Roger Vignoles – A Strauss Odyssey

Roger Vignoles is one of Britain’s best-established accompanists. Respected for his technical ability, experience, breadth of repertoire and the work he does nurturing singers old and new, he is regularly seen at the illustrious venues worldwide.

More recently at the Wigmore Hall he has plotted a course through the daunting output of songs by Richard Strauss, a lesser known corner of the composer’s output. This has been complemented on disc courtesy of Hyperion, their series recently completed by an eighth and final disc with tenor Nicky Spence and soprano Rebecca Evans.

In a fascinating interview he talks with Arcana about his own introduction to classical music, the technical and psychological challenges in performing Strauss, his highlights from the series and the principles of accompanying a singer.

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

I have an early memory of a concert at Cheltenham Town Hall when Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony was performed – it was one of my father’s favourite pieces, hence one of his first LPs, together with Beethoven‘s Fifth Symphony and Franck’s Symphonic Variations. But he also loved Gilbert & Sullivan, so my brothers and I who were all choristers were basically brought up on a diet of English Cathedral Music and HMS Pinafore.

I also remember Peter and the Wolf loomed quite large (my favourite bit was the appearance of the wolf out of the forest), as well as the audience songs from Let’s Make an Opera. And I treasured a 78 single of Sousa’s Stars & Stripes played by the Coldstream Guards Band: nowadays my favourite version is Vladimir Horovitz’s – he gives it such an aristocratic swagger, like a Grande Polonaise in 4/4 time.

What was it about Gerald Moore that made you want to follow in his footsteps?

It was when my elder brother Charles (on whom I really learnt the basics of accompanying when we were both in our teens) gave me the first LP of Winterreise, sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with Gerald Moore. I was fascinated by the piano parts, but especially by Gerald’s beautifully judged piano sound and his wonderful sense of rhythm and pace, and I just thought: “I’d love to be able to do that.”

When did you first discover the songs of Richard Strauss?

It was probably when I went to the RCM in 1966. Hubert Dawkes, to whom I’d been assigned for accompaniment, plunged me in at the deep end with the Four Last Songs.  But I also thrilled to songs like Allerseelen, Die Nacht, Ständchen, etc.

Listen to Rebecca Evans singing September, the second of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, with Roger Vignoles. This is part of the eighth and final volume of Strauss songs released by Hyperion and available here

Are the piano parts particularly challenging? When I have seen you play at the Wigmore Hall before they often feel orchestral in concept, as though you are having to voice a whole ensemble.

Strauss’s early songs sound much like Schumann: pianistic in quality and perfect for a domestic soirée. But with Zueignung, the first of his Opus 10 group (his first published songs), there is an unmistakable sea change. It’s as though the Vienna Philharmonic has entered the drawing room, and from then on Strauss never looked back. Challenging?  Indeed, but Strauss also has a wonderful feel for the piano, and with very few exceptions his accompaniments are very grateful to play. Of course there can be a lot of notes to deal with and every now and then he does go completely over the top: Lied an meinem Sohn for instance, which sounds like a cross between Die Walküre and a Tchaikovsky piano concerto and was declared unplayable by Alfred Brendel, no less. It’s wonderfully sung by Christopher Maltman on Volume 4 (listen below):

As it happens thinking orchestrally has always come naturally to me, ever since my time studying with Paul Hamburger, for whom it was axiomatic that all song composers from Schubert onwards have a miniature orchestra in their heads. A couple of years playing Wagner and Strauss at Covent Garden helped cement this approach: many pianists make the mistake with Strauss of learning all the little notes first, but a stint in the opera house teaches you to see the wood for the trees, and as Paul Hamburger would often say, “If you get the gesture right, the little notes will fall into place”.

I should like to add that I owe an enormous amount to Paul, who taught me not only more about piano technique than any “real” pianist I ever worked with, but also about vocal coaching, style, language and poetry (even down to explaining Thomas Hardy to me in his thick Viennes accent).  Quite coincidentally the first song I ever took to him was by Strauss – Schlagende Herzen.

The Strauss series on Hyperion has had a really nice blend of singers new and slightly older, English and European. Was that a deliberate aim?

