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2006.10.26 In tune interview: Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau talk to Sean Rafferty

Transcript of BBC Radio 3 “In Tune” interview

26th October 2006

Simon Keenlyside (SK) and Malcolm Martineau (MM) Interviewed by Sean Rafferty (SR).

2004 Winterreise Schwarzenberg with Malcolm Martineau

SR: My next guest on “In Tune” has the stage magnetism to go with his voice. One of the most ravishing baritone sounds that you are likely to hear, Simon Keenlyside sings now for us with one of the princes of the piano, Malcolm Martineau and we’ll have Butterworth shortly but first it’s to Paris and a saucy little piece by Poulenc. So just lie back on your chaise longue and have a glass of something; you’re in a very seedy hotel.

[music]

Thank you very much indeed, gentlemen. Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau with “hotel” from  banalité by Poulenc, a setting of Apollinaire. I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to go. You are both… you were laughing wickedly at the end of that Simon [laughter] what were you trying to do to that poor pianist?

SK: Hello Sean, I can own that I’ve, for twenty years I’ve childishly and consciously, tried to get to the beat before Malcolm, or after him, whatever we’ve agreed to. I like it to sound as if it was a car door, with a clunk, [sings a few notes] I like it! We always giggle about it.

SR: that sounds fun!

SK: I’ve done it for such a long time…

SR: That can be the authorised version, you have to be there…  that CAN be the authorised version now… It’s a foolish little thing but it’s delightful, isn’t it? It’s just someone lying there in the hotel, just wants to smoke…

SK: Well look, I have been off for such a long time. I got married and I’ve had so much time off, that’s rather a reflection…

SR: Congratulations on achieving your respectable state!

SK: Well that’s it! But, the song is a man lying in his room, the sun comes through the cage of his room, through the bars, he just wants to smoke, he doesn’t want to work, he just wants to make pictures in the air with nuage.

SR: Mmmm. Not a bad thing to do…

SK: That’s me

SR: Well, that’s you.

SK: Right now anyway

SR: We’ll talk about the new album in a minute, the new opera album because you’ve done …

SK: Must we?

SR: Well, we’ll have to in a minute or two, we might be forced to play something from it! You’ve done some drawings in it. So do you draw at home much then?

SK: That’s my life, my life is just… I mean… I know it sounds pretentious, but it’s true, my whole working life is immersed up to my neck in great art. Great poetry, great music and well, actually, the poetry as much as anything else. Yeah, I do. I kept it to myself. It is my private thing, but poetry, drawing… very important to me.

sk-drawing-27-07-2004Simon drawing

SR: Well I think they inform, don’t they?

SK: Yeah

SR: the one art form doesn’t exist without the other.

SK: It’s not, the drawing thing’s not a diary. At first it used to be, used to be  – I used to draw the bad things that happened to me and it would calm me down. When you are in a hotel for months and months on tour. But now I just do things that amuse me, Yeah…

SR: Mmmm.

SK: And that – the drawings on that little disk were that.

SR:  Good!

SK: And they kindly put them in.

SR: Very Good! There’ll be an exhibition shortly! I can see it…

SK:  No, no.

SR: In the Foyer of the Royal Opera house…

SK: NO!

SR: The grand opening

SK: Thank you! Good afternoon. Next!!!

SR: [ Laughs] I’ll have a glass of sherry on the way out then. Thank you very much indeed! But, operatically, Simon, you said you’d taken quite a lot of time off. Was that a conscious decision? Just to…

SK: Yeah. I didn’t see the point of getting married…

SR: Mental and Physical rest.

SK: I had a problem with my back actually, to be honest. I did have a problem with my back.

SR: I’m not surprised, all that leaping about that you do on stage

SK: Nooo. Accidents happen. It’s not that the…

SR: Billy Budd rushing round the rigging! Gave me heart failure!!

