2003 BBC Radio 3 “CD review”

BBC Radio 3 “CD Reviews” Interview with Simon Keenlyside.

[Transcribed by Gesine Menardi]

…a serious Lieder singer, as you are about to hear.

[Music: Stille Tränen]

Schumann Songs CD

Silent tears by Robert Schumann, the voice of Simon Keenlyside and  pianist Graham Johnson. Graham Johnson in the notes calls it nothing less than an epic song, a real blockbuster. Simon, you need an amazing range for this, not just vocally but emotionally as well, just in that one short song.

SK: Yes, it’s a bit like Dichterliebe , in “Ich grolle nicht”, that was taken out of context and sung as a potboiler in concerts, that one was too. And I think you get used to hearing it sung as a big grand song, which….

….with big operatic voices…

SK: which it is not! I mean, the clue is in the title.  [Laughter]

But, yeah, it comes in context from somewhere and it’s got to remain small and that’s the whole point. It’s got to remain like those great Italian singers of the Thirties who kept when they are coming up to those wonderful great verismo phrases – they kept things nice and, not tight, but under nice good control, never let it blow. That’s the same. When Schumann wants you let rip, it’s written in the score, and not before.

When you, if you like, were becoming a singer, when you were working hard at it, an you knew it was going to be your career – I mean were you instinctively not an opera singer, more of a lieder singer? It feels if sort of you came from that direction.

SK: Partly because my background – there was no singing, it was just string quartets. My dad was a string quartet player.

The Aeolean string quartet…

SK: Yeah. So when I grew up and when everybody else was listening to wherever they were  I had the privilege of having – you know – they were recording Beethoven quartets, all the Haydn, the complete Haydn – that’s what I heard all the time, all day, every day. They were rehearsing next to my bedroom. Grandpa was the first leader of the Philharmonia, so we just had fiddles. And we never had any singing anywhere.

Then I was packed off to a choir school, which was a fulltime job, just like it is now. We toured, we recorded. In fact, funny enough I was thinking shall I ask him about, since you just asked me about recordings: half my life was recording in John’s College with George Guest. And they were marvellous recordings and many of them……. And George was a truly wonderful musician. Err, but no, it is not in the brief of this programme.

So, there was no opera. And the second thing – which is far more important – that people develop at different rates. You get the freaks of this world like Ghiaurov or Bryn Terfel who were born like that – and whether they are 19 or 40 – that’s with this fabulous instrument there.

But the natural way is slow. And you would not expect somebody at 25, 28, 30 to be, as a baritone, you would not really expect him to be doing the big operatic stuff. He might tiptoe into the Mozart. And that has been my way too.

But when it comes to Lieder – some of your first recordings were lieder, recitals effectively.  How long is it before you start feeling the size of the boots of the people you are following; if you like, Fischer –Dieskau always gets mentioned in the context of a baritone recording.

SK: Yes he does, doesn’t he?  He is so huge. Is he not the most recorded singer of all time?

….Very probably.

SK: Hmm, he is a tradition in himself, he is a whole –and what a giant! What a wonderful, wonderful singer. But the older you get, and the more work you do, you realize, there are other ways, his is not the only way.

Before him there was Fassbaender, the older Fassbaender, Brigitte Fassbaender’s father, who was a great singer, there  was Hüsch, there was Schlusnus, who did both opera and Lieder- and not like opera singers singing Lieder – but in a more –  arggh! I can’t find the word – it’s not an outdoor way – but a more sort of, unmannered, but without….. with no disrespect intended. And I really love that too. There is a place for both

And you did a disc for Collins Classic of Vaughan Williams songs recently re- issued on Naxos, the “Five mystical songs” (of all music!) with piano rather than orchestra. Now, how much does that change it from your point of view? I mean, obviously it’s chamber sized, it’s a big vocal line though, it’s hard not to kind of overpower the songs in the context of just a piano.


SK: Well, I think they will come in the same category, something like “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” the Mahler. They are different pieces with the piano. You scale them up differently. I don’t know what other singers do, but one of the big problems I have had in mixing opera and Lieder has been that if you are seen by an opera boss – heard by an opera boss (well, you won’t be, they don’t go to these things, mostly!) singing a Schubert song, they will  say: aha, that’s what you do,  I see, right!  And you go and sing an opera thing. And they say: Well, how could you do Schubert’s “Nachtviolen”?

The thing is we have to set our voices up differently. You don’t sing in a different way, you warm up in a different way, you warm up more thoroughly, you use a different palette of colours for lieder than you would for opera.

And that is a very difficult battle, you are always struggling, if you are too close to an opera performance or too close to a song performance you can get it wrong.