It wasn’t a deliberate aim, so much as the result of the series having taken twelve years to record, and at each stage looking for artists with the appropriate vocal and musical character for the volume in hand. It also very much reflects the singers whom I already was enjoying working with at any given time.

Do you think that in the Strauss songs we get a different view of him as a composer?

Strauss was naturally a composer of the large gesture, the panoramic sweep, with a distinct tendency to overblown romanticism of the kind that can turn some listeners off.  And of course the opera composer often shines through – there can be no doubt that the 25 years of song-writing that preceded his first operas were the laboratory in which he developed his gift for vocal characterisation.

But in the song format he is obliged to distil his musical ideas to their simplest essence. Just occasionally he doesn’t succeed, but on the many occasions when he does the result can be pure magic.  If I had to give just one example it might be Nachtgang, a tiny love-song of breathtaking tenderness – and unfathomable poignancy (listen below):

‘Accompanist’ feels like a slightly derogatory term for a role that requires such control and artistry. Is it your view that both performers have equal billing in a vocal recital?

It’s not often realised that the Lied or Mélodie is as much a piano art as a vocal one – it’s no accident that Schubert’s Lieder evolved with the early years of the piano – so of course singer and pianist should have equal billing. It is indeed a truly symbiotic partnership. But as for the A-word, I am proud to follow Gerald Moore as an “Unashamed Accompanist”. To me it’s the only term that naturally describes what I and my colleagues do. Nevertheless I can understand those who baulk at its negative associations and prefer the American coinage “collaborative pianist”. Just for the record the billing should of course always read “So-and-So, piano”, never “So-and-so, accompanist”.

What is the most common piece of advice you give to your students on accompanying a singer?

This from Geoffrey Parsons, another mentor: “Always have your own idea of how the song goes, rather than just be a blank canvas for the singer to draw on”.

But two other rules of thumb are useful: “It’s the singer’s job to slow down, the pianist’s to speed up again” and “Balance is as much a function of texture (ie transparency and clarity) as of decibels (as in am I too loud?)”

Is it important to have a personal affinity with the singer you are performing with, as well as a musical one?

It helps of course, especially if you are going on tour together. But I have had many experiences of wonderful music-making on minimal rehearsal, when there was no time at all to find out whether you got on personally offstage.

Are there any composers you have not yet recorded that you are keen to explore?

I love playing Rachmaninov songs (probably for the same reason that I love playing Strauss). And one day I might get round to Schoenberg’s Buch der hängenden Gärten.

If you could recommend a Strauss song to Arcana readers listening for the first time, which one would it be?

So many to choose from…  But for a real out-of-body experience, try Am Ufer, sung exquisitely by Christopher Maltman on Volume 4 (listen below):

Or for a remarkable stream of consciousness, Anne Schwanewilms singing O wärst du mein! on Volume 2 (listen below):

You are a painter as well, looking at Twitter…does music inspire your paintings at any point?

Not precisely: but a friend once told me they thought I painted with the same part of the brain that I play with.  Which is probably true. It is a fact that I have a very visual conception of the music that I play, especially in song where so much of the verbal imagery is itself visual. So in either medium I am playing with light and shade, with colour and texture, and with contrast – perhaps the most important tool in both.

You can read more about Roger Vignoles on his artist page, or click here for his Hyperion discography. With grateful thanks to Hyperion for the provision of highlights from their Strauss series, which are of course (c) Hyperion Records Ltd.

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Annie Turner on the BBC Symphony Orchestra

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
annie-turnerThis is the latest in the series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Annie Turner (above) gives her thoughts on Prom 62.

Baiba Skride (violin), Siobhan Stagg (soprano), Christopher Maltman (baritone) BBC Symphony Orchestra / Siobhan Young

Bayan Northcott Concerto for Orchestra (2014-2016, world premiere); Mozart Violin Concerto no.5 (1775); Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony (1922-23)

You can listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Annie, what was your musical upbringing?

I was born in 1980 and so my earliest musical memories would be Vangelis, Dire Straits, Phil Collins and stuff like that, so I’m very fond of that music in a sentimental way. I was really interested in playing music, and I remember when I was about seven or eight I was absolutely desperate to learn the recorder, as the older kids in school were playing them. My mum asked the teachers but they said I was too young, and I had to wait until I was nine!