SK: It’s not the things that look difficult that are the dangerous things, it’s in the wings. That’s the dangerous thing. As you come out of the light into the dark or vice versa, back of the stage. That’s when my accidents have always happened. All the things that look difficult are supposed to look difficult, but they’re not – because I practice them!

SR: Mmmm. Well they certainly look difficult.

SK: Anyway, the time off is a joy, and er… I’m not wasting it.

SR: Good! So how much time did you allow yourself?

SK: Well, I had to cancel a job in Chicago. I had to, because of the injury, but that gave me two and a half months, and so I’ve been around. Pestering my wife…

SR:  Mmm

SK: Collecting mushrooms, making jam…

[laughter]

…Planting flowers, all the things I just dearly love doing. She goes to work, I’m off into the woods.

SR: You’re making us all envious

SK: Yes!

SR: There’s a long list of our listeners…

SK: I should have done it years ago…

SR: …saying “where is he? Can I come down and join in?”

SK: NO!.. [laughter] is the short answer!

[laughter]

SR: Does that mean you come back fresh when you’re doing a recital or you’re doing a new role?

SK: Yeah. Well I always did. I always said that… some years in the past I’ve toured for 10 months and I’d really got it out of balance, really. Otherwise, I’ll run out of things to sing about.

SR: Mmm

SK: If I’m singing songs about, hmm, the natural environment. They’ve got to be things that I’m being nurtured doing as well, that’s why it’s just a little bit, you know…

SR: Yeah. What about the operatic…? What’s the next big operatic role?

SK: My next job, “War requiem” in London, next month.

2006_War_Requiem_West_Cath_17_Nov2 During the War Requiem in Westminster Cathedral

SR: Yes, at Westminster Cathedral.

SK: You know I want to say something about that, because I’m very much looking forward to it, because it’s the right forces in the right building. You know, nowadays, when we do the War Requiem, often, for financial reasons I suppose… I don’t know, I’m not the one to ask, but I’m guessing. They’re done in secular buildings. The acoustic is, in my opinion, wrong. You can’t get the antiphonal effect with the choirs. But to do it with the Bach choir and David Hill in Westminster Cathedral… I think that’s great!

SR: Yeah.

SK: I’m looking forward to that. So that’s the only concert in November, and then a run of Don Carlos in Vienna which I’m looking forward to.

SR: Well, the physicality on stage is extraordinary, I mean that’s part of your makeup too. But then, you were a competitive athlete, weren’t you?

SK: Ahhh, in another life

SR: In another life, but come on it’s still in the bones

SK: no

SR: you’re a mere poulet! it’s, it’s stays in the system

SK: look I…

SR: that liquidity

SK: I think that what I said in that little – they also Sony also, very kindly, they asked me to write something for the booklet. And it got to be shorter and shorter and shorter and in the end they said “look if you want to write something, write the whole booklet”. Which was nice, but anyway, one thing I did write which is true is… you shouldn’t as any sort of artist; actor, singer, answer anything. You shouldn’t show all the toys in the box all at once, and if I have a physical facility it should be careful not to be tricksy. I hope it isn’t. You know, as a young man you can’t help but use it a bit, but I think that you should only use it as a conduit for whatever you are trying to say, and that’s not all my brief, is it?  It’s the producer and the composer, the librettist.

SR: Yes, well, I don’t think you have. I think you have used it on the surface of opera. Thomas Adès’ “Tempest” that was extraordinary…

tempest13Simon as Prospero with Cyndia Sieden as Ariel

SK: Oh it was great! Well physically it was nothing for me but vocally…

SR: vocally

SK: It’s an amazing piece of music. It’s a great work

SR: Yeah, and that’s coming back

SK: I’m very privileged

SR: And Billy Budd, of course. I think you said last time that you may not do that again.

SK: I won’t do it again

SR: Will you not?

