Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
When I visited my maternal grandparents as a child I was always drawn to their piano. It was in their front room, a room reserved for I’m not sure what. They didn’t ever sit in there, and it was filled with objects I was told not to touch which all added to the mystique of this instrument. I was fascinated by it and they decided to have it moved to my parents’ house in Gloucestershire when I was five so that I could begin piano lessons. Looking at it now, it is a very small upright, with not much tone and poor action made by that infamous piano maker ‘Luton’. This was my piano until I left home at 18. When I went to University I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with music and while I enjoyed playing the piano it wasn’t my sole musical interest and as such I left school with an advanced diploma on violin and grade 8 flute and organ too. At University I was joint study violin and piano until my second year when my piano teacher was unwell for one term and so a replacement from the RAM was sent, Jeffrey Harris. He was a wonderfully generous man who said in my first lesson ‘Frederick [I’m still not sure why he called me this], you’ve got a technique from Mars’ and so he began rebuilding from scratch my understanding of what it meant to sit at a piano. He taught me for two years during which time I travelled to his home in Surrey and he would give me whole days of free lessons. After two years of the most remarkable and hugely influential lessons, he died suddenly while on tour in the far east. I think ten years after my first lessons with him, I am beginning to understand many of the concepts he was trying to impart. Shortly after he died I won the conducting and concerto prizes at University and applied to the Royal Academy of Music half thinking I’d stay at University and turn my MPhil into a PhD. The RAM offered me a generous entrance scholarship however and I ticked a box to be taught by Michael Dussek and Malcolm Martineau which was one of the best uses of biro I’ve ever made. They turned out to be a superb double act and Malcolm, with his customary generosity, introduced me to the song literature and also instilled in me the desire to, having done ‘all the work’, rely on my musical instincts. Through him I also found what I wanted to do, be a song accompanist.
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
Now that I have chosen to specialise in the art of playing for singers, I’d say the most important influences are the texts great composers chose to set: that magical marriage of word and music, when ‘music does not run its course beside, beneath or even above the poem. It is entirely born of the poem‘ (to paraphrase Henri Sauget). That, and having a fascination with art. A memory bank of images is a wonderful thing if you have an over-active imagination and can find pleasure in music’s play of light and shade. I am also influenced on a daily basis by the other artists with whom I’m fortunate enough to make music.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Any challenges of this career soon pale into insignificance when you stop and realise what an incredibly fulfilling life you can have as an artist doing what interests you and working with a medium you feel is important. Providing your income is such that you can survive, it is a privilege beyond measure to work for yourself doing what you love. That being said, piano-playing is the easy part of the puzzle. Balancing a home life so that you feel you’re not jeopardising the quality of your playing or missing out on experiencing life with family and friends needs constant reassessment. Admin is also a necessary evil. Vulnerability is also worth mentioning. It is one of the greatest assets a musician can have, to be able to let his or her guard down when performing but with this comes an openness which can be at odds with the business elements of this profession. Having a part of you that you keep sacred for music-making sounds pretentious, but it is necessary.
Which performances/compositions/recordings are you most proud of?
I performed Dichterliebe with Tom Allen in Toronto a few years ago and his mastery of timing and the way he made a 2000 seater hall as intimate as the spaces Schumann would have known in performance was miraculous. I look back with fondness on the recording sessions I enjoyed with Felicity Lott for our Elgar disc. She is a very generous colleague and a very warm person and even though the repertoire is not from the top drawer, to have recorded with her is something of which I’m proud. Tom and Flott seem to me like beacons in the music business of people who got it right as good musicians and good humans. I’m also proud of my first Wigmore Hall concert which I performed in 2007 with Clara Mouriz. We worked for months on that recital programme and it was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration and friendship as well as the start of many happy hours of music-making in that hall. I’ve also been very fortunate in being offered recitals to programme myself for Wigmore and in series for the BBC. It’s an aspect of my work I relish and the singers I’ve worked with for these projects have been very special.