I learned recorder and got to play in the school concerts, but after that you pick up another instrument, so I did keyboard. I went to a country school in Australia, so there wasn’t a big music program. I learned piano for a while but struggled with the music because I didn’t find it interesting! It was classical, and it was a bit boring for me as a kid, but I really loved listening to music and working out the fidelity for myself. My dad was really into Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I used to work out bits of melody from Phantom of the Opera and Cats.

Then I stopped and didn’t pick it up again until high school when I was interested in bands. I got interested in grunge and wanted to play it, so I got into drums and guitar lessons, and really loved that. By the time I was that age I got really shy and didn’t want to play in front of anybody, so I was a bedroom musician. I still kept studying music at school though, and then when I graduated from high school I really wanted to play in a band.

I moved to Melbourne to go to university, and it was my dream to play in a band, so I just had to get over my stage fright! I joined any band that would have me…and I’ve played in some terrible bands and some awesome bands, but I mostly ended up playing drums in all of them, so I dropped the guitar. I played in a heavy metal band, a punk band and an experimental bands, a few jam bands. I did that for a few years, and we recorded and toured which was great. Then I moved to London and didn’t do it again, because London was a bit too big and intimidating and it was hard to have the resources. So that was my musical upbringing!

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

There is a Norwegian black metal band called Satyricon, which I love, and I love them because I find their music is well written, well-constructed, engaging, it’s very melodic, atmospheric, it’s quite dark as well which I find when you’re in that mood. It’s frenetic, there’s a lot of energy to it, and I find it really interesting.

I don’t find I listen to acts any more, I listen to songs rather than acts…but I actually love Calvin Harris! I’ve followed his career, and I don’t love everything that he’s done, but I really love the fact he’s a pop purist. He writes and produces but he does it very well in a purely pop way but I think he respects that genre. He does quality work and it’s such good, good pop I think it’s genius – the construction, the way he has that mix of happiness and sadness in one song. Pop music you have to capture the kind of strategy of teen romance, which is kind of ‘gaggy’ but at the same time it’s got drama, some of it’s got humour, and I just think he’s excellent and very intelligent pop auteur.

For the third I would have to say I love Nirvana really, because that was the band I really got into in depth, because it was rebellious, artistic, subversive, but also even though it was very aesthetically abrasive it was pop music right down the line in the middle. It got me very interested in playing music as well as listening to music, and as well it had more implications for popular music. I was very obsessed with that band for a good five years!

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I’m generally familiar with the big hits because you hear them on TV, and on adverts, and there are definitely pieces I’ve come to know and like, but other than that it’s really through watching films. I did a degree in film theory, and studied lots of films, but didn’t really study the music on the film.

I guess also there was a time when I would tune the radio to Classic FM because I didn’t want anybody to sing at me, I didn’t want to hear any words! I wanted something I knew would be relatively calm and peaceful. I know it’s not always like that though, and that classical music can be tumultuous! I was seeking something that would be a bit more calming I suppose. I remember I did buy an iTunes album of the greatest hits of the classics, but I didn’t really follow it any further than that.

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

I really enjoyed it. I had no expectation, and I guess I thought I might have got bored because if I didn’t know the music I might not follow it. I was surprised that I really did find myself getting enthralled, so I rated it to the point where I would definitely come back on my own. I would like to investigate it more, ask for tips, you know?

I like the opera Carmen, but any other opera I don’t like, because sometimes it sounds to me like yelling. I know you could say I listen to death metal, and that’s shrieking, but you know, it’s just yelling! The vocal music we just saw I didn’t think about it that way, I heard the music and looked at their faces, saw that emotion, and it felt a bit like I was watching a play. I think I might be coming around to being converted!

What did you think of the Bayan Northcott Concerto for Orchestra, the first piece?

