Can you remember your first encounter with Britten’s music?
I think my first encounter with Britten’s music must have been when I went to play on the Britten-Pears courses. I actually went to play as part of the piano trio course that Hugh Maguire did and I loved it there. I visited the Red House, and I started listening particularly then to some of Britten’s music, and was invited to come back and play for some of the courses. One of them was with Nancy Evans and Peter Pears doing Britten songs, so I did a sort of crash course in Britten songs then in order to be able to play. In those days they had official accompanists, and they were always young people starting out, and I was the official accompanist on this occasion. So that’s really when I first discovered Britten songs.
Did you accompany Peter Pears much?
Well I was playing in the class, so yes. He was an old man then, and not very well as he’d had a stroke, but he would illustrate and was able to teach. So I got a sort of first hand, ‘from the horse’s mouth’ – well, very close to the horse, anyway – about how the songs go, and how they should go.
So from your introduction to Britten, you had an accompanist’s point of view?
Yes. I don’t really believe in the word ‘accompanist’, and the whole idea that one is accompanying. It is from a chamber music point of view I would say, a version of chamber music. I know why it exists, the word, but I think it’s a misnomer, and it conveys the wrong idea, that somebody is following someone else and is in some way an appendage to somebody else. I don’t think it’s any different from playing violin sonatas or piano trios, in as much as it’s musicians making music together.
Have you seen much footage of Britten playing the piano, and what did you learn from that?
I haven’t seen a lot of footage, but I’ve heard him playing a lot on record, and he is absolutely up there with my favourite pianists ever. It is extraordinary because he is primarily a great composer, but he was an astonishing pianist, not just a good one, not just a very good one, but an astonishingly good one. He was a magician at the piano, he could make it do whatever he wanted it to do, which of course all of us are trying to aspire to.
Does that make it difficult to approach his work, knowing what he has already achieved on record?
Not really, because he is such a precise composer, he writes very simply what he wants, and when you hear him playing it is an inspiration. I don’t find it debilitating. It’s not that he can play faster or more furiously than anybody else, it’s more the colours that he can find, and the magical way that he can turn a phrase. Usually when you can find that in a fellow pianist it’s an inspiration rather than something that makes you despair. That’s the sort of piano playing that I love. Likewise you can hear other people playing the piano and think, “That’s not what I want to do with the piano”. He is up there as one of my piano gods.
Is a big part of his success in song due to the texts he chose to set?
It is very much the text that changed the way he writes. I think it’s very different when he is writing in Italian for the Michelangelo Sonnets, compared to the English of the The Holy Sonnets of John Donne. I wouldn’t say he sounds like a different composer but there is a very clear difference in the style. He is very influenced by the language and the poem, and the music can become very terse if the language does, as in Who are these Children?, and he can be very Italianate and florid as in the Michelangelo Sonnets. It seems to go with the language.
Do you find some of his music incredibly concentrated to play?
I would say in a way that is a definition of very good music, that it demands your full attention, and is intellectually demanding as well as emotionally.
What has working with Ian Bostridge brought to your understanding of Britten?
Well we have very much worked on the music together, so it’s been wonderful to have a like mind to work on this music with, because so much of it is written for tenor. To have a tenor that you’re very close to is a great thing, you can explore it together. Who are these Children?, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne and Winter Words, to name just three of the cycles, and the wonderful Hölderlin-Fragmente, we’ve worked on all those together, so it’s been great to work with him, because he’s as mad about them as I am!
And the same with Gerald Finley?
Absolutely! With Gerry we did this disc, which I’m very proud of, of all Britten’s songs for baritone, because Boosey & Hawkes published a big volume of all the works – the incidental music, if you like, the folksong arrangements, transposed down into baritone keys. Lots of them had been already, but they produced a book. Suddenly you saw these songs like Tom Bowling that were in the right key for him, to go with the magnificent set that he wrote for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, which is the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, one of his greatest song cycles. So we couldn’t resist that opportunity.
You have performed the five Canticles with Ian Bostridge this year. What do they mean to you?
They’re a wonderful group to do. Canticle I (My beloved is mine) is very beautiful but quite short, quite succinct, for tenor and piano, and then you have Canticle II (Abraham and Isaac), which adds a countertenor or a mezzo. This is the most immediately emotionally appealing, it tells the story in a way that you recognise it, and it is absolutely brilliant. For me that is one of the Britten pieces that I really fell in love with, and I still adore.
