Baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Chris Glynn have been working together on a recording of a new English translation of Schubert’s Winterreise. The CD is released on Signum in April. Earlier this month, Chris took some time away from the keyboard to answer a handful of key questions for the Thoroughly Good Blog.
Tell me about what you can see from the window nearest to you at the moment. What are you doing there? What are you doing next week?
I can see straight down the busy South Ealing road. Beyond that are the high-rise tower blocks of Brentford, and in the distance, I can see a regular stream of planes coming in to land at Heathrow.
And what did you have for breakfast this morning?
I had toast and marmalade and three cups of tea.
Tell me about your practise regime. Daily? Before breakfast? After? During? How long? How do you feel if you skip a day? Do you ever?
I have to admit that I have nothing that could really be called a regime. I probably need to play for a minimum of 2 hours each day to feel on form. Otherwise I practice between other commitments and as needed for the concerts I have coming up. It took me a long time to realise I practice better in short bursts rather than long stints. And I have recently made a point of turning my phone and computer off when I practice, so I can’t be distracted by emails and phone calls too.
There are said to be well over 100 recordings of Winterreise. What persuaded you to add to the canon in addition to with the chance to work with Roderick Williams?
Well, working with Roddy is certainly always a joy, but our main impetus behind this new recording was the new translation by Jeremy Sams. I commissioned him to create it a while ago, in the hope of finding ways to share Schubert’s song cycles with a wider audience. Jeremy responded with something really special – simple, beautiful, singable lyrics that fit the music like a glove. They tell the story and catch the spirit, of the original.
What impact does hearing Winterreise sung in English have on audiences do you think?
It can hit home with more directness because there is no filter of translation. The audience can engage directly with the performers, without having to look down at the programme (or CD booklet) to find out what they are singing about. The sound can echo the sense. Something is lost in every translation, of course, but perhaps things are gained too? We hope that this new version can be an alternative for English-speaking listeners and open up the piece to a wider audience.
It would be easy to overlook that translation in performance – so, what challenges does translated text bring to the collaboration? What detail did you and Roderick Williams have to discuss in preparation for the recording?
Our preparation was really a series of performances, all of which were very different. One I remember in particular took place in Sheffield, in the Crucible, which of course is a theatre in the round. So instead of standing still in front of the piano, Roddy worked his way around the theatre, singing different songs to different people. Combining that with the new translation felt like a very different experience to a ‘normal’ Lieder recital. At one point, Roddy sat back-to-back with me on the piano stool with me, singing to the audience behind me. It was really powerful and moving moment which I’ve thought of every time we performed the song since – it just one of many details that have become part of our shared journey with the piece.
I’ve never really heard Winterreise as a song cycle with piano accompaniment, but a musical collaboration. If I’m right about that, how do you go about deciding on a musical approach to the entire work? And how long does a recording like this take to bring together?
Yes, I agree that it is a collaboration. Singer and pianist have to work together to create the overall shape and pacing – not easy with so many slow songs and little obvious variety of mood. As for deciding on an approach, it’s not something that is necessarily always verbalised but evolves gradually through listening and responding to each other in a series of rehearsals and performances. Rather than being a series of decisions, I like to imagine the singer-pianist relationship as being more like a dance. This project was unusual in being a three-way collaboration, with discussions both Roddy and I had with Jeremy about the choices he made when translating also very much in the mix.
What are you working on next week?
Next week I’m practising hard for upcoming recitals with Catriona Morison and Kathryn Rudge, as well as going to a meeting in Yorkshire about how festivals in the north (including the Ryedale Festival, where I’m Artistic Director) can work together more effectively.
Think of the musical endeavour which has brought you the most joy. What sort of joy it brought you and why? What did you learn about yourself?
It was a project with Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen. It was a staging of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Manchester, with homeless people playing and singing many of the roles alongside professionals, and also working with the composer James Macmillan to create a new final chorus. It was an incredibly moving and thought-provoking project – there’s still footage of it online somewhere. The joy came from the fact that we all learnt from each other.
You have one sentence to persuade a five-year-old to pick up an instrument for the first time. What do you say to them? (You can have two sentences if you must.)
I’d think I’d encourage them to think about what sounds they like, and which instruments they are most drawn to. I might suggest that the sounds we like are a clue to who we are. And once the five-year-old had chosen their favourite instrument I love to take them to hear someone amazing play it.
‘Schubert in English Part 1: Winter Journey’ performed by Roderick Williams and pianist Chris Glynn is released on Signum on 3 April 2018