It’s the sunniest day of the year, not just in Ireland, but also in the Bavarian capital, Munich. There’s even more heat from the sun in Munich than in Dublin. But I find myself heading indoors through a back door at the Bavarian State Opera, into a windowless rehearsal studio, with a wardrobe rail at one end, a door that opens but leads to nowhere (part of a set), a floor with more markings than a dalmation has spots, and a Steinway concert grand piano.
Seated at the piano is Dearbhla Collins, curator/planner of the Dublin Song Series, and she's hard at work with German soprano Juliane Banse. They are in the middle of their first rehearsal for their concert in the National Concert Hall's Kevin Barry Recital Room on Saturday, and they've had their first run-through of the full programme before I'm allowed in to eavesdrop.
They laugh about what I can expect to to hear. They’ve hardly done any talking so far, they say. But the mere fact that they’ve completed their first full traversal seems to loosen their tongues. Musically, they talk mostly of micro-details, the kinds of things that an average listener might hardly notice, but that are of great concern to performing musicians. It’s a bit like the differences in successive takes in a film. Tiny changes are made that may seem insignificant in themselves. But they matter a lot to someone who is shaping the bigger scheme of things.
Sometimes I say to people unashamedly, these are just some of my favourite songs
The atmosphere is relaxed, cordial, almost casual. Banse, dressed for the heat outside, often sings with her hands in the pockets of her summer skirt. She sings mostly to Collins but she also circles around freely, as the urge takes her.
The two musicians have worked together before. Collins has partnered Banse in coaching sessions with the veteran mezzo soprano and opera director Brigitte Fassbaender (born in 1939), whose father and teacher was the bartione Willi Domgraf-Fassbänder (1897-1978), who sang at the first Glyndebourne Festival in 1934, and under Toscanini at the Salzburg Festival in 1937.
Banse and Collins’s NCH concert is part of the Dublin Song Series, which Collins has curated with her pianist brother Finghin since 2013. So the first question I asked was how song recital programmes are planned and what governs the selection of particular songs.
“It’s always different,” says Banse. “Sometimes you have a wish-list from the promoter, or you have a wish-list in your head, or there’s a certain theme for a festival a series. There’s always a line or a suggestion that you have to respect. There has to be Brahms in it, or Strauss.
“It’s always done together with the pianist, really. I hate to do programmes on my own. Sometimes you have a programme ready and you know you have to do it in that month anyway. It’s all very disillusioningly unromantic and very pragmatic. I have another recital in Germany in May so the same programme was very practical for Dublin.”
Collins concurs, adding that she doesn’t like to “over-theme” things. “Sometimes I say to people unashamedly, these are just some of my favourite songs. But what I do like to do in general is give the audience something they know and something they don’t know. They’re happy with what they know, and with what they don’t know they feel better coming out of the concert that they’ve discovered something new. They really feel empowered then that they’re not afraid of new things.” She likes to do that not just with songs, but also when she puts together programmes of opera arias.
The Dublin sequence certainly falls into that category. The groups of songs by Schubert and Fauré are extremely well known. Berg's Seven Early Songs are well-known too, but less frequently performer, and Korngold's Sechs einfache Lieder (Six easy songs) are real rarities.
I ask about the big concerns when working with someone for the first time. “For me,” says Banse, “it’s always important that I don’t have to talk, that I don’t have to fix things. And even if I fix things, in the concert I have to have the freedom of changing things. With a partner I need to know that we are listening to each other, that we can react to each other.
“Of course when we are rehearsing, we are getting to know each other and getting to know the piece, and we talk about certain things that have to be fixed and have to be arranged. But I am not a rehearsal junkie. I have colleagues that go for hours and hours and hours. I can’t. It’s essential I have the feeling we’re on the same track. And also I like when a partner, a singer or an instrumentalist, does things in the concert that we haven’t done before.”
Collins adds, “I always tell people to do what ever they want. I promise I will be there on the day. I love it when things happen that have never happened before.” Living on the edge, they both agree, “is the most fun”.
Banse adds some qualifications. “Of course, all of this you can only do on the basis of a lot of experience and a lot of hard work and knowledge. I wouldn’t have dared to do these things, or say these things 20 years ago.” Banse is 48. “Then I would have needed a pianist who could carry me through. Which is still nice. But after a while the other way gets much more interesting.”
Obviously this means she can sing very differently depending on who’s sitting at the piano. You may think you know a song or a piece that you’ve done a lot with a particular pianist, she says. But when you change partner the musical outcome can be completely transformed.
"Just the other day," she says, "a pianist cancelled. It was a big event, the 30th anniversary of the Ruhr Piano Festival. There were about 12 pianists there, including Martha Argerich. András Schiff cancelled and so I ended up doing my songs with Gerhard Oppitz, who really doesn't play with singers. It was great. It was wonderful. He had ears like this" – she makes a expansive gesture to show how hard he was listening – "It was very exciting. It was a lot of fun. These things can clear your ears and your mind and make everything fresh again."
It would, she says, "be such a boring profession if everything was the same all the time. I've sung about 50 or 60 Paminas [in Mozart's Magic Flute]. Wouldn't it be really awful if it was always exactly the same thing?"
When I start asking a question about the advice they both give to young singers, Banse interrupts laughing, “Don’t do it! Have you really thought about it?”
It’s very hard to teach singing, she says. “It’s impossible to teach what they really have to know. You can give them voice technique. You can give them interpretation of certain music, and your view on certain things. This job has so many things you have to be able to bear, so many things that you cannot prepare, that you cannot rehearse, so many aspects you will just discover.
“It wouldn’t be right just to pour my experience over them, and say, oh, be careful, this is going to happen, this is going to be really dangerous. They have to find out for themselves. I try to hold their hands so that they can survive. Then they have to go out and see for themselves.”
On the other hand, she says she does let her students in on her professional life. The other day, she says, a student was shocked and scandalised on her behalf by a bad review. “I’ve always got some bad reviews,” she had to explain. “You’ll also get bad reviews”. “Are you upset?” the student asked, adding “It’s so mean.” “That’s life,” she had to say. “We all get bad reviews. I’m honest with them.”
And then she tells the great story about the composer Max Reger’s retort to a bad review. It really cuts through the image of Reger as an overly earnest artist. He wrote a short letter back to the critic. “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me.”
- Juliane Banse and Dearbhla Collins's Dublin Song Series recital is at the National Concert Hall on Sunday at 3pm nch.ie