Die Schöne Müllerin, Schubert’s celebrated exploration of love, life and death, is to be given a rare performance by tenor Douglas Kelly and pianist Stewart Kelly in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Primrose Potter Salon on Tuesday February 25. Although unrelated by birth, they share a passionate interest in Lieder and arguably the greatest composer of this art form.
Stewart and Doug were the major prize winners at the 2019 Liederfest and are acclaimed for their performances of Lieder and Art Song. Stewart explains how this recital came about and what preparation was undertaken.
What was the impetus for your coming recital at the Melbourne Recital Centre?
Doug and I have been working together for a couple of years now and have been very keen to tackle one of the great Schubert cycles. Schubert is a big love for us both and Die Schöne Müllerin seemed like the perfect piece given the age of the character. It is such a masterpiece that many great singers continue to perform it long into their career. This is curious (albeit understandable given the quality of the music) as the protagonist is very much a young man and the story is best told by a young singer. Thus we felt it ideal to begin with this cycle. It is also utterly fabulous and had been on both our wish lists! And of course there are few venues that can compete with the Salon for quality of acoustic and intimacy for the audience!
Have you performed or studied this and other songs/song cycles by Schubert over the years?
We’ve both performed quite a bit of Schubert. He is one of the composers I feel closest to and I have been lucky to study quite a lot of songs (including selections from this and other cycles), piano music and chamber music over the years. This will be my first complete song cycle performance though and I cannot wait.
When was the decision made?
The MRC approached us offering the engagement in August of last year and we began working on it almost immediately.
Would you explain the preparation and rehearsal process?
I have been extremely fortunate over the last three years to have regularly worked with the great song pianist and scholar Graham Johnson. His book on the Schubert lieder is peerless and he is undoubtedly one of, if not THE premier Schubert scholars in the English-speaking world. Having someone with his encyclopaedic musicological knowledge and lifetime of analysis combined with his insights as pianist and interpreter is tremendously rare. I spent a large part of January in London to work intensively on the cycle with him.
These sessions were at times very practical on matters of tempi and his experiences of what is best and why. They were also at times deeply philosophical as he discussed Schubert’s life in 1823 as he composed the piece, as well as many theories as to possible hidden meanings or references buried within it and a broad picture of the European and particularly Viennese political, artistic and sexual zeitgeist and what should be considered in interpreting this piece.
How did your understanding of the cycle develop?
The first key is the language. As a non-native German speaker one must do a tremendous amount of study to truly understand the subtle nuances of the poetry and to really get a grip on the narrative. Once you have that, you can spend time thinking about why the poet Wilhelm Müller or Schubert made certain choices then slowly start to form your own insights. Like any great artwork, there is huge scope for personal understanding and meaning and my own thoughts on the work have developed significantly.
There is also much learnt as you start to put it together with the singer, and certain questions of musical matters are resolved when one sees how a word or phrase falls when sung.
What were the greatest challenges – vocally and pianistically?
The greatest challenge vocally is undoubtedly having the stamina to get to the end. It’s over 70 minutes long and not much is easy. Schubert also rather nastily puts the most exposed and difficult songs at the end, further complicating matters.
Pianistically, I find one of the biggest challenges is finding different ways to play each verse in the strophic songs that support the text. There is no shortage of technical challenges and like all Schubert the piano writing is incredibly exposed and thus requires superb refinement and control. Through my time with Graham I have learnt that very little pedal is desirable in Schubert, which requires utterly precise fingerwork. It’s like playing Mozart but even more precious somehow.
Was there always agreement between singer and accompanist?
It doesn’t make for a spicy interview answer but I’m afraid to say for the most part Doug and I have had very compatible ideas. There are a few places we have tried different alternatives to navigating challenges and by their nature some songs which might be easier for the singer done at one tempo are better for the pianist at a quite different one, so there must be a plan to achieving a result everyone can work with, but Doug is a pleasure to rehearse with.
One aspect of this concert I am particularly looking forward to is performing on the new Salon Steinway, which has just been replaced after 11 years. This new instrument was selected by the wonderful Piers Lane and our concert will be one of its first outings, so that adds some extra excitement to the evening!
Douglas Kelly and Stewart Kelly. Photo courtesy of the Melbourne Recital Centre.