It may say something or nothing about wider changes in society, but it is a paradox that music written by Brahms for the intimacy of the domestic salon now needs the well-funded platform of an international festival to be heard.
For most of us, the EIF’s morning Queen’s Hall concert series is as close as we can be to the atmosphere the composer and Clara Schumann would create for the first performances of his two sets of Liebeslieder-Walzer.
At the piano here were two of Scotland’s finest players, Malcolm Martineau and Steven Osborne, their presence the main attraction for a pretty full house. The four singers were from south of the border and, in the case of soprano Madison Nonoa, New Zealand.
For reasons that were unclear, we heard the later “Neue” Liebeslieder-Walzer first, apart from the closing Goethe setting, saved for an encore. That meant the soprano had the prominent solo voice for the first half of the concert – and a very fine one it is too. Her other engagements this season include Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Maria in West Side Story and that gives a good indication of the tone and precision she brought to Brahms. She also combined beautifully in duet with alto Jess Dandy, whose rich instrument is known and loved by Scots audiences and who was in excellent voice here.
Tenor Magnus Walker was to the fore in the earlier songs (performed second), but we had already heard him to advantage in the fickle Ich kose suss mit der und der. Bass William Thomas had an early solo moment with Ich swarzen Augen, but was more often in a supporting role. It was as an ensemble, for which they had presumably had little rehearsal, that the young singers really impressed, their balance consistent even with some brisk tempi set by their accompanists.
On either side of the interval Osborne and Martineau added two classics for four hands, some of the best known piano music in the canon. Ravel’s fairytale settings, Ma Mere l’Oye, went on to orchestrated life, but are exquisitely colourful and technically precise in their original form. The pianists in the hall are perhaps more likely to keep a lasting memory of Schubert’s Fantasie in F Minor, surely the most famous work for four hands and given an utterly spell-binding reading. The way the work unfolded, with its recurring anguished melody and climactic fugue, was absolutely masterly.
The home team of musicians were out in force at the Usher Hall later, with a large edition of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra that included a sprinkling of players from the RSNO as well as well-known freelances in prominent roles.
Continuing a relationship with EIF after last year’s A Grand Night for Singing, Wayne Marshall was on the podium and, initially, at the keyboard for a programme of American music that began with Rhapsody in Blue and ended with the “Symphonic Picture” arrangement of Porgy and Bess by Robert Russell Bennett. I don’t much like the latter, and Marshall’s approach to Rhapsody was idiosyncratic – good and pacey but with long, meandering cadenzas by himself.
A well-filled auditorium loved it though, and especially enjoyed his encore variations on I Got Rhythm on the Usher Hall organ. In between were early works by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland: Fancy Free and El Salon Mexico set both composers on their paths to popular success in the USA and are important to hear, but I missed the crisp beat and dynamic control a conductor like John Wilson would have brought to the task.
Fortunate indeed is the young singer who secures the services of Malcolm Martineau as accompanist. Alongside mezzo Catriona Morison and contralto Jess Dandy, Egyptian soprano Fatma Said is one such, a young woman blazing a trail for her nationality on the international stage.
This recital was a demonstration of her range, and an encapsulation of a career that has embraced singing Pamina in The Magic Flute at La Scala, Milan and the award-winning genre-hopping debut album Le Nour, on which Martineau plays.
The pianist had clearly learned the lessons of working in this venue at the start of the Festival and had his partner as close as was possible. At times, in fact, she leant towards the pianist even as she kept her focus on the rapt audience.
Her opera training shone through her Mozart selections, and especially in the delivery of the Goethe-setting Das Veilchen and the anonymous, and less than politically-correct, Warnung.
The expertise of her stage partner was especially relevant in the Ravel that followed, Martineau having masterminded a series of French song recordings for Signum Classics. He demonstrated the most sophisticated of touches in the trills that begin the French composer’s Five Popular Greek Songs. The fourth one in particular looks towards the Middle East in its melody and set up the three from Sheherazade that followed, the last of those, L’indifferent, surely a homo-erotic pre-echo of The Girl From Ipanema.
There was a return to highly polished and sparkling brevity in both vocal line and accompaniment for the Seven Popular Spanish Songs of Manuel de Falla, the lovely Moorish lullaby from which was mirrored by the middle of three Old Spanish Songs by Federico Garcia Lorca. For the last of those and the Zarzuela encore, it would have been no surprise if the sassy Said had produced a pair of castanets.
