Saturday 17 November 2018

Widening the audience: I chat to Christopher Glynn about his Schubert in English project

Christopher Glynn and Roderick WIlliams recording Schubert's 'Winter Journey'
Christopher Glynn and Roderick WIlliams recording Schubert's 'Winter Journey'
Pianist and artistic director of the Ryedale Festival Christopher Glynn has commissioned new English translations from Jeremy Sams of Schubert's three great song cycles, and having performed the three at the Ryedale Festival and at the Wigmore Hall (Die schone Mullerin with Toby Spence, Winterreise with Roderick Williams [see their performance of 'Rest' on YouTube] and Schwanengesang with Sir John Tomlinson), each has been recorded and the discs are being issued by Signum Classics.

Christopher Glynn credit Joanna Bergin
Christopher Glynn
(Photo Joanna Bergin)
Lieder in English was once very common in the UK, in the first half of the 20th century British singers felt the need to communicate and generally performed lieder in English. But since the Second World War, with the advent of performances in German by singers such as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, singing lieder in German became the norm.

Christopher's project to perform and record Schubert in English arose partly because he came across a clip of the tenor Harry Plunket Greene (1865-1936), [Hubert Parry's son-in-law and the first baritone on Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius] singing Der Leierman (The Hurdy Gurdy Man) from Winterreise in English and was blown away. He wondered what it would be like to revive the tradition using a top notch translator. The project evolved from there, with the desire to use the English versions of the song cycles to reach a wider audience.

It is this desire to widen the audience which drives the project for Christopher. With classical music, only a subset of the audience goes to song recitals and language is very much an issue, with people not wishing to have to spend the recital with their nose in a translation.

Christopher admits that lieder in English translation is very much a 'Marmite' project, people either love it or hate it. He has received outraged letters, but also had letters from people who have loved being able to hear the music sung in English and have discovered Schubert's song cycle through the performances. In Doncaster, Christopher and Roderick Williams did a performance of Winter Journey and had a packed audience who loved the music, something which is unlikely to have happened if it had been in German.

Christopher understands that people will either like it or not, for some the combination of words and music is sacrosanct.
And Christopher is comfortable with that, something is inevitably lost when singing lieder in translation. For instance, the English version needs to rhyme so compromises have needed to be made. But then you lose something as well when singing in German to an audience of non-native speakers unable to appreciate the resonances and nuances of the original language. For his translations of the Schubert cycles, Jeremy Sams has stuck to the spirit rather than the letter of the German originals.

Christopher Glynn and John Tomlinson
Christopher Glynn and John Tomlinson
The idea of lieder in English continues, and next year there will be a semi-staged performance of Hugo Wolf's Italian Song Book at the Barbican, again in Jeremy Sams' translation, performed by Roderick Williams, Rowan Pierce, Kathryn Rudge, Nicky Spence and James Newby. Christopher calls the Wolf wonderful music, and it is full of recognisable characters in the songs, yet the cycle is difficult to place.

There are plans to publish the English versions of the Schubert songs, though Christopher has no firm publisher yet, and he would like to publish with a CD of the piano accompaniments so that amateur singers can sing them. The whole idea behind the project is to disseminate the music as widely as possible.

Christopher would like to take lieder of its pedestal. The original Schubertiade were not grand occasions and Christopher points out that Wilhelm Mueller (whose poems Schubert set in Die schone Mullerin and Winterreise) wrote in a folk-like and conversational manner. Christopher likens the translation process to a television adaptation of a classic novel, there is always the hope that some people will go an read the original novel though some will not. So, with the Schubert in English project, there is a definite element of evangelisation and Christopher wants to reach a wider audience with the songs, but he is happy that though some people will go on to explore the songs on German, some will not.

