Saturday 3 April 2021

Bringing audiences into closer contact with the poetry: tenor Ilker Arcayürek on the art of the song recital and his new disc of Schubert songs

Ilker Arcayürek and Simon Lepper at recording sessions for 'The Path of Life'
Ilker Arcayürek and Simon Lepper at recording sessions for 'The Path of Life'

The tenor Ilker Arcayürek has just released his third solo disc, The Path of Life, a recital of Schubert songs on the Prospero label with pianist Simon Lepper. It represents a return to Schubert on disc as the tenor's debut disc was also a Schubert recital, Franz Schubert: Der Einsame with Simon Lepper on the Champs Hill label. A finalist in the 2015 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World and a former BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, Ilker Arcayürek has not alwayshad an obvious path to a career as a tenor. He was born in Istanbul and brought up in Vienna from the age of five, and though he did not attend university or conservatoire, he was a member of the studio of Zürich Opera from 2009 to 2013 and went on to be a member of the ensemble of the Stadttheater Klagenfurt (2013-2015) and Staatstheater Nürnberg (2015-18). We met up via Zoom to chat about his new disc, about song as an art-form and about making recital programmes.

Ilker Arcayürek (Photo Gillian Riesen)
Ilker Arcayürek (Photo Gillian Riesen)
When I ask Ilker why return to Schubert for the latest disc, he laughs and says why not. He sees the new disc as very much a follow-up to that first disc. The Champs Hill disc was his debut recording, and he now feels he can express himself more comfortably, and Schubert as a composer remains important to him. The Path of Life programme is one that he has lived with, he debuted it in 2019 (and performed it at the Wigmore Hall) though since then the programme has developed and changed.

When thinking about the disc, Ilker coincidentally found an image by the Moroccan photo artist Achraf Baznani, which inspired Ilker, making him think it perfect as the cover image. Baznani says of himself that he doesn't take photographs he tells stories, and in this image we see a person leaping from one pillar to another, you can see that the end is coming, but each step gets more difficult.

The programme for The Path of Life has a clear narrative arc to it, with the songs in distinct sections, five chapters, which are seen as stages of life: love, longing, search for inner peace, resignation, and redemption. This telling a story through song is something that Ilker has explored on his discs as well as in recitals. He likes being able to explore a recital programme with a dramatic direction to it, as in an opera.

His first disc, Der Einsame, brought together Schubert songs under a theme, but for the second disc, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (with pianist Fiona Pollak on C-Avi), there was more of a clear sense of narrative, and he has expanded things further on this disc, with Ilker considering the harmonic transitions between the songs. At this point he asks me how I have listened to the new disc (in fact via files emailed to me), this is because on the physical CD he has adjusted the gaps between the songs so that some run directly into each other whereas between others there is space. And this is important to him, that some songs are connected, and that the breaks and pauses between the songs are part of the music too.

This is something he thinks about in live performance too. Sometimes he wants to keep the connection and the tension between songs, though you have to know when to connect songs and when they need to have a break to let them sit.  

The Path of Life - Ilker Arcayürek, Simon Lepper

The Path of Life is a programme and a recording that he feels so well connected to, hence his desire to have the right visual image on the disc. He has also thought about staging the recital and has had some discussions with a film director. Though it is early days yet, and he is worried that there would not be an appetite for such a project having already recorded the disc. 

Ilker regards his task as a lieder singer is to bring audiences into closer contact with the poetry in a modern way. He points out that the second song on the disc, Liebhaber in aller Gestalten, is not so up to date in its sentiments, it opens 'I wish I could be a fish, so brisk and quick'. Ilker sees his job to be to bring the audience into an understanding of the honesty of the poem, with its last verse including the line 'I am as I am, just take me as such'. He finds that there is so much honesty in the poetry set in these songs, even though they can seem so serious. Ilker wants to bring out this honesty and emotion in performance. 

He likes the genre because the songs make him think; this is why he performs lieder. The topics are often close to his heart, and he works on the songs to get them out as much as possible.

But that said, he likes to keep a balance between opera, lieder and oratorio in his career and does not want to exclude anything. In fact, he feels that to be a complete singer you need all three, and it is also important to perform modern music as well. 

There is also your work-life balance and your family to be considered. Family is clearly important to Ilker, his mother crops up at various points in our conversation as do his wife and his daughter. When we begin our discussion, Ilker is at home with his daughter and apologises for having to settle her before we talk and she seems to have been quietly self-contained for our entire interview.

Last year, Ilker was travelling a lot and that meant that he did not see his wife and daughter, so he tries to achieve a balance. He makes time for his family and his job too, as it is not just a job, for him, it is a vocation and also his hobby. If he performs in an opera, then he can be away from home for two or three months, which requires some planning. In an ideal world, he would take two opera projects per year and devote the rest of his time to concerts, when he can be away from home for just three or four days, which is easier.