With consummate timing, pianist Malcolm Martineau assembled his pals – singers Elizabeth Watts and Roderick Williams, violinist Sijie Chen and cellist Ursula Smith – to mark Sir Walter Scott’s 250th on the eve of the great writer’s actual birthday. More immediate matters of synchronisation then presented further challenges.
This was a Queen’s Hall concert par excellence, regrettably not at the Queen’s Hall, but in the Festival’s temporary “polytunnel” in the courtyard of the oldest part of the University of Edinburgh half a mile down the road. Needs must, and an impressive response to pandemic restrictions, but the habitual broad smile of baritone Williams disguised the fact that his accompanist was clearly struggling to hear the voices, at least at the start of the recital. For someone as sensitive and attuned to nuances of vocal delivery as Martineau this must have been excruciatingly frustrating.
From an audience point of view, however, the uncertainty of tempo at the start of the programme was swiftly overcome, and easily ignored. There was so much of fascination in this programme, alongside gloriously familiar music given an unforgettable performance.
That piece was Schubert’s Ave Maria, surely as well-ridden an old war-horse as there is in the repertoire, and one where the piano accompaniment is as firmly lodged in the mind as the melody. No matter what set up of microphones and monitors Watts and Martineau were having to cope with, their rendition of the song was superb, the soprano in heart-stoppingly glorious form and the pianist immaculately responsive to her phrasing.
It is an ill-divided world, and Watts had the best of this inventive programme, with Williams’ solos almost punctuation between her finest moments, an impression not contradicted by the fact that he, unlike her, was using a score. In the Schubert settings from The Lady of the Lake, the character of Ellen has the best songs, and Watts had already let us hear Mendelssohn’s less grand setting of the prayer to the Virgin.
Of the less well-known songs, it was the baritone who was called upon to demonstrate facility in a range of languages in songs by Glinka and Meyerbeer, the latter’s La pauvre Louise neatly juxtaposed with Watts singing Parry’s Proud Maisie.
There are no intervals during this year’s concerts, but the pair ended what would have been each half of a Queen’s Hall recital with a duet, and the strings took part in the opening Haydn and closing Beethoven sequence. The Monks of Bangor’s March is probably the meatiest of Beethoven’s Scott settings, which few would argue are essential elements of his canon.
Williams had the last word, however, with what he described as a “musical bon-bon” that he had composed as an encore by the whole ensemble. Like a rediscovered parlour song, it captured, precisely, the ambivalence of the contemporary reader – and student – to Sir Walter’s works. Reverence is always better for being tempered, even on a 250th birthday.
Pianist Malcolm Martineau talks to Keith Bruce ahead of his two Edinburgh International Festival appearances.
In an Edinburgh Festival that has, of necessity, looked to local talent to provide much of the programme, there is really only one home-grown hero whose presence is expected and welcomed every year and it is neither St Mary’s Music School star pianist Steven Osborne nor EIF 2021’s artist-in-residence, the undeniably West Coast Nicola Benedetti.
No, the musician without whom no EIF programme is complete is pianist and accompanist to the world’s finest singers, Malcolm Martineau. Edinburgh’s Martineau is a resident of south-east London, but he maintains an apartment in the Scottish capital, recently renovated and home to two nine-foot Steinways and a Bach Gesellschaft (the composer’s complete works as published by the Bach Society) that the pianist was left by his grandfather.
“I am hoping to rent it to someone who wouldn’t mind all that. I may live in London but Edinburgh will always be my home – coming in to Waverley Station, my heart just tings!”
At the age of 13, Martineau was a programme-seller in the Usher Hall during the Festival, and remembers concerts conducted by Guilini and Bernstein. Last year’s cancelled Festival was to have included a 60th birthday celebration programme for him with back-to-back Queen’s Hall recitals with mezzo Susan Graham and then a group of virtuoso instrumental friends.
“I love the Queen’s Hall,” he says. “I know the seats are not great, but it is the perfect venue for chamber music and for song. The audience is near enough that they can see the singer’s eyes and be part of the event.”
If he is dismayed that his anniversary passed unmarked, he is not admitting it. “As an accompanist, of course, I can go on forever,” he says, and there, in any case, are two Martineau events this year, relocated down the road to the temporary venue in the Old College Quad.
On Saturday August 14, the completely different group of musical friends, including soprano Elizabeth Watts and baritone Roderick Williams, join Martineau to mark a different anniversary, part of the Walter Scott 250 celebrations. The pianist has created a programme of music based on texts by Scott, composed by Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven and Sibelius, and with two new songs written by Williams.
