The Art of Accompaniment

Written by: Duncan Hadfield

It seems that Schumann’s star has never shone brighter than at present; rarely does a week of London’s concert life go by without one of his symphonies, concertos or piano works being aired somewhere in the capital. Only the other week at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Sir Charles Mackerras with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment recreated a concert given by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1855 which featured the composer’s Introduction and Allegro and Symphony No.2. Yet maybe one aspect of Schumann’s considerable output which remains neglected are his large-scale vocal and choral pieces. That said, two of these have just been played in a South Bank season called Scenes from Schumann – the opera Genoveva, given by Opera North, and the secular oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri again from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment this time under Mark Elder. Now, three recitals featuring Schumann’s songs will grace the South Bank.

At the piano for all these recitals will be the esteemed accompanist and song expert Roger Vignoles. The art of accompaniment is a precarious business but Vignoles has mastered it totally. He informs me that “playing solo piano music never really appealed that much to me as I was always attracted to the human voice and the setting of texts. People might think that accompanying song is something of a backseat or subservient role but it’s not; in fact, I believe it’s the pianist rather than the singer who has far more scope for self-expression. Plus he leads the song so to speak and is responsible for the different textures and the establishment of an overall atmosphere. Also I enjoy performing with other people and what excites me is a sort of working spirit of reciprocity which I believe, in the arena of song, maybe more even than with chamber music, amounts to a true artistic collaboration.”

Vignoles has worked with some of the world’s finest singers. How does the partnership usually start? “Either I know of them or they know of me or an agent brings us together or there’s the desire to perform a certain section of repertoire or to put together interesting programmes: all sorts of ways.” On top of that there’s no doubt that singers relish having Roger Vignoles as their right-hand man because of his truly encyclopaedic mindset when it comes to the entire world of song. “Yes, I’ve always enjoyed looking into the background of the material I approach and individual items seem to linger-on in my consciousness for a long time, so it might just occur to me that we could do this Brahms song, say, which I might have last aired ten years ago.”

As for the South Bank’s Schumann series, he goes on to say: “It seems that of all great composers maybe none was more steeped in the literature of his time than Schumann. In his early years he might well have become a writer rather than a composer; plus, of course, he was a brilliant critic to boot. So Schumann was drawn to so much Romantic literature both in German, such as Goethe, Heine, Eichendorff, and English like Byron and Burns. It was Amelia Freedman’s enterprising idea to put together a hopefully inviting package of concerts and recitals, which would examine some of those all-important influences on his output. Most Schumann series of course tend to involve his non-vocal music so I think this is a very novel and intriguing slant, and having programmed two large-scale pieces (the afore-mentioned Genoveva and Das Paradies) it was decided to supplement them with three evenings of song. I suppose it was then left to me to select just which of Schumann’s 200 or songs we would do. The decision wasn’t exactly that difficult for I knew I certainly wanted to put on what I think is an extraordinary cycle called Myrthen which features both baritone and soprano and which Schumann composed as a gift to his bride-to-be, Clara; and in fact the title refers to the sprig of myrtle contained in the traditional wedding wreath. What I also especially like about it is that it sets poems by very different poets, framing that diversity with an opening and closing song which treats texts by Ruckert.”

Also dating from 1840 – Schumann’s year of song – is the Liederkreis, Op.39, for which the baritone Robert Holl joins Vignoles on Feb 22. “It’s of course one of his best-known cycles,” he says, “setting poems by Eichendorff … yet perhaps because Robert Holl has such a brooding and dark-toned voice I thought it might be interesting to place this Liederkreis alongside some of the songs of Schumann’s last years, such as the Lenau-Lieder and the Harfenspieler-lieder, full of melancholy, foreboding and premonitions of death.”

Meanwhile in the first of the recitals tonight, more last songs by Schumann, the Spanische Liebeslieder, as set alongside Liebesliederwalzer by his friend and pupil Brahms. “Again it’s another way of putting something in perspective,” says Vignoles. “Brahms writes his songs for four voices and piano duet and openly alludes to the kind of domestic music-making which occurred in Schumann’s circle and of which the young Brahms was part.” So a potentially fascinating Schumann series awaits us at the South Bank which promises to probe Schumann’s dramatic and literary bent to the full. As Roger Vignoles concludes: “There’s a great sense of theatre about all these songs and I think the Queen Elizabeth Hall is exactly the right auditorium to bring that across – one feels an open space almost like actors might on stage. Hopefully from such a platform we can launch some mesmerising Scenes from Schumann.”

The Queen Elizabeth Hall plays host to Roger Vignoles’s three February evenings of song – Scenes from Schumann

  • Monday 12 February – singers include Emma Bell, Sarah Connolly, Toby Spence and Stephen Loges with second pianist Michael Hampton
  • Saturday 17 – Christiane Oelze and Wolfgang Holzmair perform Myrthen and a selection of Duets
  • Thursday 22 – Robert Holl includes Liederkreis (Op.39) and two late cycles, Opp.90 & 98

All concerts start at 7.45pm

Telephone bookings: 020 7960 4201

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