Saturday 14 August 2021

Don't be scared of song: I chat to pianist Malcolm Martineau the sheer variety of Fauré's songs

Gabriel Fauré playing piano duets Melle Lombard
Gabriel Fauré playing piano duets Mlle. Lombard in 1913

Pianist Malcolm Martineau has just released the fourth (and final) volume of The Complete Songs of Gabriel Fauré on the Signum Classics label, following on from his set of the complete songs for Francis Poulenc on the same label, the Fauré volumes use a wide variety of singers both young artists and those of rather more mature vintages to great effect. I recently met up with Malcolm at a cafe conveniently between our homes in South London to chat about Fauré, song and much else besides.

Malcolm Martineau at the recording session for his recent Fauré disc
Malcolm Martineau at the recording session for his recent Fauré disc
So, what was it about Fauré's songs which made Malcolm want to record all of them, and for the second time, as he recorded them in 2009 with mezzo-soprano Sarah Walker and baritone Tom Krause (1934-2013)? Simply, the sheer variety, from the almost salon songs of his earliest period to those which are perhaps his best known to the over-the-top writing of La bonne Chanson (when Camille Saint-Saens heard this cycle he thought Fauré had gone mad) to the very, very spare late songs. That is part of the fascination of Fauré, his long career gave him such a massive range. He lived until 1924 (he died at the age of 79) and he was writing music until the end, completing his String Quartet less than two months before he died.

Malcolm points out that Fauré, like Shostakovich and Stravinsky, stuck to his guns throughout his career and remained true to himself; whilst he varied his writing style, he never imitates other composers or other styles. It can be argued that his reaction to the developments of the 20th century was the spareness of his late style.

When Malcolm recorded the songs in 2009 it was his first-ever record series, his only other recording at the time being Schubert's Schwanengesang with baritone Bryn Terfel [still available if you search on Amazon]. When Sarah Walker phoned Malcolm about the Fauré project, at first he thought it was one of his friends having a joke! Sarah Walker was one of Malcolm's mentors and he feels that he learned a great deal from her. 

That early set used just two singers, but for the current Fauré project Malcolm has worked with a great variety of singers from young artists to the mezzo-soprano Ann Murray (who is technically retired). For this set and the Poulenc set, Malcolm used a group of singers as he wanted to evoke the atmosphere of the first performances of these songs as music-making amongst friends. The idea is also that the atmosphere makes the songs more accessible without dumbing them down. Malcolm also recorded all the songs in their original keys; key was very important to Fauré, giving songs a particular colour and mood.

This friends making music approach is one that Malcolm is using again in his complete songs of Henri Duparc, which is in the works, and complete songs of Maurice Ravel (which is in progress), and he is thinking of turning his attention to Charles Gounod. Rather than organising the songs thematically or chronologically, Malcolm groups them as recital programmes with one of the major song cycles at the centre of each disc (for the last Fauré disc there are two, La bonne chanson and L'horizon chimerique), and the singers are a mix of the known and the not-yet-well-known, such as baritone John Chest who has featured on the Fauré set. Not only has the Fauré set included recordings from Ann Murray, but tenor John Mark Ainsley returned to the studio for the first time since he retired from singing as a result of developing Leukemia.

The Complete Songs of Gabriel Fauré - Malcolm Martineau - Signum Classics
The development of French song during Fauré's lifetime (1845-1924) is very much linked to French poetry, as during the latter part of the 19th-century poets moved away from the stately forms of classical French poetry. Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), whose verse was much set by Fauré, used quite short lines in his poems and Fauré was interested in writing songs that were linked to the way that you spoke the text. As far as Malcolm is concerned, another advantage of Fauré's songs is that the composer was definitely writing for the piano and not trying to be an orchestra, so Fauré's piano parts are so much fun, full of textures and colours. Fauré was also very anti-virtuoso, he never wrote showy piano parts. In this, Fauré exemplified the French school of composers influenced by Cesar Franck, (1822-1890) by contrast, Malcolm describes the songs of Jules Massenet (1842-1912) as 'pure opera'. Conversely, Fauré's only opera Penelope (premiered in 1913 in Monte Carlo) does not work as opera, even though it is full of good things, because Fauré had no dramatic sense when it came to opera.

If you look at Malcolm's recording catalogue, there are a significant number of complete sets, those on Signum Classics, his Debussy songs on Hyperion (which was recorded over 15 years), and there is a complete Brahms songs in the works for Linn Records. For Brahms' songs, Malcolm plans to perform the various opus numbers as complete groups (rather than picking and choosing). Though Brahms did contradict himself at times, it seems that he wanted his groups of songs to function as liederstrauss, bouquets of lieder, which worked in themselves, often for two contrasting voices.

Malcolm also admits that he loves re-inventing the wheel, whatever the project he is keen to encourage people not to be scared of song and to look at it differently. So, for instance, when he recorded the complete Mendelssohn songs for Champs Hill, it was both his duty and his joy to use the project to give the young singers involved a calling card. He also comments that it feels as if there are more young singers interested in song from the current generation than previously. It helps, of course, that when performing song there are only two of you involved, so it is easier to get right whereas in opera, wonderful though that is, there are so many people involved, so many elements to go wrong. He also enjoys the young singers' reactions to songs which he has been performing for 30 years, and they bring a freshness to the songs and a new reaction.

Another big project is Decades for Robert King's Vivat label. This is taking 19th-century song decade by decade and assembling songs dating from a particular decade from a variety of composers. The project arose out of a German song series which Malcolm did at Wigmore Hall; afterwards, Robert King asked him if he would like to record it for Vivat and they expanded it to include nationalities other than German. This process Malcolm found fascinating, consulting experts and discovering some amazing new repertoire. It was also a chance to give young singers their moment, as well as suggesting new repertoire for more established singers.

