Julius Drake: ‘I do mind the word accompanist. I don’t think it’s fit for purpose’

En route to west Cork, he talks about his ‘Damascene moment’ and how chamber music is an equaliser

Julius Drake is not just a pianist. He’s a specialist pianist. His great achievement is his work with singers and as a chamber musician. Talking to him about how he ended up as a professional pianist, he makes it sound as if it was something that just happened by accident. But it’s also clear that there was nothing else he was interested in that came remotely close. So it was an inevitability even if for no other reason than “I went to music school, because my parents realised I was mad about the piano and wasn’t mad really about anything else at school.”

He never had to be encouraged to practise. “I just liked sitting at the piano, daydreaming, and that is actually what I’ve more or less done for the rest of my career. I’m always telling my students how to concentrate and practise. But, actually, my default mode when I play the piano is to dream and not work very hard at all. I just have lot of pleasure from sitting at a piano making sounds.”

It helped that, when young, he had “a dream teacher” who didn’t enforce any scales or exercises. “If I’d gone to a teacher who had forced me to do scales and exercises,” he says, “I wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much and mightn’t have ended up being a professional pianist.” It did mean, though, that he later needed help to buttress his technique. He found it from the Swiss pedagogue Peter Feuchtwanger, who modelled his approach on the physical stillness and relaxation of the great Romanian pianist Clara Haskil.

Drake explains that “What happens with pianists is, because the music gets harder and harder, your technique is less and less able to cope, and you become tenser and tenser. You somehow find a way of playing the notes, because you’re musical. But you do it without any control over the sort of tension that is developing in your arms and shoulders and neck. You’re then mystified because you can’t make the beautiful sound you want to make.”

Now in his early sixties, he says “it’s kept me so that I haven’t got significant aches and pains. That is a very common thing if you play the piano — that you get aches and pains as you get older.”

Damascene moment

He was 18 when he realised definitively that he didn’t want to be a soloist. “It was at the Royal College of Music that I played chamber music for the first time. And I thought: ‘Wow! This is what I want to do.’ I can still remember meeting this clarinettist and playing through one of the Brahms sonatas with her.”

He calls it “a Damascene moment”. “As soon as I was on stage with this clarinettist, I thought: this is wonderful. I can listen to her. She’s listening to me. The music’s just as great as the solo piano classics. And we can present this music together. While we’re making music together, people can listen. I don’t have to be the soloist who’s absolutely in the limelight. It’s not that I thought: I’m accompanying her. Because I never thought that, and I’m passionately against that. I thought: we’re sharing this.”

This meant that as soon as he left college he set about starting a career in chamber music. “Many of my peers came to the same conclusion about 10 years later, after they had tried very hard to be soloists and found that it was tough. And there I’d been at it since I was 21. I was established by then.” His technique might not be “ideal for playing Prokofiev piano concertos. But it certainly works for song and most chamber music,” he says.

Doing the work he does well is also a matter of temperament. “I’m friendly. I’m quite gregarious, quite sociable. The idea that I would have spent the last 40 years travelling, just by myself, just going off to the Boulez Saal to do a concert by myself [he is in Berlin when we speak] is not my cup of tea. I don’t think I’m somebody who’s terribly happy in my own company. I like being with people. And I would not like being here just by myself. I like that I had breakfast with my singer colleague this morning and that we’ll probably go out for supper after the concert. I like all that side of it.”

The word “accompanist” comes up again, and he explains why it rankles with him. “I do mind the word. I don’t think it’s fit for purpose. Because accompanist implies that you’re something that goes with the main course, rather than being part of the main course. I feel that if I’m doing a song recital or indeed a violin and piano recital, I’m an equal partner. Because that is how the music is.

“When Schubert wrote a song, even if he wrote ostensibly the simplest piano accompaniment in the world, it’s still an equal partner in pure music. I don’t believe in this idea of a soloist and somebody who’s not the soloist. I feel that it’s chamber music — it’s a meeting of equals. And I feel that with song just as much as I do when playing, as I did many years ago at Bantry, the complete violin and piano sonatas of Beethoven.”

He’s not a fan of the “very accurate” American description “collaborative piano”. He’s happy just to be billed as “Julius Drake, piano”, or to be called a chamber music pianist, or a pianist specialising in chamber music.

Learning languages

What do you need to succeed as a pianist working in chamber music and song? He opens with, “A passion for the music,” and says, “in my case, the thing that led me to song was the added interest of words, of poems and languages. It gives me an added intellectual stimulus that the poem is often in a language that’s not my native language, so I have to learn it to a certain extent.

“I can’t do my job properly if I don’t know what every word means, so there’s a certain amount of homework that has to be done. You’ve got to get your mouth around how that language is pronounced and know the rules of many of the languages that you are playing songs in.” And the presence of words allows song recitals to create themes and follow internal linkages with greater freedom than purely instrumental programmes.

It’s also true that “You’ve got to be a performer. I still love going on stage and doing a concert. That’s very important. I look forward to the concert. Part of that comes from a lot of experience. I’ve done many concerts, because originally when I started doing concerts I was as nervous as anyone else is. And I can still be jolly nervous. But essentially I’m looking forward to getting on stage and sharing this great music with the audience and bringing it to life for them.”

And social skills matter, too. “If you’re going to do what I do, getting on with people, liking people and being nice and enjoying people’s company is probably another essential. It would be quite difficult to be introverted and not an easy communicator and do what I do.”

Much as he loves playing in the historic setting of Bantry House, he talks enthusiastically of the plans for building a new year-round music centre for concerts and teaching in Bantry that would be used by the West Cork Chamber Music Festival. Acousticians, he believes, have got their act together and, “Now you can be reasonably confident that any new hall you go into has got a first-class acoustic.” He praises the spirit behind the festival. “I often think that the unsung heroes of the classical music world are promoters who are so mad about the music, as Francis is” — referring to Francis Humphrys, the director of the festival.

Does he have any unfulfilled ambitions? “In another life I can imagine coming back and being a conductor. But I don’t have any ambition to conduct. I would be absolutely hopeless, and don’t have the right personality for it. I feel very lucky and privileged that very early on I found my métier. I feel that I’ve had a charmed life in music.”

Julius Drake plays Britten, Schubert, Michael Berkeley, Vaughan Williams and Poulenc at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival on Monday and Tuesday, June 27th and 28th. The festival runs Friday 24th-Sunday, July 3rd. westcorkmusic.ie

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor