Tuesday 6 October 2020

Illuminating with wit what it is to be an accompanist: Helmut Deutsch's memoirs translated by Richard Stokes

Helmut Deutsch Memoirs of an Accompanist (translated Richard Stokes); Kahn & Averill

Helmut Deutsch Memoirs of an Accompanist (translated Richard Stokes); Kahn & Averill

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 October 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Frank and witty, the Austrian accompanist's memoirs celebrate a career spanning 50 years

The accompanist Helmut Deutsch sees to have gradually developed on the international scene. Whilst his most recent London appearances have included recitals with Jonas Kaufmann and with Mauro Peter, his autobiography Memoirs of an Accompanist, makes it clear that this has been a slow and steady career, encompassing some 50 years and over 100 singers.

The memoirs were first issued in German in 2019 as Helmut Deutsch, Gesang auf Händen tragen. Mein Leben als Liedbegleiter, and music lovers will be pleased to see the book's English incarnation published this year by Kahn and Averill in a translation by Richard Stokes. Rather impressively, no ghost-writer is credited, these are his own words (albeit filtered through the elegant and lively translation by Richard Stokes). One of the German reviews quoted on the cover refers to the book's humour and intelligence, so clearly the translation has captured the original well, as the book as both illuminating and funny. Deutsch's humorously clear-sighted view of his career is offset by a vein of seriousness, so the book is both and engaging read and a candid picture of what it is to accompany at the highest level for such a long period of time.

Deutsch begins with his first concert with the great baritone Hermann Prey in Korea in 1980, the event from which Deutsch seems to date his mature career. He then takes us back, humorously and yet never making light of the difficulties, to show us how he got there. Deutsch continued working with Prey until the baritone retired, and Deutsch views Prey with clear affection, seeing his faults alongside his virtues. This is not one of those books that puffs up the writer by making everyone he has worked with sound amazing. Deutsch sees faults as well as virtues, and understands why.

The result is engagingly affectionate, but has claws too: one fine singer he admires for their musicianship, wonderful voice and perfectionism, but they never moved him; many of their gestures and vocal effects seemed too studied and controlled. There are, often short, chapters on singers with whom Deutsch has worked, alongside thematic chapters on a wide variety of topics from Practising to Page Turners to Programming. He has most definite opinions, but a lot of illuminating sense to say about the concert world.

As I read, I noted a many humorous stories, bons mots and wise words, but one must stand stead for all:

The closer the concert, the more the accompanist must ask himself to what extent it is reasonable to correct errors and suggest modifications. A singer's mistakes that are discussed at the very last moment will almost without fail be repeated during the performance in their original form, especially if the same mistake has been made over the years. But if there is enough rehearsal time, I always challenge the singer who says 'I've always sung it like that and cannot now learn it correctly.' I try to arouse his sense of ambition finally to get the passage right after so many years of  getting it wrong. Sometimes I'm successful, sometimes not.

Of the singers with whom Deutsch has worked, after Hermann Prey the most intriguing is Jonas Kauffmann, who was originally a pupil of Deutsch's and their relationship then developed. The chapter on Kauffmann includes an unfolding of the singer's earlier career, when his talents were not always appreciated. After a 2001 performance of Schumann and Strauss which, having recently listened to the recording Deutsch confirms was a good concert, the intendant of the festival said 'never bring me someone like that singer again'!

Many of the chapters are short, admirable in that Deutsch does not pad with fluff, but it can make the book seem a little short-breathed; perhaps a book to dip into. There is a great selection of photographs starting with him as rehearsal pianist for Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg in 1965, and a liederabend with Irmgard Seefried in 1971, right through to an intriguing 2018 picture of Deutsch apparently singing to Jonas Kaufmann's accompaniment. The appendices include a chronology, select discography and a list of singers with whom he has worked.

All lovers of song will want this book, it illuminates with wit what it is to be an accompanist, and provides a clear-sighted view from 50 years partnering singers

Helmut Deutsch (born 1945) - Memoirs of an accompanist
Translated by Richard Stokes
Foreword by Alfred Brendel
Kahn & Averill 2020, 228pp, 36 photographs

Available from Amazon, and from the Hive.

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