In Conversation with Joseph Middleton about what it takes to be an accompanist and his love for the art song

20. August 2022

Rubrik Interview

©Joseph Middleton / Askonas Holt

I am meeting Joseph Middleton right after a rehearsal for his forthcoming venue at Heidelberger Frühling in Hamburg. Brahms and Schumann are part of the Lied repertoire he will be performing there in the next couple of days.


All smiles and seemingly relaxed I am getting to know one of the leading international accompanists who really lives for his profession and loves nothing so much in classical music than Lied and song and everything that is connected to it.


Soon I realize that talking to Joseph Middleton is like deep diving into the mysteries of a fascinating world of artsong in which I find myself totally carried away.


What it takes to be an accompanist and why Lied is so special to Joseph Middleton? Find the answers in the most inspiring conversation.


Operaversum: As a young man you started learning a lot of instruments, such as the violin, the flute, the organ and of course the piano.  What was your motivation and key experience that drove you in that path to start a career as accompanist?


Joseph Middleton: I began playing the piano when I was five and a half years old. My grandparents had an old upright-piano in their house and I instantly got so obsessed with it that my parents had to move it to our place, so that I could learn how to play it - first and foremost just for fun. 


Later on at school I enjoyed also different types of music. I sang, conducted, performed in string quartets and orchestras and basically kept on playing the violin until I turned 21 - still without any serious intention to turn performing music into a real profession. 


But then though I decided to study musicology and also did a masters in philosophy. Halfway through my studies I wondered whether I could go for a career as a pianist instead and so I went to the Royal Academy of Music in London where I soon got the chance to accompany a couple of singers. Ever since that moment I fell in love with voices and particularly song. 


Inspired by the famous accompanist Malcolm Martineau, who became my piano teacher, I learned even more about voices and furthered my growing passion for poetry and words.


Towards the end of my studies I won the Royal Philharmonic Society Award, Wigmore Song Competition, Kathleen Ferrier Awards, Royal Overseas League, and Geoffrey Parsons Awards which launched me playing for song. Yet another year later I participated in an audition where I was discovered by the great baritone Sir Thomas Allen, who invited me to go on international concert tours with him and play at reknown places such as Wigmore Hall. He also got me signed by the agency Askonas Holt.


From that time onwards my career gradually carried on and my great passion for music and particularly for playing the piano has been turning into the most wonderful profession ever since.


Operaversum: Being one of the most recognized accompanists in the world of classical music - what are the key skills one should posess in order to be successful?


Joseph Middleton: First of all you need to have a bullet proof piano technique, which is absolutely vital so that you can adapt for example to different parameters such as dynamics and also be able to source from a huge toolbox full of musical colours. Mastering my instrument is thus one of the key skills to help my singers excel in their performance on stage.


Secondly one has to be extremely attentive to a singers´ voice, as rehearsals usually differ to the stage experience, meaning that nothing really is set in stone before you are out there performing in front of the audience.


Then it is most important to be a good listener, being able to predict the whole time, whenever the singer is about to take a breath for the next phrase and then be with them in just that second, inspire them and even challenge them. It´s a bit like a ping-pong match, so to speak.


And last but not least you have to love voices, be really obsessed with how singers work, what their vocal technique and vocal colour is all about, how each and every one of them ticks, not to forget, that loving words is essential to get to a thorough understanding of poetry.


And not so much in a literal sense, but in a way that makes you figure out what the true meaning reads in between the lines, the deeper sense which initially animated the composer to finally transform those words into a song.


Operaversum: Can you express why Lied is so special to you?


Joseph Middleton: Lied for me is so particular and special as it is all about  playing words, reading and understanding the full meaning of the text, seeing pictures and then trying through sound to help audiences see pictures as well. You could call it storytelling at its best.


And since I love imagination, art, words and sound, I could not describe any other musical art form that combines all these attributes so perfectly well as in Lied. 


Operaversum: In your biography I have read that you are described as the absolute "King of programming". What is meant by that and how do you achieve this level of expertise?


Joseph Middleton: Programming basically means designing new programs out of different Lieder that audiences hopefully respond to, find thoughtful and even challenging.


So I am interested in putting on concerts where the listener also has to do some "homework", give the compilation of songs a deep thought and figure out why one song from one particular cycle and composer is put next to a completely different song, cycle and composer and how this might affect those two works in maybe a symbiotic way.


You might as well compare this approach to an art exhibition where lots of different artworks from different times or different painters are mixed together under a common headline.

Or let me give you another example: Goethes lyrics of Mignon put into Lied by both Schubert and Wolf are interpreted in completely different ways. 