Then on August 27 he plays for Fatma Said, an Egyptian soprano on whose debut album he appears and with whom he had recently performed in Barcelona when we spoke. “That’s a very clever CD of Arabic music, from Scheherazade to Arabic pop,” he says. The programme for Edinburgh runs from Mozart to Ravel and de Falla.
Another young singer whose intelligent programming the pianist is eager to praise is contralto Jess Dandy, familiar to music-lovers from her work with Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort and the singer whose Perth Concert Hall recital at the end of May was Scotland’s first post-lockdown event.
“That was the first thing I’d done for an audience. Jess has an extraordinary instrument, she’s a real contralto. I’ve known her for a long time but that was the first time we’ve done a recital together. She was a total joy to work with and that very clever programme was all of her making. She will corner the market for all that contralto stuff that nobody else can sing.”
Like many musicians, Martineau found “positives and negatives” in the experience of lockdown, and he concedes that he was luckier than many, being married to a hospital pharmacist whose income was still coming into the house.
“It gave me time to practise a lot and reaffirm how much I love what I do. I discovered lots of new technical things, even at my grand old age. That was very exciting. Every day I couldn’t wait to get to the piano, which was lovely and slightly surprised me.
“I practised lots of songs but also lots of solo repertoire that I’ll probably never play, and that was very satisfying. I learned a Beethoven Piano Concerto that I had never learned when I was a youngster, and lots of other things. I geeked a bit on the internet with piano technique things, and there was time for all that.”
The pianist also managed to do some recording during the pandemic, although even that was also curtailed. He has many recording projects underway, with his most recent release the fourth and final volume of the complete songs of Gabriel Faure. His French song series for Signum Classics has involved a huge list of singers and he was since recorded those of Duparc “and we’re halfway through Ravel.” For Linn he is working on a complete Brahms set, following the composer’s own opus numbers, with two singers on each CD – a project that also involves Scots mezzo Karen Cargill.
Alongside fellow Scot Iain Burnside, Martineau’s work in the studio is where accompanists are adding fascinating surveys of music to the catalogue.
“The pianist that started these was Graham Johnson and that huge Schubert series he did for Hyperion. He was able to invite all those different singers to do a volume each.
“Like so many things in my profession, it started with Graham. He started a new conception of programming and made it all a little bit more relaxed, not in the standard and the scholarship, but in a different era from one that put the singers on a pedestal.
“There is a perception that French songs all sound the same and I wanted to use a number of singers in order to show the variety in each of these composers, and also the difference between each of these composers. Faure wrote from 1861 to 1921 so his style changed massively in that period, and I think the variety of the singers suits the variety of the music, and the setting of the poetry.
“And also I wanted to make music with all my friends. That’s the way I function best.
“The way singers perform now is different. They sing as if they are telling you a story at a dinner party. It’s more personal and intimate. In conservatoires there is much more awareness of song, and how healthy singing songs is for the voices of young singers. They might in ten years be singing Verdi, but they shouldn’t necessarily be singing Verdi now.”
Although he does so in the most gentle terms, there is no denying the passion Martineau brings to the teaching side of his practice, at least the equal of his performance personality.
“I’ve always loved working with young singers because I love seeing their first response to things that I’ve played for 25 years. I learn as much from them as they do from me.
“It is wonderful that singers now are not as opera-centric as they were 20 years ago. Of course opera will dominate their lives but singing songs, just two people, is great fun, and a completely different world. When opera works it is amazing, but there are so many variables within a production. With two people it is much more likely that you will get something that is immediately satisfying.
“Young singers need to learn an awareness of text and the ability to tell a story and trust their own instincts. I am totally allergic to the question ‘What’s usually done here?’ I don’t care! Just read what’s in the music and work out what you would like to do with it, and I will hopefully enable you to do that.
“And that is just as true for accompanists as for singers. When I am teaching I don’t want to hear clones of me – one of me is plenty!”
Malcolm Martineau and Friends play at Old College Quad on Saturday August 14 at noon and 2.30pm. Fatma Said and Malcolm Martineau are at the same venue, at the same times, on August 27.
The chief executive of Horsecross, the organisation that runs Perth’s Concert Hall and Theatre, spoke for everyone in the room when Nick Williams said that the sooner he can welcome audiences back to regular events the better. For the moment, however, there were not that many of us in the room.
As hopefully came across on BBC Radio 3’s live broadcast, what we lacked in numbers (the hall’s capacity capped at 100 to maintain two metres’ social distancing), we made up for in enthusiasm. This was, by any measure, an historic occasion. Not since mid-March 2020 had people paid to gather indoors in Scotland to listen to music: we were members of Audience No. 1 of the post-Covid era, if fortune should smile.