[MUSIC: “Come my way…”]

Comparisons with other British baritones are always being made, it’s inevitable that with the roles that you perform obviously, as, well Bryn Terfel, Tom Allen, the most obvious ones, both in things like the Vaughan Williams  “The Mystical Songs” and the Mozart roles that you have performed as well. It goes without saying, there is room for all of you, but does it make it harder for you when you approached  let’s say your first Don Giovanni ?

1995_Nozze_CG1SK: It did, when I did my first “Marriage of Figaro” in Covent Garden, I must say: It did then. I would like to say no, it doesn’t. But when you follow so close on the heels of somebody like Tom, who was such a famous count and so much colour in his performance, both visual and oral – yes, it did bother me. It should not have bothered me. But I thought, you can’t follow that. But you get over it!

That’s probably following footsteps in a specific production. Was it so more obvious to you that it was designed around somebody else…

SK:  No!

I suppose so.

Funny enough that was answered quite recently when I was speaking with an  old acquaintance of mine, Simon Russell Beale, the brilliant and wonderful actor. And I said to him, because it had been bugging me, I have done “Flutes”   and a lot of  “Marriage of Figaros” and quite a lot of roles, more than 4 or 5 different productions, and I think well, actually I am running out of ideas, and I can’t do it in another way. So I said to Simon: how many Hamlets would you have to do in your life time, you know?  And he said: you are joking! One, only one, you only ever do one. And that made me feel better. Because it is not the production per se, I have only got a certain amount of possibilities in my little head even with help of a wonderful producer and conductor – and in my body too. So, no, I don’t worry so much about the production following somebody.

It’s, um, following, whatever Tom’s counts were, all the “Marriage of Figaro” in the past, they were Tom, the production would have aided Tom, but they were Tom and somebody else’s overview. So it was that, that I was trying to follow then and it was tricky, yeah….

That’s part of growing up, isn’t it?

But there is another kind of issue, if you want to see it at that. When  somebody like Claudio Abbado gets in touch and says: come and do Don Giovanni in Italy for something like – well, 10 days and you had had almost a week of performances followed by 3 intense days of recording for the D.G. set, that sounds pretty extreme. And it’s in Italy, in front of that Italian audience and the critics. What kind of experience was that?


SK: Well, a rollercoaster in short. Yes of course, too good an opportunity to miss, it wasn’t even just performances and recordings. It was 7 performances and in between those performances we had 6 hours recording. So we would have 7 performances within about 10 days, unbelievably close together anyway. But then…

You just haven’t got recovery time built in there at all.

SK: No, you haven’t. And especially since – so far one of the few roles that does my head in is Giovanni. I don’t know what it is, the sheer aggressivity of it or is it “the man with his foot to the floor in a Porsche just driving into the wall” –  that sort of feeling.  I cannot go to sleep after it. I was going to bed at 4 or 5 in the morning. Something! Totally unable and not in a fit state to record the next morning, and of course the recording engineer said “Why don’t you go to bed earlier?”

Well, you come and sing Don Giovanni and go to bed early! It’s impossible! So, I found that tricky. Bryn is a Mac truck, Bryn can do anything. But – it was very hard. If you are not going to do live ones, which will always be of interest if you can get the recording right, at least give us some time to get it right. Otherwise I think it is pointless.

When I was listening to the champagne aria, and I remembered something I had read, I have forgotten which critic, but saying that they felt that there was not enough champagne about this particular reading of Giovanni, that it was on the dark side and that he would have preferred a little bit more sparkle, a few more bubbles. It’s obviously quite a deliberate look at this opera. Would you do a “Champagne Don Giovanni”?

SK: Hmm, well, you have just put your finger right exactly on the phrase that I was about to say. I can’t do a “Champagne Don Giovanni”. I find no particular merit in it personally. And I think personally Don Giovanni is a man challenging everything, running out of options, maybe getting older, maybe even challenging from the beginning the notion of God, or the business at the end of the first half, certainly at the end of the second half obviously, and that “foot-to-the-floor feeling” is for me not one of celebrating life. He fails with every woman he is with in any case throughout the opera. I personally would not be able to do a diamantine Giovanni, no! It was intended to be dark. Not just by me. But it suited me that way, I like them that way.

[MUSIC: Champagne aria]

Simon, we have spoken about the long shadows cast by great baritone lieder singers like Fischer –Dieskau.

SK: I would not say it’s a shadow. It’s a wonderful thing to follow. It fires me up to listen to it still. I love listening to him.

Did you have Italian idols as well when you were at the beginning of your career?

SK: Yeah, I still do. Listen to them. It’s not different ways of singing. When you sing French you have to sing it in a right way, when you sing in Italian you have to sing it in a different way, and the trouble is… if I see a circus performer I don’t want to know how difficult it is. I only want to see it done. That’s all. And it’s the same with a singer. It’s not fashionable now to credit singers with much brains but it doesn’t matter to you or to the audience why it’s different or how it’s different, just that I present it so that it’s French singing. So if I were to do – not just me, anyone – were to do Pelleas: it must be the archetypal French sound, French approach, French vowels etcetera. And when you sing Italian, you sing it in a different way. It’s not a different technique but it will sound entirely different.