Schubert uses a very harmonic approach that makes Mignon appear very young and waif-like, whereas Wolf’s interpretation portrays her as the Wagnerian type of woman.


Operaversum: And does programming need a particular structure to work out well?


Joseph Middleton: Not really. Imagine you are having some friends over for dinner and you give them something nice to start with, continue with a lovely main course and then some wine accompanying your meal and bits here and there.


Either that works out or it does not. The same accounts for programming Lied recitals.


Operaversum: When did programming Lied cycles became popular and who started it off in the first place?


Joseph Middleton: Graham Johnson was the one who reinvented the song cycle in the 80ties. Up until then Liedsingers such as Dietrich Fischer-Diskau would still do a traditional Liederabend of groups of Schubert or Brahms or Wolf.  


Obviously audiences would not get bored of that, but Johnson totally wanted to reshape the way of how people perceived song at that time and so he came up with the idea of themed concepts like for example "spring time" which meant that he could also include random songs in his program that were not so well-known and where it seemed obvious that people would never attend a whole cycle of those rather "unknown" songs.


©Joseph Middleton / Askonas Holt

Operaversum: You have been accompanying a lot of singers throughout your career.  As every singer obiously has a different approach to interpreting song, how do you adapt to all the different types of singer personalities?


Joseph Middleton: Well, the good news is that most of the time I can choose with whom I work and so all the artists I am performing with are people with amazing brains and big hearts and I do also learn a lot from them as well, as every singer has such a different kind of soul the way they sing and interpret song.


So the whole time I am trying to keep my own self as in my Lied interpretation but also mould around the artists as well. And that is something I really love very much.


Operaversum: In a situation where a singer has to jump in short-notice before a concert and the two of you did not have sufficient time for rehearsals, how does the remaining preperation phase look like?


What do you focus on and do you have to improvise at all?


Joseph Middleton: It might sound absolutely strange, but those "jump-in-gigs" are a lot of fun for me. I simply love them, whenever they come along. But it is of course extremely important that accompanist and singer both know the score very well.


I remember that one of my most favourite concerts took place, when there was absolutely no time for rehearsals at all. At that point the singer and I just roughly went through the 30 songs in no time. 


Such risk-taking but very thrilling short-notice rehearsals only work out amazingly, if you have an utmost professional singer by your side who is flexible, adapts easily and understands his or her voice in and out. 

In such a lucky case performing together can be so much fun that you immediately feel you have nothing to lose on stage and that you can basically throw your musical ideas into the audience and see how they respond to it.


Anyway, music is not simply based on technique, it is made and performed by human beings and therefore so very much alive and perhaps even to a certain extend a little unpredictable.


Operaversum: In your opinion what does Lied stand for in our modern quick-paced society?


Does it still fit into todays culture or might it be overshadowed by spectacular, sometimes futuristic operatic stage productions?


Joseph Middleton: Well, this is a very good question and honestly I do think about it a lot, as Lied for me is an art form I particularly love, as I can dig deep into it and sort of feel a connection to somebody who was born let´s say 200 years ago. 


That somebody, let it be Schubert, can through his songs lead me on to a psychological journey, teaching me about humankind, the wonders of nature, the cosmos and the mysteries of love.


On the other hand I am more than aware that Lied is such a niche form in classical music that only few people do really experience. But luckily there a centres nowadays that invest a lot of time and effort in trying to keep this art form alive like for example Leeds Lieder Festival, Heidelberger Frühling or Schubertiade Schwarzenberg. 


And even without having to invest in big show effects like opera often does for their spectacular stage productions, the audience that listens to song understands quality instantly if there are some really brilliant artists involved. Moreover Lied seems to attract more and more younger students who desperately want to perform the art song. 


So in my opinion these are great things to happen and positive steps into the right direction.


©Joseph Middleton / Askonas Holt

Operaversum: And is Leeds Lieder a great centre to bring more awareness to the Lied itself?


Joseph Middleton: Absolutely! Leeds Lieder does a lot in terms of music education in schools. Even though there is a lot of fundraising and hard work involved to give youngsters a taste of what Lied is all about, it is more than worth the investment.


Also as an artist, compared to past generations of musicians, I personally think, it is part of our nowadays job to run festivals, to meet public, to go into schools and teach kids in order to keep the artform of song alive. 


Operaversum: Is there a song, a Lied or a whole Lied cycle that inspires you the most and why?


Joseph Middleton: Well, let me put it like this. There are some things I instantly feel connected to, so for example when I meet somebody or when I am simply drawn to a particular thing. 


But one thing I really love about my job most is when I can do two to three concerts a week with different artists and loads of diverse repertoire, So I am very much into German songs by Schubert and Schumann, but also love some Spanish, Scandinavian, Russian songs for the shape of the words which have a great influence on rhythm and tempi. 


