Toby Spence

The renowned English tenor on the contrasting challenges of singing Mahler and Thomas Adès 

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This January, tenor Toby Spence is performing five songs from Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn at the Barbican, conducted by Thomas Adès. We spoke to him ahead of the concert to find out how he put the programme together and what the work’s challenges are.

How did you decide which songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn to include?
I’ve managed to select five songs which give me a kind of narrative thread. They are ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’, ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht’, ‘Revelge’, ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’ and ‘Urlicht’, which is the sublime one that he used for the Second Symphony. The third song – 'Revelge’ is the emotional kernel of the set and that provides the two threads to the programme – the pain of having to march wounded and the pain of having to go to war and leave behind a sweetheart.

What are the challenges of singing these pieces?
There’s a lot of music there and the challenge is to make sense of it. Some of these songs are quite long and repetitive and you have to be organised in your mind so that the sense of the journey of each song doesn’t get lost and it remains interesting. That might sound like I don’t trust the music, but actually as performers we really have to help the audience by telling a story each time we sing a song.

The Mahler sits next to orchestral music by Adès in this concert – a slightly unusual pairing…
Of course it’s Tom [Adès] who’s programmed it. There are so many elements that Tom draws on in his music but he doesn’t talk about those elements – not even to friends and colleagues: he lets the music speak for itself. I put it down to him being a very purist artist, really trusting the work to stand on its own feet. We have to take cues from the way he programmes his own work, because that’s the most we’re going to get from him. So this is probably Tom’s clue that says ‘have a listen for Mahler in what I do’.

Although you’re not performing Adès’s music in this concert, you have sung his work before – what’s it like to perform?
It’s not easy. He shares this in common with the great composers, like Berlioz, that he writes to the extreme capability of the instrument and that makes you apply yourself to the technical side of the performance. And it also makes it a heightened – and in a way a threatening – experience for the performer. So you have to work at it in your preparation but also lift your game in performance.

Toby Spence is appearing at the Barbican on 15 January with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Adès.

Interview by Elizabeth Davis