When it comes to the French repertoire, you have performed Oreste in Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride” the first time in the Welsh National Opera in 1991?


SK: Yeah. It’s a difficult one, this “Iphigenie en Tauride”, because it – it’s –  you come in absolutely beside yourself, and you – is not really any-

You stay that way, basically… [Laughter]

SK : You stay that way! Yes, yes, absolutely.

When you came to record the role with Marc Minkowsky it was with period instruments and you’ve got a slightly different set of tones. Never mind whatever happens to the pitch. How much does it change Oreste for you?

SK: Oh, it changed a lot. It changed it a lot! I remember thinking at that time – because I had not made a note of the fact that it was in a lower pitch. Typical stupid singer, having said we’re not all stupid… [Laughter]

Yeah, because it’s a high role, it’s a high sing, and the Tessitura is very, very high in the modern pitch. Also being that the instruments are incredibly loud as well. So the two things together made a big difference. It was low, but it was quieter.

….And it was a live recording, this one?

SK: Hmm.

You do prefer them, don’t you?

SK: I am a theatre person. I don’t get the recording thing very much. It is a very difficult, a very difficult thing to do…

And I was in Munich doing a Tannhäuser performance, and this fellow came up to me and he said: Oh, his old teacher was an old friend of my old teacher John Cameron, his name is Ken Neate, 83, and he just died, and would I read his book of his on singing, in front of me. And I said o.k., having no intention to, and I opened the first page and at the end of the first page there was a paragraph which for me, really, speaking about recordings absolutely summed up what I personally believe about the modern recording situation and recording. I understand that things are very difficult and there are many wonderful people with wonderful ideas but – I think I could not put it better than what this fellow said and – if you don’t mind I’ll read it – it is very short:

“The excess of promotion by concert management and the media as well as the overamplification of concerts on recordings are of doubtful value. Not only misleading but physically damaging to the ears as well as an affront to the intelligence. This unmitigated plugging is designed purely to mesmerize the masses instead of enlightening them, and in the end serves only to stultify  their qualities of serious education and selfcontrol which any society should encourage in order to leave its mark on cultural history.”

I think that’s very well put. And gently put!

I am not knocking anybody who wants to make tons of recordings and use it with all sorts of clever recording techniques, but personally for me I would rather be in the theatre. And for somehow for you guys to fix it, so you can get us, and not for us to fiddle around with.

So you want to be eavesdropped?

SK: I am sure that as technology gets better you can do it better and better and there are wonderful singers who can recreate it, with musicians and conductors you can recreate that in the studio, but the further you get away from performance the more humbug appears in it, I think.

I was curious about the Gluck recording because you sort of look at the cast list in the performance and you suddenly realize you are not only just about the only Brit you are just about the only Non-French person on stage in that production. Not only could that be a bit intimidating, it could get pretty lonely.

SK: I set my stall out for better or worse. And that’s really the nub of my little in a hamster wheel called a career. That is, I wanted to sing German lieder and song and opera, and I wanted to do it where it was done best. And if I were good enough then I would get work, and if I weren’t…

That’s why I went to live in Germany in the beginning, and there is nothing more intimidating than singing German Lieder in front of Germans – or the Wigmore Hall, you know, when it is full of people speaking German. So, in the opera it was not different. And I started singing songs straight away. And I am sure I made terrible mistakes, but what’s the biggest thrill: singing Italian to Italians, German to Germans, French to French, you get the reaction when you want it and not – I love the surtitles – but it’s a big thrill. So by the time I was doing this recording it made no difference to me, I already knew I was up to the neck in it.

[MUSIC: Oreste: Le calme… ]

Speaking of liveliness in the theatricality of the experience with the opera. Your acting is consistently praised, your physical presence, your physical involvement in the role. Is it something you had to work hard for?

SK: Yeah, I am not sure if I should say it but I mean I have learnt my trade in front of people. I don’t really know how else you would, to be honest, you can’t learn it in a college. And I have made many mistakes and will continue to, hopefully. Because it’s worth trying, I want the right to fail, and otherwise I’d  get bored. If I get bored people out there sure as hell gonna get bored.

If you are doing a piece of music theatre, any of the Mozart operas as I have said loads of times, and I’ve done them so much of my time, you just cannot afford to separate the two. You’re  best to do as much as you can on the nature of that character is, how it relates to everybody else on the stage; have a producer who has an overview and a good pair of ears and eyes, say that’s good, drop that or whatever, and climb in and go for it. Because it’s got to mean something even though its only theatre, only a night in the theatre, of course it is. When you leave the theatre you leave it behind, I do . But when I am doing it, it is the most important thing in the world. I don’t know what else to do it.

