I'm so glad to share with you a very special post. Not being a journalist might be a problem when it comes to doing an interview, especially when it is your first one. But if you follow this blog you'll know that the interviewee is one of my favourite Art Song singers; although I lacked professionalism, I was really excited about the interview so I hope I'll be able to transmit these feelings. I want to thank Simon Keenlyside for his cordiality and his generosity; it was a pleasure to be able to spend some time with him.
We share the interview with Alejandro Martínez. In this post you can read the questions I made about Art Song; especially Schubert, my favourite composer. The rest of the interview can be read (I recommend you to do so) on the on-line magazine Codalario. Thank you, Codalario, and thank you, Alejandro, for giving me this opportunity.
Simon Keenlyside
Simon Keenlyside (Photo: Uwe Arebs)

LA In your recitals, when you sing Schubert, it seems different from any other composer. It's just my impression or Schubert's songs are really different for you?

SK Schubert is always something special, he is the apex of the pyramid, he is the greatest classical song writer ever, of course, and nobody would dispute that. Yes, I think you are right. In recitals, if I do an encore I often do Schubert, and I remember since you have mentioned it that I often say that I feel like coming home. Schubert gives me indescribable joy; the musical language is so varied that you couldn't possibly describe it, so much dramatic range... Everything that happens in your live is mostly in his songs.

I love him more than everyone else. But then I come to Hugo Wolf, for example, I totally adore that, and when I'm in the middle of Hugo Wolf's world I couldn't be happier either. It's so nice to have Brahms, Schubert, Wolf, Ravel, Debussy, and Duparc... What a joy to be in the middle of there. But Schubert is probably most special to me.

LA You have a wide repertoire of Schubert's songs, but you don't usually sing his song cycles. What is the reason?

SK I don't think I will ever sing Die schöne Müllerin, I see it as a young person cycle and I was too lazy to learn it, at the beginning. There are five verses in each song, when I think of how much I've done, learnt it would have been nothing. But no, I don't think I will.

You have to respect what the concert agencies ask you. You submit a program, but there are cycles, Winterreise for example, that are so popular that the concert's agents would sometimes say: look, you might not do it now because someone else just have done it. I've always thought that there's no need to go around wit Winterreise when you have six hundred fantastic songs, why not just enjoy making new programs? I pick the songs. But, actually, in the next two years I'm doing Winterreise, with Emmanuel Ax, a lot, a dozen, we had to say no for many more.

So, I'm not involved so much about the cycles as about the composer. I do love Winterreise but I love all Schubert.

LA Is there any chance you could record Winterreise? Perhaps a live recording?

SK I don't like recordings at all, I don't like live recordings either. It can be frustrating; on the one hand you want the fact you have the choices and the engineer doesn't mess things around, on the other hand there are very rarely, for me, good enough.

I probably will record it because I like Winterreise. I wanted illustrate it too. Not every song, but like in a Dickens book: there are seven hundred pages, every under pages you see a draw. I think I'll do that.

LA On the blog, we had a little debate on Sei mir gegrüsst, by Schubert, a song I don't think is in your repertoire. In your opinion, is it a sad song or a happy song?

SK I love that song but I've never done it in public. I would say it's happy, from my first reaction, but life isn't like that, is neither happy nor sad, and Schubert is the greatest of geniuses and he would have understood that immediately. Great beauty about life is it's both happy and sad at the same time and that's obviously the answer for that song.

I remember sitting listening to a Wynton Marsalis track when one of my friends came over to me and said: why do you put that sad music on? But for me it wasn't sad music at all, it deeply supplied me beauty. I listened yesterday to Pablo Casals playing Bach, people would say it was sad but I would disagree. It supplied me happiness, supplied me beauty and one compound of supplying me beauty is certain amount of introspection, a certain amount of melancholy, which is not the happy Mozart but is life, which is everything, and so is Sei mir gegrüsst for me, something like that.

LA From Schubert to Eisler. You and Malcolm Martineau are performing songs by Hanns Eisler in Vienna in December. Would you explain something about these songs?

SK Why do I do the Eisler? I was trying to device a program for a concert in Vienna and London that involved Britten songs, because it's his anniversary and some of his music is rather important to me. The songs I was doing by Britten were the Blake settings, which I adore; nobody likes them, it's a bit like Wozzeck, but it is great music and it will be there forever. The Blake's settings have those beautiful crystal truths: "To see a world in a grain of sand / and heaven in a wild flower / hold infinity in the palm of your hand / and eternity in one hour". That's such a tight group of images...

And I thought of Brecht, I found the similar sort of feelings in some of the Brecht, in songs about war, and I found that a little bit of mirror to what something of Blake was doing; and Brecht had been set by Eisler so it was Brecht who brought me to Eisler really.