Malcolm mentions musicologist Susan Youens' comment that words and music are strange bedfellows, and agrees with her, that things don't always work. But when I ask if he has ever thought about a project that he's done that and doesn't need to do it again, his response is a resounding 'Not yet'. He loves the variety of the repertoire as well as working with such a range of singers, from the experienced to the young artists.

It is Schubert's songs that he always comes back to, and Malcolm refers to the composer as the Shakespeare of song, there is something in a Schubert lieder that can apply to every situation in life, yet there is always some sense of hope as well and Malcolm loves that Schubert's final song was Der Taubenpost from Schwanengesang. And Malcolm feels that Schubert does not bring his own agenda, whereas with the songs of a composer like Robert Schumann, much though Malcolm loves them, you get everything that is going on in his life. And then there is Hugo Wolf and his lunacy. Malcolm feels that people are scared of Wolf and shouldn't be.

He describes programming a concert as being like creating a menu, and there are certain songs that you always want to leave until the end. He is somewhat wary of themed programmes as they might look good on paper but not work in practice.

Malcolm was born in Edinburgh where his mother (Hester Dickson) was a noted piano pedagogue. In 1977 at the age of 17 he took part in the first BBC Young Musician competition and went on to have a solo career, but he found life very lonely. He had always loved collaborating and his decision to become an accompanist was a deliberate one. He loves the way that a collaboration is different each time, there is always something new to discover, and he enjoys living in a state of flux. As one of his regular collaborators commented once, 'I don't know why we bother to rehearse as the performance is always different'.

Such collaborations require an element of mutual trust, and Malcolm loves it when young singers realise that what they think of song is just as relevant, and he feels that people are becoming more daring again, loosening up in their approach to the song repertoire. The generation after baritone Dietrich Fischer Dieskau (1925-2012) was rather inhibited by living under his cloud. The baritone Olaf Bär commented once that growing up in East Germany he was not allowed to listen to Fischer Dieskau, which seemed limiting at the time, but in fact, later came as a complete relief.

When he was just 14, Malcolm first heard Dietrich Fischer Dieskau performing with pianist Daniel Barenboim, and he thought 'I'd like to do that'. It was very much two titans collaborating (as opposed to clashing). Malcolm's aunt (the cellist Joan Dickson) was a friend of Fischer Dieskau's first wife and so Malcolm was taken backstage to meet the great man after the concert. Many years later, after he had stopped singing, Fischer Dieskau came to a recital that Malcolm gave in Berlin with baritone Bryn Terfel. After the concert, Fischer Dieskau commented that none of the songs was how he would do, them but that he loved it!

Malcolm Martineau
Malcolm Martineau

Having accompanied the six young singers (Martha Jones, Laurence Kilsby, Angharad Lyddon, Madison Nonoa, Alex Otterburn, Dominic Sedgwick) on the Momentum disc, The Call, from Stone Records [see my review], Malcolm has several Wigmore Hall's Sunday afternoon concerts coming up with other young singers and will be doing a Cadogan Hall Prom with Ema Nikolovska, but no-one is planning big series at the moment. He has finished recording his complete songs of Henri Duparc, with Nicky Spence, Huw Montague Rendall and Sarah Connolly, which will be out on Signum Classics towards the end of this year. His Brahms songs will be released by Linn Records, and also for Linn, he will be doing another disc with the mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison. Also coming up are recordings of Schumann with bass-baritone Florian Boesch (Dichterliebe and Kerner Lieder), as well as a Wolf disc with baritone Simon Keenlyside, committing to disc song that they have sone all their lives, something which it is lovely to do.

The Complete Songs of Gabriel Fauré, Vol. 4 - John Mark Ainsley, Lorna Anderson, Isobel Buchanan, John Chest, Sarah Connolly, Iestyn Davies, Ann Murray, Kitty Whately, Malcolm Martineau - Signum Classics -

Malcolm Martineau on Planet Hugill

  • The Call - Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Fauré, Debussy, Hahn, Poulenc, Meirion Williams, Howells, RVW, Britten, Gurney and Rachmaninov; Martha Jones, Laurence Kilsby, Angharad Lyddon, Madison Nonoa, Alex Otterburn, Dominic Sedgwick, Malcolm Martineau; Stone Records - record review
  • The dark night has vanished - Edvard Grieg, Johannes Brahms, Josephine Lang, Robert Schumann; Catriona Morison, Malcolm Martineau; LINN - record review
  • Decades - A Century of Song: Volume 4 - Schumann, Dargomyzhshky, Franck, Donizetti, Lindblad, Josephson, Geijer, Mendelssohn; Anush Hovhannisyan, Ida Evelina Ranzlöv, Nick Pritchard, Oliver Johnston, Florian Boesch, Alexey Gusev, Samuel Hasselhorn, Malcolm Martineau; Vivat  - record review
  • Day of the Dead at Oxford Lieder Festival - Ben Johnson, Roger Vignoles, Helen Swift, Doric String Quartet, Thomas Oliemans, Malcolm Martineau - 15 October 2019, concert review
  • Robert Schumann Myrthen, duets - Sarah Connolly, Robin Tritschler, Anna Huntley, Malcolm Martineau; Wigmore Hall  - 24 April 2019, concert review
  • Schubert's Winter Journey - Robin Tritschler, Malcolm Martineau; Wigmore Hall  - 3 October 2018, concert review

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