Saturday 5 October 2019

Not letting the audience off the hook: I talk to Simon Wallfisch & Edward Rushton about performing Lieder, & about their new album

Simon Wallfisch and Edward Rushton
Simon Wallfisch and Edward Rushton
The baritone Simon Wallfisch has a new album out on the Resonus label, Songs of Love and Death, a disc of Schumann songs with Simon's regular duo partner, pianist Edward Rushton. It is the pair's fifth disc together, and very much a joint creation. Simon was keen for me to talk to both of them about the disc, but as Edward lives in Switzerland this caused logistical issues and whilst my chat with Simon was face to face, Edward joined us via Skype for a surprisingly relaxed and wide-ranging conversation about how the two make song together.

Simon Wallfisch
Simon Wallfisch
I was curious as to why they chose Schumann's songs. For Edward, Schumann is always modern and to perform his songs is to try to get under the skin of what it means to be Robert Schumann, what it means to be human. The songs ask questions which are timeless. The two also worked on the CD's booklet notes together, a enjoyable process requiring an immense amount of back-and-forth to boil 4000 words down to 1000. So the disc is very much a joint enterprise, and their thoughts on the songs are equally linked. At one point the connection to Edward cuts out, and when he re-joined the conversation it was to find him echoing Simon's thoughts expressed to me when Edward was not listening.

This is dangerous music, not every day listening 

Schumann's Kerner Lieder sets poems by Julius Kerner who was a doctor. Simon points out that Kerner was obsessed with the connection between nature and physical health, so a song like 'Sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend' with its longing for the forest, expresses the thought that without nature we can only half sing and towards the end the piano part fizzles out. It is this connection between the music and the poetry in a master song writer like Schumann which is important to both Simon and Edward.

Turning to Heine, the poet set by Schumann in Dicterliebe, every poem of his has a dark edge to it, and Edward sees Schumann as feeling a deep connection to Heine's poetry. Despite being written in 1840, the year that Robert and Clara Schumann were finally able to marry, Dichterliebe is anything  but a simple exploration of romantic love. There seems to have been many layers to Robert's love for Clara, layers of depth and pain, and Edward sees this as something that any artist feels on achieving fulfillment. Schumann, in the cycle, asks what it means to be a poet, and in fact both the title of the song-cycle and the order of the poems is Schumann's, creating a narrative through the songs.

By contrast, in the Kerner Lieder there is less of a clear narrative, the songs are more about man's relationship to nature. Though Edward points out that the cycle moves from health to ill health. The 11th song  is about ill health, and by the 12th (which uses the same music), Schumann almost takes the sound out of the song leaving it bloodless. The cycle asks what happens if we don't have a connection to nature, a different story perhaps, but one that it is important to keep telling today. For Simon, the Kerner settings touch different chords to the other songs on the disc.

The final group of songs on the disc are Schumann's Fünf Lieder Op. 40, settings of Hans Christian Anderson poems (in German translations by Adelbert Chamiso, author of the words of Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben). Edward comments that they are hardly cosy fairy tales, but are dark, brutal and rather nasty, going even further than the other songs on the disc. The songs were written in 1840, Robert was supposed to be happy with Clara but was making this dark music.

Edward feels that with Robert Schumann's sheer popularity and the often melodious quality of his songs, we can lose the feeling that Schumann's songs matter. It was listening to Schumann's songs as a teenager that made Edward want to be a musician, to communicate to listeners. And for him, the songs are personal, modern and dangerous, they exist on the edge between bourgeois idyll and deep misery and madness. Simon mentions the song 'Der Spielman' in the Fünf Lieder Op. 40 in which the poet is playing the fiddle at his beloved's wedding, and then he turns to address the audience directly, and Schumann marks the passage 'Wild' in the score, with lots of accents. This is dangerous music, not every day listening and later on in our conversation Simon talks about the importance of the audience not letting the music wash over them.

Simon's route into singing was through listening to Lieder, hearing recordings of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau in Schubert's Winterreise and Schumann's Dichterliebe and finding something pure, honest and stark in Fischer Dieskau's approach to language.

The freedom to be honest and direct when performing

Simon and Edward do not spend much time rehearsing details such as the tempos and dynamics in the songs, instead they concentrate on understanding the poetry and the songs' imagery. Simon feels that if the two feel the music in the same way, then the tempo will always be right because 'the underneath stuff' has been done. If they both connect with and empathise with the way Schumann responds to the poetry then they can perform the music with genuine honesty.

It is important to Edward that they give themselves the freedom to be honest and direct when performing, not hiding by artistic mannerism. That there is a raw humanity about Schumann's song, as if looking inside someone's soul and seeing the gory stuff inside, and he hopes that some of it comes over.

The two met in 2009, when Simon was at the opera studio in Zurich, and at first they spent most of their time together playing cricket and hanging out, having fun. But as Simon's schedule eased off they worked together more. Simon's father (the cellist Raphael Wallfisch) has worked with the same pianist, John York, for 40 years and he commented to Simon that when you find someone with whom you can work musically, then stick with it. And so, even though the two live in different countries they continue their collaboration with their latest disc being their fifth together.

Edward adds that they have fun on a friendship level too and Simon jokes that his relationship with Edward is 'more fun than a marriage as they only get the good bits'. There are no boundaries to their projects together, and they have other things in the pipeline including contemporary works and lesser known composers.  Also, the longevity of the relationship means that they are able to boss each other around and to get cross!