SK: Ohh, what a wonderful trip I’ve had with it and, of course, it’s painful not to do it, not to do it again. But there’s nothing that says Billy Budd in my diary for the next four years, which will take me past 50, and I think… that’s enough. I mean, there are… to be brutal as well, I think whilst it’s an utter joy to be part of it, to sing it,  I personally don’t particularly like being the eponymous heros of the evening. I want to be part of ensembles with great roles. But Budd, a young man’s view of the world. He’s a little hysterical, Budd and Pelleas are a little like that, and I’m saying “bye-bye” to them.

SR: you are getting sensible

SK Mmm

SR: – ish. Well you are going to sing next. Mal… Mr Martineau is still waiting at the piano, just to see if you’ve any tricks up your sleeve for Butterworth, I hope not!

SK: Oh, what now?

SR: Yeah! I don’t see why not. Oh just tell us what it is before you go. It’s a setting of Houseman. We were just saying this, in a way it’s terribly sad, because Butterworth was killed in the battle of the Somme in 1916. Yet another bright young talent cut down, and so maybe we invest it with a sadness that it doesn’t have. ‘Coz this setting of Houseman is actually about those who went, maybe, went on to shine in glory and didn’t grow old and grumpy and regretful.

SK: Yeah, Yeah. It is a song… I don’t know, more generally they are about war and I, God you could talk forever about it! When you sing the War Requiem there are two aspects, of course. There’s whether the wars, or any war, was fought for a good reason or not, and it… to be honest this is not for me to say. But the other aspect is, as Owen says, in his poetry of the war requiem, “My subject is war, and the pity of war, and the poetry is in the pity”.  And later on “Was it for this that the clay grew tall?” That’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking now of… I don’t mean to say “never mind”, ‘coz I do mind. I have passionate feelings, but it’s not, now is not the right time and I’m not the right person to say it about the present wars. But these young men and women, I think they’re children. They’re 18 and they’re 19, and whatever the rights and wrongs, whatever drums are beaten by whatever politicians, whatever justifications, whatever conclusion we come to, we still have to honour them. We still have to honour their loss.

SR: Yeah

SK: And no amount of justification will bring them back, or console their mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts. And I always think of that whether this is the First World War or the Second World War or anything. It’s true, part of this is a man thinking “well, I wish I’d gone out in my bright mintage. I wish I’d gone as a young man taken away in my glories and magnesium flare and not growing old and decrepit. Seeing my friends die”. But for me, in my present state of life, I can’t help but think of the kids, you know. Being lost and not coming back, pity.

SR: Simon, thank you. [pause] “The lads in their hundreds” sung by Simon Keenlyside with Malcolm Martineau.

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[music and pause]

SR: Lovely Simon, I just thought if I stayed quiet long enough you might have sung more, but there we are. “The lads in their hundreds” from a Shropshire Lad by Butterworth, the setting of Houseman. Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau at the piano.  Well, of course, Butterworth as I said, died 1916, friend of Vaughan Williams, wrote crits for the Times, who knows what might have happened if he’d survived on? Do you…? It’s… it is very emotional what we are talking about and it’s very emotional stuff. Can you distance yourself from that when you are in a recital?

SK: I try to, I have failed in the past and it’s the… you are letting yourself down, which doesn’t matter so much, but, more to the point you are getting in the way of what it is that you want to say to people. So that’s a pity. Yeah.

SR: Mmm

SK: What I would like to say, though, is that as a singer you’ve got the music of course and you’ve got the words. But in addition to that the most interesting thing, if you manage to get that far, is colour itself. Colour.

SR: Yeah.

SK: You know, theoretically, you can affect people with the tone itself, and that’s what one tries to do. But that, of course, is closer to your own emotional state and then sometimes you slip up. It’s not very professional, but it happens.

SR: Well, you are only human. Is it more likely to happen on the concert platform where you are getting a direct eye with people than on the stage?

SK: Good point. Yes, but I got very upset when I used to be doing Billy Budd as well, yeah.

SR: for those… you have to have something, that… I suppose you have to have that inner fuel of feeling but…

SK: Yes

SR : …but not an outward sign.

