Joseph Middleton on Leeds Lieder, the art of teaching, The Myrthen Ensemble’s Wigmore debut and his upcoming CD releases



Pianist Joseph Middleton has long been an advocate for song repertoire. Here, he talks to journalist Katy Wright about his directorship of Leeds Lieder and what he hopes to achieve with the festival, The Myrthen Ensemble’s upcoming debut at Wigmore Hall, and a plethora of forthcoming CD releases. 

You’ve been the director of Leeds Lieder since 2014. What do you think is so special about the festival?
It was established by a group of friends who worked at Opera North and the Leeds College of Music and wanted to bring top international artists to the north of England, so they didn’t have to keep coming to London to hear them. The festival has been running for ten years now, and apart from Wigmore Hall and the Oxford Lieder Festival, there’s nowhere else which has such a concentrated amount of song in one place. I think it’s really good for the north of England to have something like that. We have a very loyal following and we’re doing everything we can to bring in more and more people – we have a new website on which we’re going to live-stream nearly everything from this year’s festival [taking place from 1 to 3 April 2016]. We’ve got superb artists; for example, Elly Ameling will be a guest of honour at this year’s festival. She’s an absolute legend! We have a good mixture of superstar names like her, Mark Padmore, Julius Drake and Katarina Karnéus, and then younger artists.

What has it been like to work with Roderick Williams?
It’s been brilliant! It’s tricky to think of another singer who is so universally loved by colleagues and audiences alike. He’s everybody’s favourite singer and just a thoroughly nice man. I think we approach music-making in a similar way. Both of us are very text-led, so the singers and pianists that he likes are the same ones that interest me. He’s the artistic director, so he curated this year’s programme and decided on the theme (‘Singing Stories’). It’s obviously a very loose theme, but the idea that the words always came first is something that really interests both of us – that at some point a composer went to his bookshelf or opened an envelope, and there were some words, and from these words a seed of music started to blossom.

What changes have you made since you’ve been in charge?
It used to be a biennial festival without much happening in between, but now we have a whole season-wide series of events. We have a concert happening every month from October through to April at one of three partner venues, including the University of Leeds. We have three concerts there, and we put together more intellectual programmes for those. This year we’ve done a three-part Strauss song series (including a superb recital given by Louise Alder, some of which we’ll record together for her debut disc later this year) which starts with his first song and goes through to his last, with a different theme of his writing for every concert. We’ve also had concerts at the Leeds College of Music as part of the Leeds International Concert Season, so we try to mix it up a bit.

We’ve been trying to do more education work too. We’ve put on masterclasses alongside the concerts at the university, so students attend those first and then come and watch the gig for free the next day. We’ve been trying to create a loyal following for song in Leeds so that the community will trust whatever we put on and come along. Ticket sales have been strong and higher than any other year at this point, which is great.

What have you got planned for next season?
Sarah Connolly and Ian Bostridge will be among those giving recitals, and Dame Felicity Lott will be the guest of honour at next year’s festival (which takes place in April 2017). Felicity and Sarah are actually two of our four new patrons who will be involved in what we do from now on; the others are Graham Johnson and Richard Stokes.

We’re going to continue putting on a series of themed concerts throughout the year: next year the focus will be on Mahler which is great for me because I have a quite a bit of Mahler to record over the next few seasons. I think the most important thing is to build audiences and to make sure you’re constantly introducing people to this special art form. It’s such a direct way of communicating while being so incredibly refined. Songs are about emotions and things we come into contact with every day – love, sex, families, nature. They’re about very ordinary human ideas made extraordinary by geniuses like Schubert, Goethe, Schumann and Heine.