When I ask further about contemporary music, Ilker's response seems somewhat muted. He understands the importance of performing new pieces and renewing the repertoire (his performances have included Thomas Larcher's Padmore Cycle), but on the other hand, there are so many existing pieces central to the repertoire that he would not want to miss. Also, he wants new pieces to have a strong sense and intention, to have a story behind them. 

When I ask if he is planning a future Schubert disc, he answers 'I wish'. But another favourite composer is Schumann, so a disc of his music would be interesting. Then there is the issue of Schubert's three great song cycles which Ilker would like to record, particularly Winterreise. This cycle needs mental maturity and a certain understanding of life. But it is also about young love, the protagonist is not an older man, and Ilker would love to do a recording of Winterreise with the protagonist as a young man. Another such work that needs life experience is Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.

Ilker Arcayürek
Ilker Arcayürek

Growing up, there was a lot of classical music around thanks to Ilker's mother. His older sister played the violin and studied at the conservatory in Istanbul and it was his mother who moved the family to Vienna so that his sister could study the violin further. So there was a lot of music in the house, classical and jazz as well as other styles, including Guns N' Roses, and Abba.

Ilker started the piano at the age of seven, and when he was nine he needed to decide at school and chose to join the choir. After the choirmaster heard Ilker he said the boy had a good voice and Ilker was invited to audition for the Mozart Boys Choir. At first, he didn't want to sing, but he loved the energy of the choir boys and the first time he saw them they were playing football with a coke tin. On joining the Mozart Boys Choir he quickly became a soloist, which meant that he sang at Vienna State Opera and Vienna Folksoper. He saw singers such as Placido Domingo and Agnes Baltsa on stage, and whose performances made him dream of being an opera singer.  He stopped singing for a while and wasn't able to study at a conservatoire, but an invitation to join the studio at Zurich Opera proved to have a transformative effect on his career.

Though born in Turkey, he has lived in Western Europe since the age of five and is now most comfortable in German, it is the language that he expresses himself in best. He comments that when he went to Cardiff (for BBC Cardiff Singer of the World) and made his debut at the Wigmore Hall, everyone referred to him as a Turkish tenor. This rather obsessed him at the time, but he now says that he is used to it and doesn't mind.

He has also discovered he has a talent for languages, and so is comfortable singing in them. When we chat he has his first experience of singing English about to come up, a performance of Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings coming up in Amsterdam with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta (without conductor) with horn player Felix Klieser [the concert was on 25 March 2021, and is on YouTube]

He describes the Serenade as a wonderful work, though it was a piece that he was not so aware of. In Austria they are not so much in touch with Britten's music, the songs and the sacred music are not performed that much so discovering the Serenade was, for him, a new world. He finds Britten's musical language so simple, so transparent, yet it takes you to another world.

When he was younger, Ilker visited the Edinburgh Festival with his choir and one morning decided to walk up Arthur's Seat to see the sunrise. It was windy and cold, but the landscape that he saw is one that he sees when he hears the horn introduction to the Serenade. There are so many details to explore and he is very excited; he also mentions the way Britten's writing for the horn echoes the words in 'Pastoral' with the text 'The day's grown old' illustrating the words. At this point in our conversation, he demonstrates, singing the horn part.

When singing German lieder to non-German speakers, Ilker finds that language or the lack of it is not a barrier. If you are connected with yourself, then you can express emotion in music so that it is understandable to the audience. After all, if we see someone in the street crying, or expressing joy or suffering, we can understand what they are conveying. People connect with you if you are honest. This is one of the reasons that Ilker's programmes can seem a little dark, he wants the music to be as honest as possible.

Schubert: The Path of Life - Ilker Arcayürek, Simon Lepper - Prospero

Looking ahead, he is due to be performing The Path of Life programme at the Schubertiade in Hohenems [on 30 May 2021, see Schubertiade website], and there is a tour planned in Belgium of Mozart's Requiem with Philip Herreweghe, and he has a performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion at the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona. Though quite which of these will actually come to pass, it is difficult to be certain in the present climate.

In person, Ilker is engaging and charming and this proves to be one of those interviews where I regret that we were not able to talk face to face. He has some thoughtful ideas about song and song recitals and has clearly considered what is important to him, why he performs and what he wants to achieve.  

Ilker Arcayürek on disc

  • Franz Schubert: The Path of Life - Ilker Arcayürek, Simon Lepper - Prospero; available from Amazon, from Hive. 
  • Lieder einter Fahrendes Gesellen - Ilker Arcayürek, Fiona Pollak - C-Avi; available from Amazon. 
  • Franz Schubert: Der Einsame - Ilker Arcayürek, Simon Lepper - Champs Hill; available from Amazon, from Hive. 
  • Beethoven Arranged - Ilker Arcayürek, Ludwig Chamber Players - CPO; available from Amazon.

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