Next February (2019) Christopher and Roderick Williams are taking this evangelisation a step further and spending three weeks touring schools. Each day they will visit a different school, do workshops during the day with the children and teach them the songs and then in the evening they will perform Winter Journey. Christopher wants the children to feel that the songs are their music, yet for a lot the pieces are pretty remote. They will be visiting schools all over the country, in association with Music in the Round, so it will be quite a marathon. He is looking forward to it with some trepidation, though Roderick Williams has his previous career as a teacher to fall back on! But the songs in Schubert's Winterreise are in many ways classic teenage stuff, dealing with angst and alienation, whilst songs like Der Lindenbaum are very singable.

Schubert: Winter Journey - Roderick Williams, Christopher Glynn
Another of Christopher's recent projects has a language element too, but recording Grieg in the original old Norwegian was a very different journey. He and Claire Booth have recorded a disc of Grieg's songs and lyric pieces. The songs set Norwegian which is something of a challenge, and means that Grieg's songs are rather unfairly neglected, and his song cycle Haugtussa, which Christopher and Claire include on the disc, is a masterpiece. Before making the recording Christopher listened to the piano rolls that Grieg made.

Christopher started as an organist and was an organ scholar at Oxford but then Eamonn Dougan (now assistant director of The Sixteen) asked him to accompany a recital and he has not stopped since, being very much absorbed by accompanying. He enjoys the sense of playing words as much as music.

Christopher has somewhat a double life, half his time is spent as an accompanist and half as the artistic director of the Ryedale Festival in North Yorkshire. He has been artistic director for eight or nine years, and it does make him rather look at everything 'down the other end of the telescope'. He rather enjoys having the two perspectives and feels that the two roles are both simply about sharing. Being an accompanist is very collaborative, whilst as a festival director he needs to be constantly aware of audience engagement and the need to grow the audience.

The festival takes place in the rural area in North Yorkshire between York and Scarborough, and the idea is to bring musical events that people would not otherwise be able to get to, and Christopher also points out that even a trip to Leeds is a good drive away. There are some great venues in the area, with village churches and stately homes and the festival fills these with excellent musical events. It is a very friendly festival with a great atmosphere, for some people the festival is about the music whilst for others it is about the social atmosphere. Christopher's job is very much to think about what will go where, what is suitable to fill each individual space.

The Schubert in English project very much grew out of Christopher's work as a festival director, with the need to engage with a audience and think what the blocks are and how you can get round them.

The story of a journey: Roderick Williams & Christopher Glynn in Schubert's Winter Journey
Vivid story telling: Schubert's Swansong with Sir John Tomlinson and Christopher Glynn

Ryedale Festival - 12-28 July 2019
York Minster, Halle and Mark Elder, 17 April 2019 (Holy Week), Prelude and Act Three of Parsifal.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Staging the unstageable: Britten's War Requiem at English National Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Rare Tchaikovsky and Smyth: an earlier version of the piano concerto and Smyth's large-scale mass at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Elgar, Finzi, Parry, Walton from a different angle: arrangements for brass septet  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Love & Prayer: Nadine Benjamin debut solo album (★★★★) - CD review
  • A sense of subtext: Joe Cutler's Elsewhereness on NMC (★★★★) - CD review
  • Otherwordly concerns: Anderswelt - Marlis Petersen and Camillo Radicke in late-Romantic lieder (★★★★) - CD review
  • Late genius and two sextets: Strauss, Haydn and Brahms at Conway Hall  (★★★½)  - concert review
  • Iconic but flawed: La Bayadère the Royal Ballet  - ballet review
  • Reformation Remainers: Musicians, zealots and loyalists in Tudor England at BREMF - concert review
  • In Remembrance - choral discs commemorating the centenary of the Armistice  - CD review
  • Spirito: Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka in bel canto scenes (★★★★½) - CD review
  • A Mahler Piano Series: Echoes of the East  (★★★½) - concert review
  • All he wanted to do was make people cry  - article
  • Intimate grandeur: Fulham Opera in Verdi's five-act version of Don Carlo  (★★★★) - Opera review
  •  Home

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