SK: You must always be one step short of the line. I mean, obviously, for example, on the stage if you are working with a knife and you weren’t totally in control, you know… As I know to my cost  working with some… loonies that I have worked with

[laughter]

SR: What? You stabbed yourself? Or they stabbed you?

SK: I didn’t stab myself, no [laughter] I was stabbed.

[laughter]

SK: Many times. I’ve got the scars to show you. If you’ve got the time I’ll show you afterwards!

SR: Oh! What?

SK: Mostly on my hands, don’t worry! [laughter]

SR: Well, ladies and gentlemen it’ll be in the website later!  It’ll be fine. Look, nothing like this happens to pianists, does it Malcolm? Or does it?

MM: No! not as far as I know! But the emotion of concerts, of course, is the same for us.

SK: Yeah.

MM: They always say that you should cry in rehearsals so the audience can cry in the performance. Maybe that’s true maybe it’s not…

SR: Yeah. That’s, well it’s a good maxim, but then you never know when it’s going to hit you, do you?

MM: You don’t. Always when you least expect it. And sometimes in songs which you don’t think are emotional. They suddenly get you because…

SK: Mmm

MM: because you find something in them that you didn’t see before. Which is hopefully what concerts and performance is all about.

SR: Well, indeed, I was going to say “do you find something fresh every time?”

SK: Well I’ve worked… my musical partner in crime for twenty years has been Malcolm, and… well, he’ll make any singer look good. If I make shed loads of mistakes he will click back, and no-one will notice and even if there is a mistake they’ll assume it’s him anyway!

[laughter]

SK:  So there is that! No, but the whole point of working with somebody you know very well, and somebody who is extremely talented, is that you can do just that. You can hopefully… it’s now, plus now, plus now, every time is for the first time. I hope that’s true. I really, honestly believe it’s true for me.

SR: but just to…

SK: It’s fun

SR: lovely to hear you sing Butterworth, but English song has not been, really, a huge part of your life or repertoire, has it?

SK: No. I set my stall out, as it were, in central Europe right at the beginning. It wasn’t that I didn’t love some English songs, there’s some I couldn’t be without, such as the Butterworth. Such as Britten “proverbs”, Blake proverbs, which I adore, that…

SR: which you are doing I think soon, aren’t you, at the beginning of December at the Wigmore Hall,

SK: Yes, yes, that’s right,

SR: part of the… not the celebrations, but the marking of 30 years since Britten died, amazingly.

SK: Well those are the only Britten things I do really. I just love the Blake proverbs. But it’s because, if I’m given a choice between Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Poulenc, Ravel, Debussy or the English composers, I just… I can’t live without the former. And German song, when you speak to people in their language, at the time, no subtitles, even though the Wigmore Hall is absolutely wonderful and I spend so much time there. And they’re a different… it’s a different category at the Wigmore Hall. They’re all in the same club as you really. They understand and probably know more than you. I like to talk to people in their language, which for me means central Europe.

SR: Yeah. Do you ever twist his arm to try and do other repertoire Malcolm?

MM: Always. [laughter] Always

SK: Yes!

MM: And sometimes I give him something and he says “why that? Why the hell did you give me this? It’s horrible!” And there was a particular Poulenc cycle that we did a few years ago

SK: “Travail du Peintre”

MM: Exactly

SK: and […?] I hated them! And they are utterly wonderful.

SR: Oh, so you were converted?

SK: Well, I have to sometimes with Malcolm. Because you can’t really ig… once you’ve come round once, you then, unfortunately, can’t dismiss anything else he says.

MM: and, hopefully, I know him well enough to know things that I think he’ll like. I don’t actually ever force anybody to do things that…

SK: Tel Jour, Telle Nuit…

MM: Yeah

SK: One of the greatest cycles ever written, one of the favourite things in my whole musical life. He introduced me to that too.

SR: Good! Well I’m glad the persuasive powers are there and you’re going to sit the next one out Malcolm, because we’re moving on to the album, an opera album and we don’t… see… you are not enough recorded I think Simon. Why not?