That started off really avant-garde, and more modern, and I guess that surprised me in how it developed. It developed very smoothly into something that was a bit more formulaic in a classical sense. I had to remind myself that I didn’t really know what was going on, and the transitions I enjoyed. I felt that one took you on a bit of a journey that was quite surprising. I particularly liked the dynamics where you could hear something that was really loud, layered and reverberant, and then you could get something that was really quiet and minimal on one instrument. I enjoyed the delicacy of the sound, because when you see a band or a DJ you don’t get that, you just get ‘loud’ or ‘off’!

What did you think of the Mozart?

I thought I recognised it from having heard it before. I really liked it, and having someone palying solo you can focus in on it and follow their emotion, which was new and interesting, and I thought it was interesting too how the orchestra seemed to be all on the same level.

Normally you go to see a band and you think I’m seeing my idols, or seeing this famous person, and the people who created the music. They’re in a higher hierarchy so to speak. With the orchestra I had this sense that they’re just normal people, serving the music and all enjoying it. I liked it when it wasn’t about the composer, the rock star, and not about the conductor – they’re not facing us, they’re just delivering it. I really liked that sense of the music being the star. That was a new experience, you could see a different perspective even in the formalities of ‘now it’s my tern to stand up and play’, the ritual of it. It was really touching, and I think classical music might tend to have this image of being a little bit posh, a little bit fancy, but actually these people are not royalty, they’re working for the music. There wasn’t any grandiosity, it was very humble.

And the Zemlinsky?

That was probably my favourite. I was a bit apprehensive because it was like opera, and I’ve not really liked opera before, plus it sounded like it was in German. I don’t speak German, but I wouldn’t have thought it would be a language that would lend itself to singing! But OK, I was really surprised. I stopped thinking about the music. My mind did keep wandering and I was thinking about my own life, and I don’t know if the music was really influencing that or not, but it wasn’t like I was standing there going oh, that was a great bit of trombone, I was thinking about my own life! I was thinking about what was going on in my life.

I’ve recently started doing meditation, and know that it’s good to be present and mindful, so I did start to drag myself back and focus on the sounds and what was going on. It was good, though I did feel like it was a soundtrack to my thoughts. There was a lot of percussion and I really liked the textures of the drums, how deep that sound is, and I think there was a lot of melancholy and ‘blue’ notes. I like that darker sound, I guess that might be a bit of a cliché, but the sadder stuff probably says more to me than the jolly little dances I suppose!

I deliberately didn’t research the program, so think I will read that on the bus home which will be really interesting, to see what was in the text!

Would you go again?

I would. It would be amazing to see a piece I was already familiar with and really liked, so next year I can find out which composers I like more and make a plan to see more of them. At the same time I would also select something at random – something familiar and something new – and see how that works!

Verdict: SUCCESS

 

BBC Proms 2016 – Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, Mozart & Northcott world premiere – Baiba Skride, Simone Young & BBC SO

bbcso-zemlinsky

Soloists Christopher Maltman and Siobhan Stagg take the applause with conductor Simone Young and the BBC Symphony Orchestra after their performance of Zemlinsky‘s Lyric Symphony (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 62; Royal Albert Hall, 31 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

Every festival has its ‘down’ periods – and here it was the turn of the Proms. Don’t stop reading there though, as by ‘down’ period I mean a Royal Albert Hall that was perhaps half full and music that was relatively unknown. The combination can on occasion lead to an unsatisfactory evening, but here it was a heartening opposite.

It was good to note a rare UK appearance for the Australian conductor Simone Young, her first at the Proms. Young is predominantly an opera specialist, so it was perhaps inevitable that Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony of 1923 should bring out the very best in her brief relationship with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

This powerful, passionate account got off to the best possible start, assertively bringing Zemlinsky’s themes of doomed love to the front of the layered texture and packing the music with drama. Here Young was helped by the woodwind and brass, horn player Nicholas Korth in particular, though when singers Christopher Maltman and Siobhan Stagg got into action theirs was the defining contribution.

Baritone Maltman’s silky contribution was brilliantly judged, an ideal complement to Stagg’s soaring soprano, though the biggest notes on her part were saved for the particularly anguished lines in the poems of Rabindranath Tagore. When she began Stratt was a little coy, beautifully so, for this got the audience on to her side and meant we all felt her tragedy in Vollende denn das letzte Lied (Then finish the last song). Maltman it was who ended the symphony, striving for peace, which Young ultimately found in the beautifully floated coda.

