Accompanists: The Unsung Heroes of Music

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IcedNote
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Accompanists: The Unsung Heroes of Music

Post by IcedNote » Mon Mar 05, 2012 6:19 pm

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/tomserv ... roes-music
Pity the poor accompanist, condemned to sit in the shadow of the great voices and the even greater egos of today's singers. Being the pianist who plays for them can feel like the most thankless job in music. The singers couldn't do it without them, but it's the braying sopranos and the yodelling tenors who get all the glory, as well as most of the cash and applause – despite the fact that all they've done is sing a few tunes, usually in a foreign language, while the pianists slog their guts out playing fiendishly difficult accompaniments by Schubert, Schumann or Britten.

It's a life that Roger Vignoles, the veteran British accompanist who has worked with everyone from Kiri Te Kanawa to Anne Sofie Von Otter, laments in his hilarious song The Battle Hymn of the Accompanist. "I only make believe I'm following their Lieder," he sings. "That's what I'm staying for/ That's what I'm playing for/ Art is calling for – me!" And later: "You may think this job sucks/ When they get all the bucks/ Forget their lines, transpose/ And jump from page to page!"

After four decades at the top of his profession, however, Vignoles is finally getting to call the shots, having curated a series of eight concerts at the Wigmore Hall in London. Billed as a showcase of song that will celebrate the relationship between pianist and singer, the series features such sopranos as Joan Rodgers and Sandrine Piau. Vignoles will still be on the piano, of course, but for once it's his baby, his name in lights. How would he sum up his craft? "I sometimes describe it as the art of getting what you want without the other person noticing."

The archetypal British accompanist was Gerald Moore, who lamented his plight just as passionately as Vignoles, despite the fact that he was assisting the likes of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. "We accompanists," Moore said in his 1960s recording The Unashamed Accompanist, "have our minds above such mundane things as fees. But I would like people to realise what extremely important people we accompanists are. The most enchanting lady walks on to sing, and all the ladies look at her because of what she's wearing, and all the men look at her because – well, all the men look at her. And nobody looks at me. And I can't blame them. Nobody notices the accompanist at all. He looks so slender and shy and so modest that people think he's there just to do what he's told, to follow the singer through thick and thin. Well, there's a great deal more to it than that."

You would have thought that, by now, musical culture would have twigged that there's more to a song recital than the singer. But is anyone really listening to what these toiling accompanists are doing? As pianist Anna Tilbrook – who plays for, among others, tenor James Gilchrist – puts it: "These songs would sound pretty strange without the piano."

Iain Burnside, another seasoned accompanist, agrees. "I always think of what my mentor, Eric Sams, said – that the whole song repertoire is a piano art form rather than a singer's. After all, the great Lieder and song composers were pianists." This is a good point: think of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Fauré and Debussy. "Hardly any of them sang," says Burnside. "Once you've got that idea in your brain, it's hard to be comfortable with the idea that what you're doing is merely 'accompanying'." And in Lieder, of course, it's the pianist who leads.

"I hate the term accompanist," continues Burnside. "You can't deny there are connotations that it's a secondary entity. But unfortunately I can't think of a better one. If you insist on being called a pianist then people think that you're comparing yourself to Sviatoslav Richter. That's not what it's about: you're just asking to be taken seriously in your own right."

It's not just in the fees that Burnside sees inequality, but in the promotion, the fact that the singer – or instrumental soloist – has their name in lights, while the pianist's name appears as an afterthought on the CD cover, poster or review. "When a 'proper' pianist like András Schiff or Mitsuko Uchida plays for a singer, they will get half the review, whereas when I'm playing the same repertoire – or Roger, or any of us – we'll get one adjective, usually 'sensitive', and that's it." The irony is that the colour, range and collaborative alchemy that a skilled accompanist will deliver is precisely what a professional soloist, be it Schiff or Uchida, would struggle to create.

Tilbrook knows what it's like to be regarded as the backdrop. "There are singers you build up a rapport with," she says. "But you also get a soprano who says you've got to wear a more understated dress than hers so you don't upstage her. Maybe that's why there are hardly any female accompanists."

While Vignoles embraces life as an accompanist, he is determined for it to be seen as an art form in its own right. That means celebrating the things accompanists can do that no other musicians can. He talks of the piano as a reservoir of colour that needs to create the infinite emotional variety required in everything from Schubert to Debussy,Dvořák Dvorˇák to Copland. But it's more subtle even than that. "Every voice you play for requires a different background," he says. "Every person you work with is giving you something different all the time. My playing has become much more interesting because of that, because of all the people I've had to work my playing against. The most exciting thing is when something new happens in a concert, when you say to each other afterwards, 'We've never done it like that before, but it was right for that moment.'"

More than anything else, what unifies these accompanists, in their passionate but egoless profession, is the thrill of doing justice to magnificent music. "There's no getting away from the fact that the greatest songs ever written are in a foreign language," says Vignoles. "But what they are all really about is universal human experiences. That's the most important thing we do: project natural human feelings in a way that transcends time and place."