What do you want the festival to achieve?
I really want education work to continue being at the heart of what we do. This year we’ve got two new song cycles which have been written for us, which is something I’d love to keep doing. We’ve been going into Leeds schools over the couple of months running up to the festival, so 500 school children will have learnt songs by Schubert and Finzi. I think that’s really vital because there’s less and less scope in schools for music-making and songs. We run three really good education projects. For one of them, we take really well-known songs, transpose them down into child-friendly keys and translate them into English, then our team goes into schools and teaches them to kids. The teachers have a pack they use to work on the songs, and our team regularly runs sessions on story-telling and imagination, then they all come to Leeds Town Hall and have a big knees-up there. We do that with songs from Schubert’s ‘Die Schöne Müllerin’ and Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’, as well as mainstream repertoire by Butterworth and Vaughan Williams. It’s really important there’s no dumbing down but we translate the texts into English because we don’t expect to go into schools with a Goethe text and expect them to get to grips with it! But the animatuers will perform it in the original language and the kids learn it in English. They love it!

Your academic roles give you a different perspective on education work…
I’m resident musician at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and as part of that I run the Pembroke College Lieder scheme which takes the four best singers and pianists from across the university and offers them coaching throughout the year. That’s something I really love, and it’s a taster of what they’ll get if they continue to postgraduate level. I’m also professor at the Royal Academy of Music.

Does it feel like you’ve come full circle in that respect?
I was really thrilled to get that phone call! It was almost ten years to the day that I’d first walked through those doors as a very green pianist without having played songs and without much interest in playing for singers. I studied with Malcolm Martineau and Michael Dussek. Michael is wonderful at teaching technique – he really sets you up well, and I think that’s the crucial thing for working as I do. You have to have a completely bulletproof technique so you can work for eight hours a day and not be physically tired at all. Malcolm was just brilliant for opening my eyes to what texts meant and how to work with singers.

In my teaching I feel like I’m passing on something from everyone I’ve ever worked with. That’s the most amazing thing about this job – there’s never an end point and you’re always learning. I’m very interested in teaching how to practise with both sides of your brain. I’m fascinated in imagination and storytelling – I love art, and have a very visual imagination – but I’m also interested in the fact that piano technique isn’t a fluke. There’s a reason why things work and don’t work! There’s a certain amount of problem-solving to practising.

That element of imagination is what you bring to the Myrthen ensemble’s programmes. Can you tell me about how you devised the programme you’re presenting at Wigmore Hall next week?
The Myrthen Ensemble [formed of Mary Bevan, Clara Mouritz, Allan Clayton, Marcus Farnsworth and Joseph Middleton] is a lovely opportunity to perform repertoire which isn’t often heard, so for that I always devise themed programmes so audiences have something to hold on to. I try to juxtapose songs that might not always be heard next door to one another so they take on different guises or show different aspects of themselves. This particular programme is called ‘Songs to the Moon’, and it’s the first one we ever performed. It explores different aspects of night-time and the moon; sometimes nightmarish and threatening, sometimes romantic serenades. The first half is solos, duets and quartets by Schumann and Brahms; then after the interval we have a little English song group and quite a long French song group of solos and duets.

Putting a programme together is a bit like doing a jigsaw – you’re constantly trying to make sure it’s intellectually and musically interesting, and will appeal to every audience member. You want to make sure that people who just want to sit and enjoy the music can do that, and those who read the texts really intently and read between the lines will also get something out of it. And then you have to make sure that the songs fit the singers’ voices really well… It’s something I really love, though. It’s satisfying when you’ve got a really nice arc over the evening: you can open the door at the start of the gig and invite people into this sound-world, then you can hopefully draw their ears through the programme in a way that is constantly invigorating. Hopefully they leave having been introduced to something they haven’t heard before, but also having heard something familiar in a new light because of how it was presented. The feedback I’ve had from audiences is that they really love it, because none of them are rude enough to say that they haven’t! [Laughs]

[The ensemble’s Wigmore Hall debut also marks the launch of their first CD – ‘Songs to the Moon’ – released on Signum Records in April 2016. Find out more about their Wigmore debut here.]