When it comes to recording, if you want to do a studio recording, then the acting, the physical side of it is largely stripped away. You have to do anything you do with the voice.

SK: Yes, you do.

There is nowhere to hide, you can’t hide behind the microphone.

SK: No, it’s true. That is perhaps why I find it difficult.

Ahh, OK, Cappucilli says “act with your voice“. You must do of course. You can to some extent help it a bit and more in a recording, but do you want to? Hmm, if you spent a long time during a role in the theatre- are you going to add all sorts of bits and bobs vocally to make up for the fact that you can’t be seen? No, I don’t think so.

In terms of your career to date, would you say it is pretty well reflected on record or are there some gaping holes you would really like to see – if you are being honest – filled in some way?

SK: Hmm, I think that accolades of any sort and recordings for me are an extra. If they come by, well that’s nice. And if they don’t, it does not matter.

Songs are more important to me, I only use these recordings in a way. I haven’t heard, for example, that “Iphigenie en Tauride”, I have had my fun, and I don’t really, I don’t really listen to myself. And I know it’s such a compromise; the microphone, funnily enough, perhaps the producer will tell me different, but to my ears the microphone cannot tell the difference between forte and piano. All you can do with it is get the attack of the note, you can change the speed of the vibrato, you can make effective colours, but in terms of pure decibels it can’t do it.  And that compromise, whenever I listen to myself I get irritated – so to me it’s an extra.

Which roles? Maybe just Pelleas, because to me Pelleas is just such a joy! Yeah, and I haven’t got – so long with it – well none of us have long with any of it, with the roles.

I suppose from that point of view Billy Budd is a very good one to have got on record as well. It’s a young man’s role. It has to be, really.


SK: Of course, hmm, my time is pretty well up with that – and I think many better singers than I in the past never even got a chance to do it, let alone record it. That was a good example: the recording time allocated was sufficient, the organization of the sessions was more than – it was excellent. You arrived and you sang for a couple of hours, 3 hours maybe a day. And that was it. It was extremely well done, Richard Hickox both organized it and conducted it, brilliantly. And for that reason it is a good recording. I mean I am my biggest critic. I don’t need sometimes critics telling me about xyz, and I am proud to be part of the recording. You don’t have to do much when you got Tomlinson and Langridge, for example, against you.

…..And it is a helluva cast, isn’t it?

SK: Yeah. I didn’t want to drop the ball, that’s all it was, really! It was a joy, just singing with an orchestra for any singer is, can be indescribably awful if you are not up to it, if you don’t feel well. But when things are going o.k. and you don’t have a cold or x number of other things, it’s a joy. And when you have colleagues like that it is amazing fun.

Again, it is a very physical role.

SK: Hmm.

You know, that’s part the point with Billy Budd, isn’t it? Billy is vocally inarticulate when it comes to his anger, and he is speechless, he has to strike Claggart physically and kills him. You can’t bring that to the stage for a recording like this, a studio recording. How did that change? You have done this so many times on stage, was that a conundrum for you?

SK: No, it wasn’t, it wasn’t. Because I think it’s written, it’s so utterly brilliantly written, it’s written in, you only have to add your physical awkwardness, but those stutters are written in so brilliantly, I think it’s all in there.

At least you’re spared that real physicality of an on-stage hanging.

SK: Oh, very upsetting!

The way it is pretty harrowing being in an audience watching you being strung up.

SK: I happened to really love that Zambello production, because it was every-thing-that – that all actor- singers – I don’t know what an actor-singer is, but for the want of a better word, I think I put myself in that category, somebody who is interested in both – well, who isn’t, but anyway…

It was a production that had sufficient interest intellectually for the audience and sufficiently uncluttered for me and my colleagues on the stage to play. And to be the centre of the attention and not to have a set to be clapped at. I am not saying it’s a bad thing, that is wonderful, often, but there was no clever-dickery…

And hanging in the ROH production was chilling, to me and not least to me. You had 6 men holding me up on a board, I didn’t know when they were going to drop the board. When they dropped the board, the board made such a noise that it frightened the life out of me, and the 18 inch 2 foot drop before the cord on the back of your shoulders pulled you up seemed interminable. It was very upsetting, that’s the only trouble, I mean, I am not being silly. But if you climb into it to do this preparation thing, and you climb in and even you do anything you want, within reason, there are times when it can be upsetting, and that is one.

[MUSIC:  Excerpt from Billy Budd]

A voice that just sent shivers down my spine again! Simon Keenlyside as Billy Budd in Richard Hickox’ recording of Benjamin Brittens’ opera on the Chandos Label.

Previous interview 2003.02.01 An interview during the run of “Die Zauberflöte” at the ROH. >>>

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