Guest post by Adrian Ainsworth
It’s easy to assume the singer is the star in classical song – just like with rock bands. I’ve stopped counting how many album covers feature an accompanist-shaped gap.
As a player-of-sorts – not to mention a lieder nut living too close to London’s Wigmore Hall for his wallet to ever completely relax – I’m turning the spotlight towards the piano stool.
Accompanists are indispensible specialists. There’s a huge repertoire to learn, or suddenly be required to learn. Schubert alone wrote some 600 lieder, with other masters of song – from A (er, Brahms) to Z (um, Wolf) – comfortably filling more modest, but still handsome, box-sets with their output.
Of course, there’s a fair amount of other piano music. But song comes with a special set of daunting quirks. Solo, pianists forge their style unfettered. Accompanists must make their mark while supporting and complementing the other artist on stage. And (without getting into divo/a clichés) the link between the emotion channelled by a singer and the sound they produce is uniquely, biologically close, bringing that frisson of nuance and unpredictability the pianist must always be prepared for.
Some of the best-known and loved song – for example, Schubert’s great song cycles – also comes in different editions to suit various voice types. As certain keys will be more comfortable across the pieces than others, I’ve often admired the pianist’s mental strength when working up the songs in their more thorny positions – and then making sure they even bring the right music. Is there a recurring nightmare, like falling naked into your maths exam (or something), where, about to perform ‘Winterreise’ with a baritone, you launch into your version for high voice..?
Star soloists sometimes step onto the accompanist’s pedals. It can work – Mitsuko Uchida has been a superb foil for Dorothea Röschmann in Schumann and Berg – audible empathy, unwavering attentiveness – and a jolt of unwelcome shock at the rarity of seeing women in both roles. At other times… I once heard a great pianist bring so much of their robust energy to ‘Winterreise’, they partly ‘took over’, and you got the sense the two performers would reach the end of the GODDAMN. JOURNEY. IF. IT. KILLED. THEM.
Let’s not forget that accompanists have their own differences in approach. Of the two I hear most often, Malcolm Martineau’s liquid expressiveness – and ability to play to the audience as if also ‘in character’ – makes me slightly favour him in French song, while Julius Drake’s thrilling, vivid style especially electrifies German lieder (I note that MM features on series of Poulenc and Debussy CDs while JD is working through Liszt). Other personal favourites include the sensitive, intriguing playing of Anna Tilbrook, and the brilliantly versatile Joseph Middleton.
They are all professional chameleons, who can keep their own style while shaping the sound around any singer. When you next go to a recital, give at least one ear to the piano, and reap the rewards.
Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at http://www.adrianspecs.blogspot.co.uk