Edward, who is nine years older than Simon, has been something of a mentor as well and Simon feels that musically he owes Edward a lot. Edward is also a composer (recent operas have been commissioned and produced by The Opera Group, Zurich Opera and Hannover State Opera) and his father is the musicologist Julian Rushton, which seems to give him an eye for accuracy and he admits that he tries not to let Simon 'get away with stuff'. Both emphasise the importance of not 'faking it' during performance, questioning why perform something that particularly way. Simon also feels that Edward being a composer infuses his piano playing, as his interpretation comes from his knowledge as a composer. Edwards adds that studying other composers knowing what it is like yourself, you realise the work that goes into the decisions about every detail, every note. It makes him constantly ask why a composer has done something.

It is important that the performance be real

For them it is important that the performance be real, it has to connect to the meaning of the song. To use the desire for expression and the broadest palate of colours in the voice in the service of the poetry, to use technique to get music and poetry across in the most immediate manner. And again, they refer to not letting the audience off the hook, not letting them simply sit back and relax.

Simon plays the cello as well as singing, and views Lieder as a chamber music. He points out that often in Schumann's songs, the true meaning of the piece is conveyed by the piano part rather than the vocal line.  In opera he finds that range of colours available to a singer is limited because of the need to be heard over the orchestra, whereas with just voice and piano he can do everything he dreams of, singing as quietly as possible if it is needed.

For Simon, the way a cellist works with a pianist is somewhat different to how most singers work with pianists. An instrumentalist will ask for technical things in the piano, but many singers are not equipped to ask technical questions of their accompanist, whereas Simon is just as fussy about details with Edward as he would be if playing the cello with a pianist. Simon feels he approaches song from a cellist's perspective as well from a singer's. Simon couldn't not play the cello, he feels he would lose his singing soul if he did not play the cello and vice versa.

Performing Lieder also means knowing when not to do something, it is important not to over do things and leave a lot to the reception of the performance by the audience. And Simon mentions his and Edward's most recent performance of Schubert's Winterreise, a work they have performed five or six times, where it was the first time he felt still and did not over do things, creating a performance which Edward describes as so much more powerful and intense. This ability to stand back a bit to achieve balance, is something that has to be learned through experience, and that in performance it is too easy to put yourself in the way, in the limelight, instead of the song itself.

They use WhatsApp a lot in their rehearsal process

They use WhatsApp a lot in their rehearsal process, sending each other short sound-files and bit by bit they assemble a performance. They describe their rehearsal process as one of questioning, asking a question of every chord and note, why Schumann wrote it the way he did? There is no right answer but asking the question is their route to creating the performance. But then you have to leave all this behind, and simply perform the work. Both hope that this new disc is not their last attempt at recording Schumann's Dichterliebe, and would like to come back to it on disc in the future, whilst they have agreed to wait five years before trying to record Schubert's Winterreise.

The problem of getting audiences to lieder recitals is one that exercises both of them. Outside of a few venues like the Wigmore Hall,  and festivals such as the Oxford Lieder Festival, there is a tendency for audiences to regard lieder recitals as 'not interesting'. Yet they don't want to force people to come to concerts. They see one issue as being that songs were not really designed for big concerts, but for more intimate venues and they would like to change the format of the recital, something not too long and mixing song with informal talking.

The more lieder that Edward performs on a small scale, the more he values the quality of proximity, and wonders about doing concerts in large concert halls. On a small scale you can make connections between the music and the poetry, between the voice and the piano, between performers and the audience, with no sense of the audience getting comfortably off the hook. For Edward (and Simon), an audience listening to 90 minutes of song should find it hard work.

Schumann's songs are complex and there is a lot to absorb, and it is important that audience members do active listening, mapping the emotions from the songs onto their own lives. Song should not be 'an easy ride' or simply entertainment.

Edward Rushton and Simon Wallfisch
Edward Rushton and Simon Wallfisch
Looking ahead, the duo will be launching their Schumann disc on 7 October at an event hosted by the Schubert Society of Great Britain at the Lancaster Hall Hotel (details from the Schubert Society website). This will mix informal performance of Schumann's songs with Edward and Simon discussing the disc with Richard Jackson. Then on Sunday 9 February 2020, they will be performing Schumann's Dichterliebe and Kerner Lieder at Conway Hall, as part of the Sunday concerts series.

They have a disc of Brahms songs in the pipeline for Resonus, and are going to be recording songs by Max Kowalski. A man known as Schoenberg's lawyer, as Kowalski represented Schoenberg in a copyright suit, but he was an interesting character and wrote some good songs.

Simon Wallfisch and Edward Rushton on disc
  • Songs of Love and Death - Robert Schumann: Dichterliebe, Kerner Lieder, Fünf Lieder, Op. 40 - Simon Wallfisch, Edward Rushton - RESONUS CLASSICS - available from Amazon
  • Gesänge des Orients - Viktor Ullmann, Gottfried von Einem, Pavel Haas, Egon Wellesz, Richard Strauss, Hans Gal - Simon Wallfisch, Edward Rushton - NIMBUS RECORDS - available from Amazon
  • Geoffrey Bush Songs - Simon Wallfisch, Edward Rushton - LYRITA - available from Amazon
  • French Songs:from la belle époque to les années folles - Caplet, Honegger, Milhaud, Ravel - Simon Wallfisch, Edward Rushton - NIMBUS RECORDS - available from Amazon
  • Robin Holloway: The Lovers' Well - Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Kate Symonds-Joy, James Robinson, Simon Wallfisch, Edward Rushton, William Vann - DELPHIAN - available from Amazon
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