Art Song’s Cycle

Admist the bustle of concert preparation, two musicians make time to talk to us: singer (tenor) Simon Gfeller and pianist Pierre Riley. The Canadian performers make for an eccentric artistic duo. Having met at Guildhall School of Music, the pair build on an insightful and profound wealth of expertise in art song performance.

Their specific artistic medium as a duo is a type of work in Western art music that uses poetry as a basis for song. The genre flourished under the nineteenth-century European Romantics. In Vienna, composer Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) used his profound knowledge of music’s emotive power to bring text alive. Later-century developments in the genre opened it up beyond the German language, and Paris, too, became a hub for the art form with the likes of Claude Debussy sitting around in cafés pondering Baudelaire and Verlaine.

Gfeller and Riley’s concerts put together an incredibly engaging platter of emotions crafted with a highly developed level of artifice: the singer and the pianist take their audiences through melancholia to love, nostalgia to hope.

Expressed through art song, these are not emotions unique to the original composers of the art songs they perform, nor the poets from which their songs’ texts are formed; they are our human emotions, they are communicable because they are shared, they make good stories because they are relatable stories.

Of course, with art song, it is not the musical products (individual or collections of pieces of music) that are timeless, but the process that is inextricably linked to their creation: storytelling. If you get to go to a Gfeller and Riley concert, you’ll experience this centuries’ old art form made timeless.

CL: What brought you to the music in your current repertory (Henri Duparc and Richard Strauss)?

PR: We were sitting in a pub one afternoon —

SG: All great stories start like this!

PR: — and I said you know Simon you feel very comfortable with repertoire like Duparc and Strauss and I haven’t played nearly enough of this music and it’s something I would like to explore — and ‘carpe diem’, we took that opportunity to, for me, close an embarrassing hole in my repertoire and for Simon to really cultivate something.

SG: Art song is really good for singers. They’re not like operatic arias: it’s like eating your vegetables. It forces one to be able to bring back your voice in a slightly smaller frame, in a colour of voice that’s a bit more tailored to a chamber environment. I find that quite good; it’s a nice balancing act with doing opera, or more lyric repertoire that’s meant for the stage with orchestra. Doing art song is good for you and I think all the great artists have cultivated that on the side. It’s a great skill to have vocally, to be able to bring the voice not in but to kind of make it more intimate and be able for your piano to be even more piano and for your forte to be kind of kept in and warm a little bit. It’s very nurturing vocally.

CL: What do you think that art song can communicate as an area of repertoire in 2017?

SG: What is interesting is its length, actually, because songs are clips aren’t they? They’re a bit like what we seek to browse on social media: they’re 3 minute clips. And in a sense they tailor themselves quite well to a modern sensitivity of time. That’s the first thing. Sometimes, depending on the composer, it can be a bit more difficult to have access to in terms of transmitting the fine intricacies of a poem that’s been written 200 years ago. In some other cases there’s a sense of immediacy to it that is beyond time in a way. So I try to connect to that, and to think that the shape and the length of it is something that works in our favour, because that way you can tell 30 stories in the space of an hour instead of 1 story spread over an hour and a half.

PR: I come to it with the point of view of a pianist — and more recently a musicologist — but I think that what’s very stimulating about art song as a genre is that it is very deliberately and self-consciously literary. It’s an object that’s not only made out of music; it’s also made out of language, which is something that’s a source of endless fascination for me as a pianist. And zooming outwards to a kind of more orthodox, academic point of view — we speak all the time about plural-disciplinarity and making connections between art forms, and I think that whether its in listening habits or in performing habits to cultivate that kind of literary-poetic sensitivity when working with musicians is something that is very good for us: it comes back to eating our vegetables as Simon said. It’s good for you in a certain sense.

SG: I think it nourishes you as an artist as well to have this multi-layered approach of just having the poem and saying: ‘OK this composer saw this rhythm on that text — interesting, I would have done something different. What does he/she mean by that?’ And then you’re able to extrapolate further meaning, tie it onto the music and the intervals that are given to you to pitch those emotions. So it’s mining-for-gold-dust type work. Which is very interesting and very fun.