Schubert’s Winterreise holds a spell over me too and I first performed it at the RAM with Allan Clayton and got totally obsessed with how rich the psychological tapestry is within the masterpiece. Recently I played it through with Tom Allen in his front room, just because we both had half a day free and fancied it. It was a strange performance that I wish the whole world could have been able to hear because of it’s spontaneity and informality – we didn’t discuss it or rehearse, we just opened the book, began at song 1 and performed it to each other without break. As with all live music it was a moment that passed in time without record.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
This is impossible to answer. I am attracted to most classical music. I do however feel my life would be much the poorer without Bach, Handel, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Fauré, Ravel and Britten.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I’d better just mention pianists, otherwise we’ll be here for a while:
Martha Argerich, Benjamin Britten, Krystian Zimerman, Emil Gilels, Walter Gieseking, Murray Perahia, Mitsuko Uchida, Menahem Pressler, Maria João Pires, Paul Lewis, Radu Lupo, Rosalyn Tureck, Gerald Moore, Graham Johnson, Malcolm Martineau, Bengt Forsberg.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I remember playing violin in Mahler 4 and thinking, aha, I finally think I get this composer. It was music so much easier to understand from within the orchestra. The last piece I conducted was Shostakovich 5 and it’s a work where every gesture must count. I remember being at Symphony Hall and hearing Barenboim conduct the Berlin Staatskapelle in Brahms symphonies over two nights. It was an occasion when everything seemed to line up perfectly – repertoire, musicians, hall, audience’s attentive listening. It was electric, the standing ovations were immediate and for once, necessary and I’ve never heard wind playing like it since.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
- To learn to sing or play clearly. That is, to communicate the essence of whatever you are performing by having a clear map before you begin and to put across the work in the strongest possible light (much easier to write about than to do!). To be humble and learn, because the composer teaches us what to do.
- Preparation is freedom in performance – Try to understand what the symbols in front of you mean – with each composer they mean a different thing.
- If you are an instrumentalist, learn to sing. Singers phrase music instinctively and instrumentalists can learn much about music’s natural ebb and flow from vocalising music. All music consists of consonants and vowels, a mixture of singing and speech. Also become aware of how singers breathe and support breath and use it in piano playing. Loads of pianists hold their breath when they play and this stops the music. As an accompanist you get used to sharing a collective lung with the singer you’re playing for.
- It’s very helpful when you’re accompanying a singer to imagine how you would support them as a conductor.
- Become obsessed with the quality of the sound you make, how it takes up space and time and how it resonates to put across emotions.
- Everyone has a safe, default setting in their playing or singing. Know what yours is and try not to spend time there.
- Don’t have regrets for too long after a recital, just have expectations for yourself in the next one. Will yourself to play it better next time.
- Let people ‘overhear’ what we do on stage (don’t put the ‘emotion’ over to an audience).
- To take huge and guiltless pleasure in what we do. Music is one of mankind’s greatest achievements and without being all quote-y, I love what Fauré wrote: ‘music exists to lift one as far as possible above what is.’
- To exploit the right kind of tension. Much music relies on the performer using emotional tension without getting physically tense.
- Be vulnerable.
- Have an obsessive curiosity to learn.
- I wish I could achieve some of these things more of the time!
What are you working on at the moment?
This season I return to the Wigmore and make my Concertgebouw debut with Katarina Karneus, I have BBC broadcasts with Christopher Maltman and next season will make my Vienna Konzerthaus debut accompanying him and then in San Francisco too. I’m also looking forward to returning to the Cheltenham Festival with Dame Felicity Lott, the Tetbury and Three Choirs with Sarah Connolly, I’m playing for Christianne Stotijn’s study of Britten’s Phaedra with it’s dedicatee Dame Janet Baker, recitals in Oxford, Leamington and Cambridge with Roderick Williams, Sussex with Christiane Karg, and in Freiburg with Carolyn Sampson. I’m also recording Purcell/Britten songs with Ruby Hughes, Anna Grevelius, Robin Blaze, Allan Clayton, Ben Nelson and Matt Rose and I’ll have my residency from the Lammermuir Festival broadcast by BBC Radio 3 with Sophie Bevan, Jennifer Johnston, Andrew Kennedy and Marcus Farnsworth. Recital CDs will be released with Amanda Roocroft and Clara Mouriz.
Pianist Joseph Middleton specialises in the art of song accompaniment and chamber music and has been highly acclaimed within this field. The Times recently described him as ‘the cream of the new generation’ and The Telegraph wrote that he ‘represents the crème de la crème of young British-based musical talent’. He performs and records with the greatest international singers in major music centres across Europe and North America.
Read Joseph Middleton’s full biography here