“Live and Unlocked” is how Perth has billed this series of four lunchtime concerts, and this first one also kicked off a Scottish presence on the BBC network this week. Like myself, many in the hall and listening on the radio would know Jess Dandy best for her singing of early choral repertoire. Her distinctive contralto voice was a crucial ingredient of the Dunedin Consort’s St Matthew Passion online from this same venue at the end of March.
If this recital was partially designed to show her versatility beyond that, it was a huge success. As she eloquently explained to Radio 3 presenter Ian Skelly, its origins lay in noting that words written in the 16th century have inspired composers from then until now to set them to music. The hour-long concert took us from John Dowland to Joseph Horovitz, whose 1970 setting of Lady Macbeth’s speeches from Acts 1, 2 and 5 of Shakespeare’s tragedy as Lady Macbeth – A Scena is a short one-woman opera of the character’s story.
Shakespeare’s words and inspiration were a constant thread through the programme, but there was also room for the poetry of Ben Jonson and Sir Philip Sidney as well as Robert Schumann’s late work setting the five suspiciously-autobiographical poems attributed to Mary Queen of Scots, which form a mini-opera of their own.
It was also very thoughtfully sequenced, with music by French composers Ravel, Poulenc, Berlioz and Gounod interrupted by a reading of poetry from Hamlet to precede Berlioz’s Ballade La Mort d’Ophelie. The hymn-like cadences of Gounod’s setting of Sidney’s sonnet of devotion My True Love Hath My Heart sat perfectly before the hymns and prayers – and desperate letter – of the Schumann songs.
If Dandy seemed to take a couple of songs to move into top gear, she was full of confidence and style for the rest of the programme, which became more demanding as it went on. The same might be said of the piano parts, but Malcolm Martineau was his usual sparkling self throughout, as the perfect foil in the most dramatic works.
With two of Dominick Argento’s Six Elizabethan Songs, we were most clearly in the business of crossing the centuries in both melody and backing, while Korngold’s settings of lyrics from Shakespeare’s plays are clearly of their own era. One could perhaps argue that they most aptly suited the “cabaret seating” that kept the audience socially-distanced, but this was Broadway, not Berlin. Nonetheless, Martineau and Dandy had great fun with Under the Greenwood Tree and Where Birds Do Sing.
In one short song – Scheideblick (Parting Glance) – the justification for Scots mezzo soprano Catriona Morison’s inclusion of six of Josephine Lang’s Lieder in her debut solo album is sealed. It’s an emotionally muted number, a sinuous melancholic setting of a single poetic verse, Lang’s melodic shaping in perfect tune with the sentiment, the simplicity of the piano writing in pianist Malcolm Martineau’s capable hands gently nuanced with harmonic ingenuity, and Morison’s delivery impeccably and movingly intoned.
To position Lang (1815-80) amid such heavyweight songwriters as Schumann, Brahms and Grieg is to give her a rightful airing, for her songs, though mostly conservative in spirit, are both artfully expressive and stylistically adventurous within the parameters of the day. Early lessons from Mendelssohn and promotional support from both Robert and Clara Schumann were supportive in Lang’s bid to make a living from composition after the premature death of her husband, the lawyer and poet Christian Reinhold Köstlin.
It’s Reinhold Köstlin’s own words that are the inspiration for another of Lang’s songs, Ob ich manchmal dein gedenke, Morison again mastering the soft embodiment of this passionate setting. In all Lang’s songs featured here in fact, mostly from the Op 10 set, there is a genuine affinity between their easeful unfolding and a mezzo voice that exudes golden richness in its lower range and ringing lustre in its uppermost tessitura. The final number, Abschied, is a gorgeous example.
Morison and Martineau open this disc with Grieg’s Sechs Lieder and the springlike optimism of Gruss. The relative transparency of these songs, emphasised by their folkish charm, lead satisfyingly into the deeper realms of a Brahms selection that is introduced by the sultry questioning of Dein blaues Auge, and which lingers low until the final muscular exuberance of Meine Liebe ist grün
Schumann’s Op 90 songs open in martial mode with Lied Eines Schmiedes, immediately countered by the sweet affection of Meine Rose. Morison negotiates the ensuing mood swings with honest and persuasive versatility, concluding on a sublime note with the rippling acceptance of Requiem, but not before releasing those gripping outbursts of passion at its heart.
This release comes at a significant time for Morison, given the enforced emphasis during these Covid months on her concert repertoire. She has the voice for it, and the musicality, and the proof is here. Ken Walton