The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: The Annals of Accompanying, Part 2 of 2. The Ear talks with baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer, both of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, about the challenges of accompanying in their joint FREE performance this Wednesday night of Hugo Wolf’s complete “Italian Songbook.”

March 25, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Baritone Paul Rowe and pianist Martha Fischer have been performing songs and song cycles together for almost two decades at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music.

Some performances, like Schubert’s “Winterreise,” have even been published and recorded in book-and-CD format that features moody song-related, black-and-white photographs by the Madison-based photographer and violist Katrin Talbot.

Winterreise UW Press

Fischer, who teaches Collaborative Piano at the UW-Madison, has also accompanied countless instrumentalists.

This Wednesday night, March 26, Rowe and Fischer will give a FREE performance of Hugo Wolf’s complete “Italian Songbook” at 7:3 p.m. in Mills Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

To The Ear, it seemed like the perfect occasion to explore the complexities of accompanying and musical collaboration. The two musicians (below with UW alumna Julia Foster, who teaches voice at Rollins College and who will join in the singing) generously agreed to respond to the same questions. Those questions and their answers have been featured yesterday and today on this blog.

Here is a link to yesterday’s posting of Part 1:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/classical-music-qa-the-annals-of-accompanying-part-1-of-2-the-ear-talks-with-baritone-paul-rowe-and-pianist-martha-fischer-both-of-the-university-of-wisconsin-madison-school-of-music-about-t/

 

Paul Rowe, Martha Fischer and Julia Foster 2

What qualities make for a great accompanist or collaborator?

PAUL ROWE: The first requirement is to be a great pianist and musician. Then, I think, especially if one is going to work with singers, the pianist needs to be interested in the poetry and the smaller format of the song. It is very important to have a working relationship where the leading role is constantly switching back and forth. To be able to exchange ideas and interpretations is also crucial to a rewarding working arrangement.

MARTHA FISCHER: Great artist-accompanists are able to both be supremely flexible and yet maintain a true artistic profile. Great accompanists bring a point of view to the table and play their parts with the same artistic integrity that one would bring to any solo work. They are able to meld with their partners to create a single artistic statement.  And they usually need to be nice people!

accompanying singer and piano

What are the most rewarding and most challenging parts of working together? Technical matters? Psychological and emotional aspects? How does each of you affect the other one? Does a collaboration develop and deepen over time and as you get to know each other in other collaborative projects?

PR: Martha and I have done many performances together of a variety of different types of music. We have, from the first, been able to hear and see things in similar ways. In many cases, we don’t need much rehearsal at all.

The most challenging thing has been finding time to work on things in a relaxed way, when we have time to discuss the pieces and the best ways to present them. Often, we are both running from lessons or meetings and trying to squeeze in some quality time.

It helps that we share a great love for this repertoire. We even team taught a special literature class a couple of years ago which was lots of fun to share our feelings and knowledge of the music with a group of students.

MF: For me, encountering the vast and amazing art song repertoire is, in itself, the most rewarding part of collaborating with singers.  And then when you are able to create this music with a sympathetic partner who already shares your values, it is one of the greatest experiences a pianist can have.

The challenges these days are mostly logistic — not enough time to practice and prepare on your own as well as together. Paul and I have been working together now for about 17 years. I knew when I first played for him that we were a good musical partnership. We rarely have musical disagreements — we are both flexible and open to each other’s ideas and we both listen to each other — musically and verbally.

And yes, our artistic collaborations (below, in Schubert’s “Winterreise” at the First Unitarian Society of Madison), like many others that I have enjoyed over the years, do develop and deepen over time, just like any important relationship in life. You come to trust one another and we definitely have a special connection.

Winterreise applause

Is it easier to do some kinds of music (vocal versus instrumental) or composers and styles (Baroque versus Romantic or Modern) than others? Which ones?

PR: We have had the easiest time with the famous works of Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler and Hugo Wolf. Some of the more rewarding performances have been of the works of some lesser-known composers or of works by famous people that are not heard as often. Some example are the William Blake songs of Benjamin Britten, the Francois Villon songs of Claude Debussy, some works of Francis Poulenc and Georges Enescu, Ivor Gurney and even Louis Coerne, Louis Spohr, Franz Schreker and Carl Loewe.

MF: There are different challenges in vocal and instrumental accompanying.  In vocal accompanying, you have to deal with and understand the words, poetry, languages, diction and style as well as the technical challenges presented.  The pieces tend to be shorter, but in recital that presents a challenge in itself because each new song is its own universe and there is often no time to gradually arrive there. You will find the same technical and musical challenges that you find in the solo piano repertoire.  Debussy is Debussy.  Brahms is Brahms.

Instrumental music is generally closer to solo piano music in that you don’t have the issues listed above (texts, languages, etc.) and you often have the challenge of playing longer forms such as sonatas — of planning and pacing a performance over a longer trajectory. But again, the challenges depend quite a bit on the composer and the piece and each experience is unique.

piano and violin accompanying

What would you each like to say about what has gone into your upcoming performance of Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Song Book”? What are the challenges for each you in relating to each other and best serving the music?

PR: I think we have had a great time getting to know these songs. The level of detail on which Hugo Wolf (below, in a photograph from 1902) works is astonishing. The quick transitions from humorous to serious moods, the sarcastic, snide commentary that is sometimes explicit and sometimes obscure, the quick dynamic and tempo changes as well as the sometime dicey harmonies are what make these songs such a delight.

The technical demands on both singers and pianist are extreme but they are never random. The “Italienisches Liederbuch” is probably the most entertaining and demanding of all the Wolf collections. Luckily for us, it is also the most rewarding for performers and audience.

Hugo Wolf 1902 photo

MF:  Wolf’s “Italian Songbook” encompasses every aspect of human relationships and emotion. It is so incredibly rich on every level. Pianistically, the intense chromaticism presents its own problems –- it is hard to keep track of what key you are in and which accidentals carry through the measure — and there are very, very wide stretches in both hands that have to be either placed between the hands or played as rolled chords.

Most of the songs are quite short (2-3 pages each) and go by so fast that it can be like an emotional roller coaster. Of course, that’s the fun of it as well. There is a lot of humor and reverence and love in these songs, and they certainly are some of the best that the German Lied, or art song, has to offer. It is a privilege beyond words for me to play these pieces with both Julia and Paul, and it has been a complete joy to do so.

What else would you like to say or add from your specific point of view?

PR: I realize that this is a very specialized repertoire that may be intimidating to many concertgoers. Even the title is somewhat confusing. Why are these Italian songs in German? How can this music be relevant for a modern audience? I would encourage anyone who does not know the music of Hugo Wolf to give this music a chance. There is so much beauty, humor and variety that it is worth the time and effort to experience it. (At bottom is a Hugo Wolf sampler in a YouTube video that includes a dozen songs from the “Italian Songbook” sung by baritone Hermann Prey and accompanied by pianist Daniel Barenboim.) 

MF: For the listeners who might come to hear the “Italian Songbook,” I would urge them to really pay attention to the piano parts. Just about every nuance of emotion in the text is presented in the piano writing through tiny harmonic shifts and stunning, sometimes sudden dynamic changes.

Also, I’m playing every piece on the program -– a total of 46 songs — where Paul and Julia get to share the stage (equally divided between them).  It’s a bigger job for me than anyone else!  And … lucky me!

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