versions because I think the magic aspect was less interesting for him ten years later. Then he was more interested in the political aspect of the scene. He steps away from a beautiful sound to make music in the service of the emotion, rather than in the service of just beauty, which we have more with Donizetti.”

She considers once again the operatic works of Beethoven’s contemporaries. “Of course Mozart also wrote operas with political aspects. It’s really interesting with Zaïde, which I’m learning at the moment. It is an early piece, but he presents the conflict between East and West, the Christians and the Muslims. It’s amazing how nothing has changed in the tension between the regions, and between people who come from different cultures and mentalities. We have not really changed. Of course, today we are much more politically correct. Back then the European culture, manners and way of life was seen as superior to the Turks, for example, or the Muslims. Mozart was always talking about these things politically, but I think the music always has to sound beautiful and eloquent. In Beethoven the drama and the emotion are very much in the foreground.”

Reiss’s Immortal Beloved program finishes with perhaps Beethoven’s best-known solo vocal piece. “Ah, Perfido! is a real joy to sing”, she says passionately. “What is so great about these pieces is that lighter voices can sing them. It depends what approach you take – do you take the Baroque approach, the Classical approach, or do you take the more Romantic, Wagnerian approach? Are you presenting where he is coming from, or where he is going to? In my case, doing this CD, I was presenting with where he was coming from. I started with an early piece from 1791, and I finished with the later Ah! Perfido. It is about showing his development as a composer for the voice, how he maxed out his way in writing for voices.”

Has Chen recorded many of the songs with piano? “I haven’t done those this year, I have concentrated more on the orchestral pieces. My friends at the opera were struggling with them. I do think that people who claim it is really difficult to sing Beethoven perhaps approach from heavier productions such as Wagner and Verdi. My idea was that if you approach the instrumental, classical / baroque approach – in German we call it ‘schlicht’, which means ‘simple’. The voice production has to be more like you would sing Mozart, and when you approach from that direction it is easier to manage the ‘solfeggio’ and his vocal lines, which are often instrumental. If you sing with a lot of weight on the voice then you might find the songs quite tiring, because they do not always lie in the sweet part of the voice. But, if you approach them with a little less vibrato but still a warm sound – but not heavy – then I think you sing them much more easily.

Given some of the versions heard in our journey through listening to Beethoven’s works, this makes sense. “Or even Schubert”, offers Reiss. “A lot of people who sing Beethoven like Wagner, why not sing like Schubert? After all he was a contemporary, and again Schubert could be sung in a Romantic way. That doesn’t mean you have to sing Beethoven in a Baroque way, as he was a very Romantic composer. If you go in the direction of Schubert it would be much more manageable. I don’t think Beethoven would have expected a Wagner sound, it was not the way they sang in Vienna back then. This is how we often play his symphonies, for example, with a very rich sound, but instruments are different from back then, the piano now is different from how it was back then. The voice is not.”

Outside of the vocal music, what would Reiss class as her favourite Beethoven? She hesitates, laughing a little. “For me, the Piano Concertos. I really love these – number one, four and five. I am a frustrated pianist, and it is an instrument that can express so much. I wish I had the patience when I was seven or eight to practice more!”

Chen Reiss’s Beethoven album Immortal Beloved is out now on Onyx. You can listen to clips and explore purchase options from the Onyx website

Chen Reiss also appears on Voices, an album of works by Beethoven and Mozart under the direction of conductor Thomas Rösner. You can read about it and listen to clips on the Odradek website. Meanwhile the soprano’s own website is here