I want to do the Eisler but it do not want to present the Hollywood Songbook because that's boring to me, I don't like at all, I don't think the audience can sit through the whole afternoon on the Eisler. What I wanted to to, what I will do, I thing, is to vary the pace of the evening. In Britten's scores, like in Wozzeck, for example, it's written: "spoken, almost spoken, half spoken, more sung, fully sung"... I thought I can do that in my concert, I could mix it so I can speak, I can get the piano to start playing, so you leave the paces you are singing and you come back to speak something else, many are written almost spoken. In Vienna I would do it in German, in London two of the ones I chose are written in English.

So, it was because William Blake was looking at very difficult subjects, with not judgement in saying: look at this prostitute, look at London, look at this chimney-sweeper... And Brecht too; in those Eisler songs there is a similar subject matter and I found a great affinity between the two. That's why I chose it, not because I particularly liked the music. Some of them I do like. But they are short, I don't want to test myself or the audience with too many.

LA In every blog post we listen to a song. Would you please choose a song to include in this post?

SK It's funny, when I go back and look over the songs I chose in my programs I often remember the flavours of my life during that time. Not always, because if I'm doing Winterreise I have no choice but often, very often, I choose a song because I happen to be in Salzburg walking the mountains or something like that and I think: oh, that! Or I was lonely and I was homesick... Lots of times.

When my children were born I wanted to do Wolf's Storchenbotschaft because I wanted to say welcome to them but I never did, I was too busy and too tired with the two children. In the autumn I'm doing a recital with Bryn [Terfel] in London and I think I will put it. Yesterday I was in Cordoba with my children and I was watching the storks going around and I remembered the song.

It's about a shepherd on a solitaire mountain dreaming, he wouldn't change places even with the king, that's how I feel with my work and my life, and a pair of storks visit him and he says: what is it? That is... not children, isn't it? And why are you two? That is... not twins?! I like the song, is fun; it's not profound, it's just fun.

We can hear to Storchenbotschaft (Stork's message) from Wolf's Mörike Lieder, no. 48, performed by Heinrich Schlusnuss, one of the baritones that Simon Keenlyside mentioned as his references. Schlusnuss is accompanied by Sebastian Peschko.


Des Schäfers sein Haus und das steht auf zwei Rad,
steht hoch auf der Heiden, so frühe, wie spat;
und wenn nur ein Mancher so'n Nachtquartier hätt'!
Ein Schäfer tauscht nicht mit dem König sein Bett.

Und käm' ihm zur Nacht auch was Seltsames vor,
er betet sein Sprüchel und legt sich auf's Ohr;
ein Geistlein, ein Hexlein, so luftige Wicht',
sie klopfen ihm wohl, doch er antwortet nicht.

Einmal doch, da ward es ihm wirklich zu bunt:
es knopert am Laden, es winselt der Hund;
nun ziehet mein Schäfer den Riegel - ei schau!
da stehen zwei Störche, der Mann und die Frau.

Das Pärchen, es machet ein schön Kompliment,
es möchte gern reden, ach, wenn es nur könnt'!
Was will mir das Ziefer? ist so was erhört?
Doch ist mir wohl fröhliche Botschaft beschert.

Ihr seid wohl dahinten zu Hause am Rhein?
Ihr habt wohl mein Mädel gebissen in's Bein?
nun weinet das Kind und die Mutter noch mehr,
sie wünschet den Herzallerliebsten sich her.

Und wünsche daneben die Taufe bestellt:
ein Lämmlein, ein Würstlein, ein Beutelein Geld?
so sagt nur, ich käm' in zwei Tag oder drei,
und grüßt mir mein Bübel und rührt ihm den Brei!

Doch halt! warum stellt ihr zu Zweien euch ein?
es werden doch, hoff' ich, nicht Zwillinge sein?
Da klappern die Störche im lustigsten Ton,
sie nicken und knixen und fliegen davon.

The shepherd's house stands on two wheels -
stands high on the heath, from morning to night;
if only more people had such night lodgings!
Then a shepherd would not exchange his bed with a king.

And if something strange came about by night,
he would make a little prayer and lay down on his ear;
a spirit, a witch, and other such airy creatures
may knock on his door, but he will not answer.

But once it became just too much:
the banging on the shutter, the whining of the dog;
so my shepherd draws back the bolts - and behold!
there stand two storks, a male and a female.

The couple makes a nice bow
and wish to speak, alas, if only they could!
What do they want of me? Has anyone heard of such a thing?
Yet they bear me a joyful message.

You live in that house back there by the Rhine?
You have bitten my maiden in the leg?
now the child is weeping and the mother as well:
she wishes for her beloved to come home.

And she wishes also to arrange a baptism:
a lamb, a sausage and a purse of money?
well, tell her I'll come in two or three days,
and greet my boy and stir his porridge for me!

But wait! why have you both come?
but it won't, I hope, mean twins?
The storks give a great rattle with a merry sound;
they nod and bow, and fly away.

(translation by Emily Ezust)


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