The performance was the shade to the light of Mozart’s Violin Concerto no.5. This did receive a slightly heavy performance in comparison to others, but the strings of the BBC SO were beautifully graceful in the slow movement and accommodating to soloist Baiba Skride (below, with the orchestra) in the outer fast movements.

bbcso-skride-mozart

Skride’s violin makes a beautiful sound, and it was a feature of her performance that the notes were floated towards the audience, respectful of the orchestral accompaniment but making the most of Mozart’s melodic inspiration. The choice of cadenzas by Brahms’s contemporary Joseph Joachim was a little risky but the virtuosic passages were sensitively handled, while in the finale, the so-called ‘Turkish’ part of the concerto that actually sounds more Hungarian, there was a pleasing rustic feel, as though we had all been ushered outdoors together. As a footnote to this, Skride chose a movement from a sonata by the eighteenth century composer Johann Paul von Westhoff as her encore.

First up on the program was a world premiere, Bayan Northcott’s Concerto for Orchestra. It is great to have so many in the Proms season, with the unfortunate caveat that not many of these pieces get a second hearing. This one was a premiere in two respects, being Northcott’s first work for orchestra alone. At the age of 76 that is an impressive achievement, and his care over the composition could be sensed in a compressed piece that was full of incident. Debts to 20th century composers such as Hindemith were occasionally felt, but the enthusiasm of the two fast movements drove the music forward, speaking in tunes but also impressing the ear with their instrumental textures too.

Ben Hogwood

Proms guide – First Night: A tale of two Belshazzars

belshazzars-feast-rembrandt

Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt

Prom 1 – Christopher Maltman, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

BBC iPlayer link

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b062nrdk/bbc-proms-2015-season-first-night-of-the-proms

Sibelius’ suite begins at 57:45; Walton’s interpretation at 1:18:36.

The Biblical tale of Belshazzar’s Feast, where the downfall of Babylon is predicted by a human hand writing on the wall during a lavish party, inspired three very different responses. The first, from Handel in 1744, took the form of a large scale sacred piece, but the second half of this Prom threw together two very different responses by twentieth century composers.

Sibelius wrote a score of ten scenes, condensing it into a suite of four for concert performance. It finds the composer in typically economic form, though it is a surprise to note the exotic Oriental Procession, colourfully rendered by Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The Finnish conductor is an expert in this music, and found the emotional depths of the stark Solitude and the emotive Nocturne, where flautist Michael Cox spun a delectable web of notes. The finale, Khadra’s Dance, signed off in typical style.

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The massive forces assembled for Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Photo (c) Ben Hogwood

Walton, on the other hand, throws everything at his 35-minute tale, including the whole story in a choral dramatisation that at times threatened to take the roof off the Royal Albert Hall. With 256 singers (give or take one or two on the naked eye count from the Arena!) this was a massive scale on which to play out the story, and Christopher Maltman did a sterling job in the baritone solo role.

The chorus were the stars, though, and the combined forces of the BBC Singers, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales were absolutely superb; hair-raising, even. Their shout of “SLAIN!” when Belshazzar finally perished was terrifying. No less chilling was the macabre percussion used when the hand appears.

Yet the epic climax of the piece, with Babylon’s redemption trumping the empty jubilation of the feast, was the crowning glory. Brilliantly marshalled by Oramo and superbly sung by the assembled BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, this was a piece to fire the starting gun on the 2015 Proms with maximum power. Here’s to the next 75!

Further listening

If this is your first encounter with the music of Walton, a strong recommendation goes to the composer’s Symphony no.1, his finest orchestral composition:

Sibelius‘ incidental music is curiously elusive – so here is some more in the form of his score for the play Pelléas et Mélisande. You will doubtless recognise the first movement, At the Castle Gate, as the music used for the BBC’s The Sky at Night:

If your curiousity is aroused for the third of the Belshazzar interpretations, this Spotify link gives you Handel‘s oratorio in its entirety:

This BBC Prom also included Nielsen’s ebullient overture to Maskarade and Mozart’s masterly Piano Concerto no.20, with soloist Lars Vogt. They are also on the iPlayer link above