In the lead up to the Gala Concert at the Independent Theatre on Sunday June 26, I caught up with acclaimed baritone, David Greco, to chat about his program, love of Schubert & Emma Kirkby. To book tickets, please click here.
MB: Can you tell us a little bit about the program:
DG: The inspiration for the program came about because the pianist I work with, Peter Toohey, & I are very passionate about Schubert. As a singer performing lieder, Schubert is your first port of call, he’s the great master of nineteenth century German art song. But I find Schubert an alluring character for so many reasons - his personal life, artistic output, his use of harmony and his use of text setting appeals very much to me.
Also, I come about performing Schubert from a Baroque perspective perhaps, or maybe a better way of saying it is that I come from Bach rather than from Mahler when I approach Schubert. That’s not to say that I perform Schubert like Purcell, but that I think I try to come at Schubert from the perspective of looking forward rather than looking back. This opens up a whole new approach to performing Schubert for me, a much more Classical approach to be honest.
This concert has been a great opportunity to do a whole chunk of Schubert songs and really tackle this great composer and explore his music with the know-how that I have from that kind of performance practice perspective.
A lot of the songs we’re doing are old favourites that are very well known, but Peter and I are also quite interested in some of the less-famous Schubert lied that are out there. We’re actually starting off the program with a song that I’ve certainly never heard performed live and is rarely recorded, called Von mit Liedern Maria, which is basically the text of Mary at the foot of the cross, discussing and talking about her passion and her suffering. Interestingly, Schubert sets it over a Bach-like chorale which is just another example of a really rich text setting that Schubert was so famous for. So it’s great to be performing this lesser known lied and we’re very happy to be starting the program with it.
How do you approach Schubert’s work? Do you study the poetry or text separately to the music, or is it entwined with the music – do they inform one another when you’re developing your interpretation:
I suppose I try to come about them very much from an equal perspective. But I’m a singer and first and foremost I think I’m interested in melody and harmony and so that’s the first thing that sticks out to me. Also I’m very interested in the text and why each particular lied sounds the way it does, you know, why he used those accompaniment patterns to highlight that text for example. But to be honest my very first port of call is the melody and the harmony of the piece and then that gets me into the text.
As a singer, what do you think it is about the way Schubert writes for voice & piano that has such a special quality or appeal to both performers and audiences alike:
Schubert is similar in a way to someone like Handel, in that he’s a master lyricist and he writes so well for the voice, he really understands the voice. He was an amateur singer himself, and he really understands melody, which is very accessible for a singer. Schubert also understands the limitations, but is importantly able to exploit the technical possibilities of a singer, which is a great thing.
In the Gala Concert we’re also presenting four small Alban Berg songs for a sharp contrast. It’s an interesting comparison because Berg doesn’t seem to really understand the voice very well, or if he does he certainly doesn’t write vocally, perhaps he’s more like Bach who writes more instrumentally for the voice.
Schubert really understands the voice as an instrument and writes very well for it. And piano wise, if you talk about Schubert from a Classical perspective, all of the Alberti bass and figured accompaniment patterns which come from Mozart for example, Schubert very much uses all of these patterns but exploits them and takes them to the new and more advanced level, so his writing is ground breaking in that way.
You mentioned the Alban Berg songs, what’s the connection there to Schubert:
Stylistically, it’s a sharp contrast, however there is a connection. We’re presenting two different text settings of Goethe’s Erster Verlust, one by Schubert and one by Berg as an interesting comparison. It’s fascinating to see how the two composers come at the text from two very different perspectives.
Can Schubert’s lieder be adapted for different voice types, for example is it written for a specific voice type or can it be adapted for different ranges:
Yes, absolutely and this is a very interesting point of conversation – I guess you could say that Schubert’s lieder are unisex in a way. There are certain lied that whilst written from a female’s perspective, like Die Junge Nonne (the Young Nun) or a male viewpoint such as Der Erlkönig (the Elf King), are very often recorded by the opposite voice such as a woman, or a man in the case of Die Junge Nonne.
The important thing that we are discovering more and more about Schubert and that period, is that lied was very much genderless - anyone could sing anything. There’s a great story about Frauenliebe und –leben, that famous young soprano’s song cycle that is often sung in graduation recitals about a woman’s struggles and loves by Robert Schumann. Of course no man would ever sing that! But, men sang that once upon a time and women did perform Schubert’s Winterreise, which is a predominantly male orientated song cycle.
I notice that you’ve worked extensively with HIP (historically informed performance) ensembles which seem to be flourishing here in Australia, groups like the Australian Haydn Ensemble and Pinchgut Opera. How did you become involved in performing early music:
It’s as simple as being drawn to that style of music. I love Baroque music and I love Renaissance music and that’s where my heart seems to lie. But at the same time, I also deeply, deeply love Romanticism and Classicism and really a lot of twentieth century music as well. I think my nature and my soul is more headed to the Baroque or at least that’s what I feel more comfortable performing.
Do you find it difficult to switch between styles, for example to Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges, which you’re currently performing with Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House:
No. It is a different way of using your voice and a different aesthetic but it’s not something that I have to think about or struggle with because I have always listened to a lot of different music styles and feel comfortable with this kind of thing. I’ve had a very varied musical kind of life, partly out of necessity, living in working in different countries and what I’ve been exposed to I guess.
Finally, the first CD we ever brought home was an Emma Kirkby CD! Tell me about your experience working with her:
Absolutely! Emma Kirkby is kind of like a reluctant diva I guess. In one way she’s just completely run of the mill, someone you might run into at Coles - very polite and very kind. But, she’s just a complete encyclopaedia of early music knowledge really, of treatises of practices of the time. And she has an incredible repertoire. I went to her house for a lesson one day when I was in London and she has rooms just jam packed with facsimiles and books and treatises etc. But yet in her music room, you’d expect her to have two harpsichords and a spinet or something, she has a Rowland electric keyboard which she learns her music on, it’s got the ability to transpose and have the different temperaments and things like that, but I did think that was pretty funny. She’s just a lovely person and extremely generous with her time, I was supposed to have a 45 minute lesson and it ended up lasting for about 3 hours.
Where else can we see you perform while you’re in Australia on this visit?
Apart from the Opera Australia production, I’m going to be performing with my brother’s ensemble, The Muffat Collective. The concert features German and English music from the seventeenth century and is coming up in August. Also I’ll be singing Carmina Burana with the National Capital Orchestra in Canberra.
I would like to thank David on behalf of all the Sydney Schubert Society for taking the time to give us all such a fascinating insight into his ideas about Schubert and his career. It was a delight to chat with him and I look forward to hearing him sing in the Gala Concert on June 26 at the Independent Theatre with much anticipation.