I really love that. But then I am also very much fond of French songs by Debussy or Ravel. Or even the English songs by Britten and Purcell, which I am also more than enthusiastic about.


Operaversum: So one could say you rather love the diversity, don´t you?


Joseph Middleton: Well yes, I do and it never gets boring. But I mean, if somebody held a gun to me and said I had to pick one song or composer, it would definitely be Schubert for his absolute mastery.


Every time I play his songs, it is like understanding a little bit more of your own soul. I am always blown away by how remarkable those songs really are, especially since he wrote most of them when he was still very young. And he responded to poetry in his songs in such an honest way that make them sound so touching, humble and intimate.


There is kind of a human connection that makes it completely understandable what Schubert was trying to express in his music and it feels like things that I have felt as well.


Operaversum: For a singer it is rather easy to transport emotions through the human voice. But how do you create emotional temperatures on the piano?


Joseph Middleton: Well, I do not quite know what it feels like to transport emotions via the human voice. But in a pianists´ ideal world you can hear every sound you make before it comes out. For example when I am playing Schuberts "Nachtstück", I feel like having a film sequence running through my head. 


So as soon as I start playing that piece, I visualize mist over a mountain, I see the moon coming in, I can sense nature and I am immediately drawn into the plot, in which I am the actor -  obviously an actor that plays through sound instead. 


If I am really doing a great job, I have understood what poet and composer were trying to express through their words and music and I am then capable of bringing them alive through my very own emotional experience, texture and depth. 


As for transporting emotions via the piano, it is most certainly all about which sounds and colours you can create the way you play an accord and not just producing a sound on a bit of wood by simply hitting a string. It´s more about how to obtain a unique sound which is transparent and has great bloom and shine or can even be ugly.


What also influences the emotional temperature whilst playing the piano is the physical experience when I feel totally connected to my instrument. It really is the most ideal state to be in, as you are flowing free in a sort of buzzyness, but without any tension at all.


©Joseph Middleton / Askonas Holt

Operaversum: Working as an accompanist is probably quite often perceived or even underrated as a simple playing part in the background. But without the underlying instrumental character how could emotional temperature even be created and build up in a song to full extend?


Joseph Middleton: You are absolutely right. The playing part is needed to intensify the emotional temperature of a song. For example if you watch a movie without any sound, it does not tell you much. But as soon as you put up the soundtrack you can maybe perceive rain or approaching footprints.


It is comparable to when you listen to Schubert´s Erlkönig. You may not instantly have an idea of what the lyrics of that song are all about, but the intro of the piano already draws you into the storytelling part.


You may hear the various emotional textures such as the sound of a horse, the darkness, the wind, the tension and the fear.


And hopefully as an expert accompanist you are painting that picture. It is really a bit like when you are going to see a famous artwork and for example if it has been framed brilliantly and lit well, then it comes alive more than in a dark corner.


So I think the playing part of an accompanist should not be underrated as it puts more emphasis on the story of the song, lights it well, so to speak, and makes it more "high definition" in the end.


Operaversum: Joseph, you are creative director of the Leeds Lieder Festival, you have your own BBC Radio 3 series. You are performing as accompanist, pianist and are professor at the Royal Academy of Music.


Is there still time for other aspirations in your life apart from music and what are they?


Joseph Middleton: Of course, since I have two kids, which can be quite a lot of work, but also very much fun. Then I am doing some sports, like running. I love travelling a lot. I am very much into arts and whenever time allows it I will never miss out on visiting an art gallery before a concert.


During the first lockdown I have also been very keen on gardening. I love watching good movies. So you see I am quite busy with other aspirations as well


Operaversum: Joseph, thank you so much for your time, the very inspiring insights and toi, toi, toi for your forthcoming venues.


The interview took place on the 9th of June in Hamburg exklusively for Operaversum Magazine.

©Joseph Middleton / Askonas Holt

Labeled by the Times as "The cream of the new generation of Lied and song accompanists" Joseph Middleton is reknown not only as pianist and accompanist but also for his outstanding work at the Leeds Lieder Festival.


Teaching children and young students about the most fascinating art form, Joseph Middleton invests his purposeful time - apart from his concert acitivities - in music education to share his knowledge of classical music, particularly in the field of art song with younger generations.


Moreover he is creative director of the internationally acclaimed Leeds Lieder Festival, curates his own series at BBC Radio 3 and also lectures as professor at the Royal Academy of Music.


Joseph Middleton gives recitals with well-established international artists and has been awarded various prizes for his fast-growing discography.

©Harmonia Mundi

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