The great British accompanist aims to score 10 out of 10 travelling through Vivat’s new Decades series.

What was the inspiration behind the Decades project?

It was an idea we did a few years ago at the Wigmore Hall, but we only did German Lieder. We discovered lots of interesting things by doing that, and I thought it would be good for a CD series. When Robert King with his wonderful label Vivat gave me the opportunity, I thought that would be a great chance to expand into other languages and countries. The first two discs are mostly German speaking. On the first we have Viotti and some Fernando Sor, but there’s not much else going on – the German speaking countries were miles ahead – but later on of course it gets much more wide-ranging and far more equally spread between the countries.

How did you go about deciding on the repertoire? Did you spend months burrowing around for unusual songs?

Not at all. In fact, I was helped massively by the wonderful Susan Youens who’s the authority on Lieder and everything to do with German song in the States. She’s written the programme notes as well. Otherwise I’ve just gone to experts and said, “you know, we’re looking for some interesting Russian song that nobody will probably have heard of – 1830s – can you recommend?” So people from Moscow have found the Russian ones, and people from Valencia the Spanish ones. Miah Persson is doing all the Swedish songs and she’s gone to a professor in Sweden to suggest things. It’s actually a wonderful chance for me to be shown new repertoire. Even within the German songs I’ve discovered lots of things. I mean, I knew the Tomášek, which is on the first disc – I’d done them quite a bit with Magdalena Kozená, because she’s obviously Czech – but the Viotti and the Fernando Sor were very joyful discoveries.

On the first disc there’s Beethoven, and obviously a lot of Schubert, a very dominant composer of that first decade. Given the huge range of Schubert Lieder, was there a particular way you whittled it down?

I picked deliberately a lot of things from his golden years, 1815 and 1816, and because so many of those songs are not published in the Peters Edition. They’re just waiting to be discovered. And a lot of them are strophic, which people think is a very difficult thing to do – you know, five verses with the same tune and making them all different. But actually I love playing around with the same music, but with different words used to make different colours, and maybe taking a breath in a different place or something like that to make the music have a different shape. Michael Schade, who does most of the Schubert on the first disc, is such an experienced Lieder singer – he really did bring all this repertoire alive.

So apart from the Schubert and the Beethoven, on the first volume who would you say are the revelations for you?

German-wise, the Tomášek really are little gems. We’ve deliberately taken settings of the same poems that Schubert also set. And I don’t think he falls far short – Rastlose Liebe I think is amazing. He gets the passion and the turbulence of the poem as well as Schubert does. And I have to say Weber was quite a revelation for me – the song that Michael dug up Abschied vom Leben. I thought Weber only came to life in his operas and in his orchestral writing, but this is a really beautiful song. The other ones, I mean the French songs that Lorna Anderson sings, are incredibly beautiful – very simple, but very much have their own very French sound already, which then of course will develop over the next few decades. The wonderful thing about this series is that we’ll see how each country went down its own road and whether it followed closely the path taken by Lieder or whether it really established its own personality and went in a different direction.

As the series progresses, who do you think will be the surprises in terms of the composers?

Well, the decade that I always thought would be the problem was where Schubert had finished and Schumann hadn’t started. The 1830s. The incredible eye-openers for me were the two Mendelssohns. I’ve always been a great fan of Felix Mendelssohn, but Fanny Mendelssohn’s songs are a complete revelation. She’s a very different voice to her brother, and sometimes more harmonically adventurous. The other one is another female composer called Josephine Lang, who Clara Schumann thought was the most talented composer of her generation. And of course there’s Loewe, who is known for his Ballades – and there are two Ballades of his on the 1820s disc – but he lived until he was 80, so he spans quite a few decades. In the German repertoire as well, Liszt we know for about ten of his songs. Again, he lived a long time and spans maybe three decades or four decades, so he’s a bit of a surprise. And people like Lachner, who set the Heine poems before Schumann did in Dichterliebe. It’s nice to see the first appearance of these wonderful poems but in a way that we don’t expect or are not familiar with.

Was there a particular reason you chose to start in 1810 rather than 1800?

Because there ain’t a lot before 1810, basically. And it’s lovely to go across the century at the end as well, because you are very much seeing the post-Wagner generation. Everybody reacted to Wagner and had to find a way of going forward. Plus you get the very interesting beginnings of Berg and Schoenberg and all those guys, and interesting people like Max Reger and Schrecker. French song comes into its own at the very end of the century with Debussy, but lots of other people as well who were experimenting, Tournemire and Chaminade and maybe a bit of Caplet as well.

What would you say are the main preconceptions you hope to do away with in Decades?

People are inclined to stereotype a particular country’s style. You know, there’s so much variety in the Spanish music that we don’t know about, there’s so much Czech music I’ve never even heard of some of the composers! And they’re beautiful, beautiful songs, but because of the language barrier often we don’t explore them. People are scared of singing in Czech, they’re scared of singing in Swedish and Norwegian because they think it’s unattainable, but of course it isn’t.

And which singers can we look forward to in future volumes?

Christopher Maltman is the main contributor in Number Two and we have Angelika Kirchschlager on Number Three. I’m deliberately mixing famous singers with very, very good up and coming youngsters. There’s a lovely Russian singer, Anush Hovhannisyan, he’s Armenian and sings the Glinka song on the second disc. And we have Magdalena Kozená and Pavol Breslik doing some Czech repertoire later, Miah Perrson doing Swedish. We have Susan Graham singing the Rückert Lieder later as well as John Mark Ainsley. So lots of exciting people waiting in the wings.


Decades: A Century of Song Volume 1 (1810-1820) is out now on Vivat. Click here to read our review