I understand your Wigmore debut is somewhat overdue…
We were meant to perform the same programme in 2012, but it was a very icy, snowy day and I came out of the tube station, slipped and broke my wrist three hours before the concert! So this has been a long time in the making. It’ll be very nice to go back, and I will crawl from the tube wrapped in bubble wrap!

I think the special thing about performing at the Wigmore is that everything is made available for you to do your best. The acoustic allows you to play with the extremes of dynamic ranges without the concern of whether it’ll work or not, and the piano really suits the space. You can play incredibly softly and the sound still breathes, or you can play in a very full way and it doesn’t become overblown. The audiences come with a real thirst for hearing something new, or to be communicated to, so it feels very open – you walk out to take your bow, and you feel that they want to have something shared with them.

You’ll also be there later in the month with Lucy Crowe and then in May with Sarah Connolly and Robin Tritschler.
Lucy and I are giving a programme of English song for a BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert. We start with a group of Purcell songs realised by Britten, then there are some Ireland songs which are amazing and really underrated. I think they sound quite French in places; they explore these wonderfully exotic harmonies. Then there’s a Michael Head cycle, and we finish with Walton’s three Façade settings which are brilliant Edith Sitwell texts – totally bonkers, as you’d expect. [Find out more here]

I’m really thrilled to have been asked to do Sarah and Robin’s gig because it’s the launch of Richard Stokes’ ‘The Penguin Book of English Song’. Richard is a very dear friend and an amazing man, and he’s a champion of song and young artists. He was incredibly kind to me when I was at the Academy and didn’t know anything about songs, and he gently introduced me to them, bit by bit. It feels a very nice thing to be playing for that occasion.

You’ve recorded the complete Purcell/Britten songs for Champs Hill. What do you find interesting about them?
Purcell left these tunes, figured bass and words, and they’re incredibly theatrical and vivid songs – some of them solos, some of them duets, and there’s one trio which is about 12-and-a-half minutes long, almost a mini opera. Britten wanted to arrange them so he could use them on his tours with Pears. He’s done a great service to people like me because reading from figured bass has become the preserve of the early music keyboardist and this kind of modern performance version allows people like me to play them. They’re a real mixture – some of them have quite simple accompaniments and sound like Purcell songs, and some of them have really very adventurous, percussive, acidic piano parts which could only be by Britten, and they sound more like a Britten song than a Purcell song. I love the idea of these giants of British music-making reaching out to each other across a couple of hundred years. I really wanted to put them down on disc, and I performed them with a crack team of six singers. It’s interesting because some of them have come to the songs more via the early music route (like Ruby Hughes and Robin Blaze), and others came to them from the Britten opera route, (like Matthew Rose and Allan Clayton).

[‘Benjamin Britten: The complete Purcell settings’ will be released on Champs Hill in April 2016]

You’ve also been busy with other recording projects.
Ruby Hughes asked me to accompany her debut recording. She came up with a programme of night songs – the disc is called ‘Nocturnal Variations‘ – and has a series of Schubert night songs, Berg, some Britten songs based round the night, and Mahler. Ruby’s also very text-led, and she comes from a similar background – we’re both very interested in the visual arts so we have a similar artistic ethos.

Carolyn [Sampson] and I have just recorded our second album for Bis, which will be out in the autumn – that’s called ‘A Verlaine Songbook’. Our third project with them will be a disc with Iestyn Davies. That programme will be a mixture of Purcell, Britten, Mendelssohn, Schumann, some French song and some English duets.

Carolyn and I have got lots of other projects up our sleeves – we go to the States next year to perform at Lincoln Center and in San Francisco, then to Spain and to Japan. I’m also going to New York with Kate Royal this autumn, and Sarah Connolly has asked me to do a month-long tour of the States with her next season. It’s exciting balancing the different strands of work and being constantly inspired by the music and singers I work with.

Find out more about Joseph Middleton here

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