SK: I am

SR: We’ve got a slighter version. Because even in the notes for this you are saying “Why am I doing this? It’s not for posterity”

SK: true

SR:” It’s a sort of diary, it’s what it is now, it might be better tomorrow”

SK: that’s true

SR: “It’ll certainly be different tomorrow”

SK: Because of… It doesn’t matter why I haven’t recorded a lot, the fact was I belong in the theatre, I’ve lived in the theatre for nearly 20 years, and that really is “tomorrow might be better” or “today I made a compromise or tried something and paid for it”. So that’s the way I’ve worked. I suppose there’s a little bit of lucky young man (this young man anyway when I was), saying I didn’t like parties. The truth was I was so gauche that I couldn’t do them very well and that’s what I felt about recordings. It’s a different… it’s different.

SR: Yeah

SK: to do that record is four and a half days, six hours a day. That’s extremely hard, it’s like singing a whole opera with no breaks

SR: but did you get to have your favourites? Coz, there Rossini obviously…

SK: Yeah

SR: …Verdi, Massenet, ahm Tchaikovsky

SK: Most of it’s what I do, or have done on the stage anyway. I think it’s a safe way to do it. I had wonderful… I was just telling Malcolm, I had some interesting plea bargaining sessions with Sony, who have been… really they have been wonderful about it. As evinced by the fact that they let me write the booklet and do doodles in it and all.

SR: Mmmm

SK: But they did…

SR: Only two doodles! More the next time maybe [laughter]

SK: No! but they did say, you know, “cut this out if you don’t mind!”. We had to have a bit of a discussion about it.

SR: Well, I think the result is… well certainly all your fans will be delighted…

SK: I haven’t heard it!

SR: You haven’t heard it yet?

SK: No! because… I got greedy.

SR: I think we could spin you a track now

SK: Oh! I’m not going to listen to it now… But I got greedy and I plugged in my friend Mark’s swanky speakers and it blew the amp, and then I left it in Wales!

SR: that will teach you to sing double forte, so may be just a little bit more pianissimo in future!

MM: [quoting lugubriously] “never louder than lovely” Isn’t that what it is?

SR: Is that what it is? [laughter]

SK: Not from me! That’s what it should be!

SR: Oh it’s lovely! I shall write that down over the door somewhere I think! Yes, “never louder than lovely!”

SK: Who was it? Dame Clara Butt?

MM: No, It’s Noel Bailey

SK: Noel Bailey [laughter] It’s true isn’t it! [laughter] Not that any of us do it! It’s “hang on for dear life!” “and when in doubt, push”! [laughter]

SR: Well, you can push as much as you like! It’s Wagner, I know it’s.. it’s one of those wonderful pieces, suits the voice very well, from Tannhaeuser. I think it’s Wolfram, Elizabeth is waiting for Tannhaeuser coming back, hoping that he’s going to turn into a good boy, and it’s the Hymn to the Evening Star. Just before we hear it, any chance of more Wagner? Is that something you’d like to do more of?

SK: I don’t think so, I think “know your limits” is good and it’s a beautiful, lyric role. I think there are other fish to fry for me.

[music]
Wie Todesahnung Dämmrung deckt die Lande … O, du mein holder Abendstern

SR: The Hymn to the Evening Star from Tannhaeuser by Wagner. The Munich Radio Orchestra, conducted by Ulf Schirmer and my guest on “in Tune, Simon Keenlyside. And that’s his new release on the sony label, “Tales of Opera”, his very own choice. He’s also singing in the “War Requiem”, the Britten “war Requiem” with the Bach Choir  at Westminster Cathedral on the 17th of next month, and, of course, we are heading up to the 30th anniversary of the death of Benjamin Britten, and there’s a Wigmore Recital on the 3rd of December with Lisa Milne, Philip Langridge, Mark Padmore and Graham Johnson as well. That’s Britten’s songs too. It’s a great pleasure to have him on the program and to have him singing for us as well.

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