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Just who does set the bench mark?

Debate rages on whether successful lieder require a seasoned accompanist or if virtuosity can fill the bill.

April 30, 2006|David Mermelstein | Special to The Times

WHEN Ian Bostridge, the English tenor, and Leif Ove Andsnes, the Norwegian pianist, take the stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday, they will be furthering a great tradition -- and a great debate.

Their program will feature lieder by Schubert and Beethoven, with the pianist accompanying the tenor. And the word "accompanist" stands at the center of this controversy: A successful lieder performance requires a delicate balance, and what sort of pianist best serves the art form remains in dispute.

"Playing for a singer requires a lot of self-abnegation," Bostridge said recently from his home in London. "The voice is a fragile instrument, and you have to think about accommodating it."

Andsnes, speaking from Norway, echoed those sentiments.

"When you work with an instrument, you don't have the danger of getting exhausted," he said. "Voices have to be nurtured -- you can't just go on for hours and hours."

That helps explain why there's a branch of pianism devoted to accompaniment. Its self-effacing practitioners, often scholars and coaches as well as players, are particularly attuned to the needs of singers. (Not for nothing did Gerald Moore, the 20th century's most famous accompanist, title one of his memoirs "Am I Too Loud?")

But these players are rarely known outside music circles. Instead, pianists such as Andsnes, Alfred Brendel, Andras Schiff and Vladimir Ashkenazy, who made their names as soloists, help fire the public's interest in lieder, often dramatically increasing the star power of a singer-pianist pairing.

Naturally, being elbowed aside by more celebrated musicians doesn't thrill professional accompanists. Graham Johnson -- who, like Andsnes, has performed and recorded with Bostridge and who was something of a mentor to him -- is arguably the most esteemed such pianist today, and a noted authority on art song.

"If a solo pianist can do my job simply by opening up the score and playing the music better than me without thinking, then why should people take the trouble to study accompanying?" the London-based Johnson said via e-mail. "Someone once had the gall to ask me to give a few tips to a solo pianist over the phone, as if this were all it would take to get the guy on the right track."

Andsnes doesn't disagree about preparation. "Of course, you have to study the repertoire," he said. "But that's true with everything. If you devote your life to Beethoven, you are better at that than at playing Tchaikovsky."

He takes exception, though, to the notion that only professional accompanists should partner singers. "To be honest, I've never understood the distinction between accompanist and soloist," he said. "I'm just a musician. And I've always found that you get the best result in lieder when you have a real pianist at the piano. Of course, it's good to look at the text, but apart from that, it's much the same as making chamber music with any other instrument."

That term, "real pianist," cuts to the heart of the matter and is a phrase Johnson as good as anticipated.

"I get upset about this issue," he wrote, "because it insultingly supposes that the art to which I have given my life is something anyone who is a good pianist can do. No, the implication is it can be done better by a soloist, because virtuosity governs all. And from there, it's a short distance to consider an accompanist a pianistic butler, a loser who plays cringingly for tyrannical soloists in the hope of another crumb from the table."

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High-profile collaborators

THE pairing of lieder singers with more renowned musical figures is nothing new. Go back to the art form's roots as a public affair and you'll find the revered Elena Gerhardt getting her start at 20 accompanied by Arthur Nikisch, then music director of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

In fact, several of the last century's most acclaimed lieder singers formed nonexclusive partnerships with famous musicians, including English contralto Kathleen Ferrier (with conductor Bruno Walter as pianist) and German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (with Edwin Fischer, Walter Gieseking and, less successfully, Glenn Gould). But no one did more to focus the spotlight on the keyboard than Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the German baritone whose name is virtually synonymous with lieder singing and who in a 40-odd-year career ending in 1992 worked with players as diverse as Brendel, Daniel Barenboim, Christoph Eschenbach, Sviatoslav Richter and Leonard Bernstein.

Speaking from his London home, Brendel, who has also played for baritones Hermann Prey and, more recently, Matthias Goerne, credited Fischer-Dieskau with recasting the role of accompanist from lackey to collaborator.

"The unequal partner is something of the past thanks to Fischer-Dieskau," he said. "Onstage with Fischer-Dieskau, there was the ideal give and take. You knew that he listened to you as much as you listened to him."

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