Saturday 15 May 2021

Bärenreiter's Schubert edition, BBC Singers & Bathrobe recitals: baritone Jamie W Hall's remarkable journey to making his first solo disc, Schubert's 'Die schöne Müllerin '

Jamie W Hall
Jamie W Hall

If you kept an eye on the Twittersphere during 2020 then the name Jamie W. Hall may be familiar, as he became something of a phenomenon with his bathrobe recitals. Jamie's day job is as a member of the BBC Singers but his adventures with his on-line recitals last year has emboldened him to explore further and when we spoke he had just successfully finished crowdfunding for a recording of Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin which he was planning to record the following weekend to be issued on the Convivium Records label.


The success of the crowdfunding had been something of a surprise for Jamie and he calls it extraordinary, having gone into the project with a 'suck it an see' attitude. As regards choosing Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin as the work to record, he admits that pragmatically it might have been better to go with something that had not been recorded before. But the Schubert cycle is one that he wants to record, he has been working on the music for over two years and he regards this as a once in a lifetime opportunity.


Jamie's journey began well before March 2020. In 2019 he was bought volume one of Bärenreiter's Schubert lieder editionJamie has had a crush on Schubert since he was a teenager but has had not time to explore Schubert's songs as a singer. He decided to learn a song a week, till he lacked the stamina. By chance, he started with the 16th song of Die schöne Müllerin and then continued with the rest of the cycle. This went on during the year leading up to March 2020, and he was just at the point of thinking about performing Die schöne Müllerin when lockdown happened.


Jamie W Hall at the recording session for Die schöne Müllerin
Jamie W Hall at the recording session for Die schöne Müllerin
(Photo Mike Cooter)
Like many performers, Jamie felt numb as events in his professional diary disappeared. The bathrobe recitals were never designed as such, it is just that for the first video he never really noticed that he hadn't got dressed. It made people laugh, creating fun over what was very much a disjoint in their lives. He recorded each song in the morning, which gave a sort of structure to the day and the feedback brought a sense of community. He admits that there might have been an element of falseness to this, but the feedback made him feel as if he had a purpose. The BBC took a very long time to gets its corporate head around COVID-safe measures so that Jamie was doing stuff remotely for weeks, which made for a lonely existence.


For the bathrobe recitals, he drew on his experience as a BBC Singer, where all the singers come to the choir trained to some degree as solo singers and the repertoire includes a lot of opera. But some of the performing elements Jamie drew on went back to his school days when he would perform show songs, and the bathrobe recitals quickly left classical behind to popular song and musicals. And Jamie loved it.

 With a choral singer's life in a group like the BBC Singers, singers essentially turn up and perform. There is usually little time for self-examination. Working via recordings for the bathrobe recitals brought a greater element of vocal navel gazing, Jamie could spend time listening to the recording and thinking about it, about his voice and vocal production. And singing Schubert's songs has opened up an area of sound in his voice that choral singing has not allowed him to explore. This is particularly true of his upper voice, and the day in day out practice that 2020 allowed meant that he could explore the colour and flexibility that Schubert's music needs. Die schöne Müllerin isn't something that you can just power through!


He admits now, that if his planned pre-COVID performance of Die schöne Müllerin had taken place it would have been wrong and that he has benefitted from the time that lockdown has given him. Modern concert life offers relatively few opportunities for performing song repertoire. But Jamie wonders whether song might be making something of a come-back in an era when getting a full orchestra and soloists into a hall with an audience is difficult. But even then, it is often the bigger names who are brought to the table, frequently these are singers who have a significant profile thanks to opera performances. It is far harder for singers like Jamie.


Jamie's favourite recordings of Schubert song are largely not by opera singers. But one that he does mention is baritone Roderick Williams, whom Jamie feels takes his lieder voice into opera. And in fact, Williams came to Schubert's song cycles just a few years ago and his blogs about the process were reassuring; that someone like Roderick Williams has the same thoughts as Jamie when appearing in this repertoire.


Looking ahead, Jamie has already started looking at Winterreise, and he fell in love with it immediately, though he has never heard a live performance of the work. (He is hopeful of catching one post-lockdown). But there are lots of other things that he would be interested in doing. One thing is certain, he is not doing crowdfunding again. This involved significant work and is not a business model for the future, so he would need to work out another funding model. And he is looking forward to being able to do public performances with pianist Paul Plummer.


Paul Plummer at the recording session for Die schöne Müllerin
Paul Plummer at the recording session for Die schöne Müllerin
(Photo Mike Cooter)
Jamie grew up in a small mining village on the South Yorkshire border where classical music provision was profoundly limited. But by the age of 11, he was hooked on music and would play any new tune on his car-boot-sale keyboard. And by some miracle, he ended up studying music at university where he joined a choir and fell in love with choral singing.


For Jamie, choral singing is not a backup plan and he would not want to leave it behind. But whilst at university there was an element of pragmatism to his path, it would have been dangerous to go off to music college without a clear career path. He went to university in a cathedral city and was attracted by the prospect of being a Lay Clerk. In fact, he transferred his degree to Liverpool so that he could sing at Chester Cathedral and then sang at Winchester Cathedral. In all, he was a Lay Clerk for four years. 


He admits that his first few services were very stressful, and he almost derailed the very first service but he did learn to sight-read! Something which stood him in good stead when he joined the BBC Singers, where they also get through a lot of repertoires. For his first year with the BBC Singers, Jamie would take things away, so he could prepare them because the speed that they take works in is formidable, though after 12 years with the BBC Singers Jamie can now keep up.


When we spoke, the BBC Singers had been back in the studio for three or four weeks, and the social distancing and safety measures are extreme, very much over-delivering on the advice of the DCMS. The distancing measures mean that it is far harder work than usual, with the singers spaced out. From June to December 2020, the BBC Singers worked solidly and this was incredibly taxing for the production team. Usually, the number of studio recordings they do is quite low as there are live events, education projects and more, but in the new environment, everything was a studio recording.


Another project which arose last year was the Proud Songsters, a group of six or seven friends who had no idea how to spend lockdown. Thanks to the bathrobe recitals, Jamie had discovered YouTube Live so the group developed the idea of doing lieder recitals using a mobile phone to film them! The first one was very stressful, as they realised that you need very good broadband, otherwise the phone loses power rapidly. These were singers who loved song but had not the experience of doing it and lockdown gave them that.


With performing lieder you need time, time to learn the music and time to memorise it. And Jamie feels that for many singers this is the barrier to being able to perform lieder, the time needed to memorise the music. He feels that he has never known a piece as well as Die schöne Müllerin, and this is essential. But he will have a copy of the music there when they do recordings because the sort of slips of language which might pass by in a live performance need to be checked and corrected in a recording.


Initially, though people were generous with the crowdfunding, Jamie had no major sponsors but Expressive Audio stepped forward to enable to recording to be made in DXD, which is very high end and Jamie comments that he is not sure he will ever be able to afford the equipment to hear the DXD quality recording played back unless he goes to the Expressive Audio showroom in Lincolnshire. But this does mean that the sound quality of the performance needs to be forensic.


Jamie W Hall
Jamie W Hall

Jamie is doing the recording in German, though his preparations include making his own translations. The problem with performing 
Die schöne Müllerin in English is that a lot of the detailing in existing translations does not match the performance that Jamie has in his head. He would want to write his own English translation but is not sure that he is able to. However, the project remains in the back of his mind.

Jamie W. Hall and Paul Plummer's recording of Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin will be issued on Convivium Records

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  1. Lovely piece... I contributed to the crowdfunder so I’m following with interest. You might want to correct naval to navel... in gazing terms, that is!


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