‘The assumption that accompanists can get away with being less proficient is false’ – Joseph Middleton

As he prepares for a four-day celebration of song as artistic director of Leeds Lieder, the leading collaborative pianist discusses his art, and much besides, with Natasha Loges

Joseph_Middleton

The following is an except form BBC Music Magazine’s April 2022 issue interview with pianist and song accompaniment specialist Joseph Middleton, director of the Leeds Lieder festival.

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Music – and especially song – remains at the core of Middleton’s whirlwind life: ‘The thing that I always enjoyed most was working with others. After I finished my degree, I started reading for an MPhil, but I abandoned the thought of a PhD when I realised I couldn’t marry the academic work with playing. So I applied to music college on a whim, and went to the Royal Academy of Music as an accompanist.’ 

At the RAM, Middleton was steadily – even stealthily – encouraged by his teacher, the pianist Malcolm Martineau, to add working with singers to his more usual chamber music fare. In turn, when it comes to tips to pass on, he emphasises that any aspiring collaborative pianist has to build a bulletproof technique. ‘’The assumption that accompanists can get away with being less proficient is a slightly old-fashioned view peddled by people who haven’t ever looked at a song and realised how it’s been composed.’ 

Effective collaboration involves practically memorising his own part while experiencing the unfolding text both with and through the singer. And recording needs different skills again, as Middleton knows from his extensive discography. ‘In a recording studio, I’m trying give the flavour of it being live, even though you record most song discs of 70 minutes over three or four days. You’re not doing it repeatedly because you haven’t bothered to learn it! It’s more like building up a jigsaw, where you’re thinking, “If I do this bit like that, will it match the next bit?”

Fascinated by expert recording teams, he speaks admiringly of these often invisible professionals who can tinker with the minutiae of microphone placement until the right acoustic world is forged. But this is nothing like the tightrope walk of live performance, in which, despite hours of rehearsal, there is space for spontaneity, especially when the singer shares his love of risk.

Leeds Lieder 2022 runs from 28 April to 1 May at the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds.

Joseph Middleton will appear in recital with soprano Louise Alder at Wigmore Hall on 21 March 2022, and again at the Leeds Lieder Closing Festival Recital on 1 May.

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Photo: Gerard Collett