Then you have the austere Canticle III (Still falls the Rain), the setting of Edith Sitwell’s extraordinary poem, and there is some very bleak music about the air raids over London, as well as the text being very religious. That is very different from the first two. Then Canticle IV moves right back closer to the 1970s, at the end of Britten’s life, when he was very taken with T.S. Eliot’s work. He sets The Journey of the Magi, which is an amazing poem, for tenor, countertenor and baritone, plus piano. In a lot of ways I think that is the hardest one for the audience, but the more I hear it the more wonderful I think it is. It really is amazing, quite bleak, but very strong and intense, very concentrated.
And then we have Canticle V which is one of my absolute favourites, for tenor and harp. It is a setting of The Death of St Narcissus, which I think is some of his most marvellous music, right at the end of his life. So it’s a wonderful range. I don’t think he intended them to be done together, but it was confirmed to me recently that he gave each canticle a number, so when he wrote his first canticle he had an idea there would be others.
They’ve always got a religious subtext or principal text, but they’re very different. I think they are one of his major achievements. It’s a bit like the string quartets, and I think he thought of it like that, always having the tenor there but having a different ensemble, depending on where the inspiration comes from.
When you do recitals, how do you program Britten into your recitals?
Very often Ian and I put Britten in context with Schubert, because Schubert was another great song composer, and they make very good companions. To do a Schubert half and a Britten half makes a very good pairing, and it shows the quality of Britten’s music that he can stand alongside Schubert.
But there’s a big difference, but something that works very well together. It’s also nice to know that Britten himself programmed his work together with Schubert, he always felt akin to that. With Gerry, really, we’ve got this one amazing cycle that takes up half of a concert, so the question is what do you do with it? You can do Ravel, or Schubert.
Have you played much of the solo piano repertoire?
There isn’t much of it of course, but I’ve played Holiday Diary, particularly the last movement Nocturne, which I like. I’ve never played the Piano Concerto, but I have played quite a lot of the other chamber music. I’ve played the Cello Sonata, which is one of my favourite pieces of Britten, and in fact I had a wonderful time at Aldeburgh playing for the Britten Cello Sonata and the Frank Bridge Cello Sonata at Mstislav Rostropovich’s masterclass for these pieces. It was fantastic, and of course he is a fantastic pianist as well!
What do you remember of that?
I remember Rostropovich had his own piano, and he would sit down at his piano, this incredibly larger than life person, and he would say “Ah, this reminds me of ….Organ Prelude in C minor…!” and would play a whole organ prelude, or the same with a piece of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony. And he could sit down and play all the Bridge sonata piano part. These people are beyond belief sometimes!
I can imagine the last movement of the Cello Sonata going at quite a lick!
Oh yes. That recording he and Britten made of the Sonata is just fantastic. It’s very hard to ever repeat something like that.
When you have performed Britten to audiences have you noticed a change in how it is received?
I think it has always been received very well. Britten’s star has definitely risen, there is so much being performed all the time. When I was first playing him, thirty years ago, at the start of my career, he was performed much less often – but still more often than any other British composer. He had also only recently died, and there was still quite a lot of snobbery against his music from the musical elite for wont of a better word, the ‘powers that be’, who often felt that Britten was too tuneful, too easy, too approachable, a little bit lightweight, they felt that music should be more difficult than that, more acerbic and more confrontational.
I think they have lost the argument, largely, and Britten’s star has risen further and further because of that. He was more or less contemporary with Stravinsky, they were only 30 or 40 years apart, and Stravinsky was an overwhelming genius. It just seems to me there was a tremendous turmoil in music in the first half of the twentieth century, and he was part of that, but he didn’t give in to it, to writing music that was fashionable, and he could have done that.
His music was I guess very different from Elgar and Vaughan Williams.
It was very different from that, but it was also radically different from Stockhausen and Ferneyhough, and the whole Second Viennese School influenced him a lot, but he didn’t seem to go down the way of Darmstadt. He rejected that at a time when it was very fashionable. He was very influenced by Berg, but did not continue along that path, as so many composers did in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s etc. He was condemned in lots of ways for it, and suffered. He couldn’t bear any criticism, of course.
What is your personal favourite in his output and why?
Ah. There is so much, it makes you realise how much poorer one would be without Britten’s music. Canticle II is definitely a piece that has meant an awful lot to me, the song cycles – The Holy Sonnets of John Donne and Winter Words, the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, and then several of the operas. Billy Budd is probably my favourite, but I love The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It makes you realise what a large part of one’s musical life Britten is. He is an amazing composer. Reading Paul Kildea’s book, it is amazing how hard he worked, just relentlessly working, working, working, churning his music out as well as an awful lot of playing. The industry is astonishing.
You can read more about Julius Drake on his website, which includes details on the many recordings he has made. The second part of the interview, to be published soon, will focus specifically on Britten’s writing for the piano within his songs.