Vignoles talks of a virtual telepathy, moments when he knows what the singer is going to do before they do, invisible connections that bind his fingers and their voice. As Burnside says, "You build up a kind of musical radar. You become attuned to a singer's breathing, you get a sense of what their breath span is, and when they're likely to be heading for trouble. It's quite a private, sensual thing, listening to someone's breath that intently."

Tilbrook says there are times when she has saved singers from embarrassment. "The real art is to have that sixth sense, knowing when they are going to have a memory lapse, when they're going to come in a bar early or even skip a whole verse. You have to be able to cover all that in your playing, so smoothly that no one notices."

Doesn't that mean Tilbrook is allowing these singers to get away with murder – and getting none of the credit for her skilled coverups? "Yes! But I love to be able to do that. It's great when you think no one would have known there was a mistake. You have to be totally on your mettle, totally in the moment – and totally aware of the person you're accompanying."


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Re: Accompanists: The Unsung Heroes of Music

Post by Holden Fourth » Tue Mar 06, 2012 4:02 am

I think Graeme Johnson took the bull by the horns with his Schubert lieder series for Hyperion which he initiated. He was the only one who appeared on every CD and brought out the art of the accompanist for all who heard any CD in the series.

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Re: Accompanists: The Unsung Heroes of Music

Post by Lance » Tue Mar 06, 2012 4:26 am

I loved that clip of Vignoles! It is nice to smile at near 4:30 in the morning. I'm glad I checked in here. And thank you, Garrett, for posting this. I hope Vignoles will also write a book (as did Gerald Moore - many in fact) about his travels as an "accompanist." There is no question in my mind that the "accompanist" of today is much more highly revered that he/she ever was, thanks largely to the tutelage of that Prince among piano partners: Mr. Gerald Moore.
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Re: Accompanists: The Unsung Heroes of Music

Post by John F » Tue Mar 06, 2012 4:47 am

It was Gerald Moore's EMI recording of his lecture, "The Unashamed Accompanist," that really opened the world of art song to me, and that without any singing at all. It's on YouTube, by the way. Always good to have accompanists speaking up, especially when they're as good and as witty as Moore and Vignoles - and as witty.
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Re: Accompanists: The Unsung Heroes of Music

Post by jbuck919 » Wed Mar 07, 2012 3:25 pm

Holden Fourth wrote:I think Graeme Johnson took the bull by the horns with his Schubert lieder series for Hyperion which he initiated. He was the only one who appeared on every CD and brought out the art of the accompanist for all who heard any CD in the series.
A very worthy proejct, of which I own a substantial portion, but Johnson's decision to play all the accompaniments himself may not have been the wisest.



(Also not the ideal choice of singer for this one.)

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Accompanists: The Unsung Heroes of Music

Post by IcedNote » Thu Mar 08, 2012 1:50 pm

John F wrote:It was Gerald Moore's EMI recording of his lecture, "The Unashamed Accompanist," that really opened the world of art song to me, and that without any singing at all. It's on YouTube, by the way. Always good to have accompanists speaking up, especially when they're as good and as witty as Moore and Vignoles - and as witty.
Thanks! I'd never heard of it before but listened to it in its entirety last night. Great stuff.

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Re: Accompanists: The Unsung Heroes of Music

Post by John F » Thu Mar 08, 2012 2:21 pm

"Ees too low."
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Re: Accompanists: The Unsung Heroes of Music

Post by Werner » Fri Mar 09, 2012 9:58 pm

It's not quite 4 AM, Lance, but I've just come across the Vignoles clip, and I like it, too.

I also feel that the term "Accompanist" demeans the performer's keyboard partner. So any time I write about that sort of repertoire, I prefer to use the latter term.

An indication of the problem is in Moore's famous question, "Am I Too Loud?"

Another sign of Moore's sensitivity: in his farewell performance he concludud with Schubert's lovely Lied, "An Die Musik," played as a piano solo.
Werner Isler

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Re: Accompanists: The Unsung Heroes of Music

Post by jbuck919 » Fri Mar 09, 2012 10:08 pm

Werner wrote:Another sign of Moore's sensitivity: in his farewell performance he concludud with Schubert's lovely Lied, "An Die Musik," played as a piano solo.
Gives a whole new meaning to the term "music minus one."

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Re: Accompanists: The Unsung Heroes of Music

Post by Chalkperson » Fri Mar 09, 2012 11:26 pm

Sviatoslav Richter was of the greatest Accompanists ever, it's just as valuable a profession as Solo work...
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Re: Accompanists: The Unsung Heroes of Music

Post by John F » Sat Mar 10, 2012 12:35 am

Werner wrote:Another sign of Moore's sensitivity: in his farewell performance he concludud with Schubert's lovely Lied, "An Die Musik," played as a piano solo.
That used to be the theme music for a BBC Third Programme music program back in the '50s - "An die Musik" without the vocal part. I wonder if Gerald Moore recorded it for them - he might well have done.
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Re: Accompanists: The Unsung Heroes of Music

Post by Werner » Sat Mar 10, 2012 9:48 am

I still have the LP - somewhere - "Hommage to Gerald Moore," with his speech and that solo transcription. "An die Musik" seems an appropriate dedication for that occasion.
Werner Isler

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