Tenor Nicky Spence is at once both a newcomer and an old hand of the recording world. He was plucked from obscurity in his late teens and marketed as the next crossover sensation. A couple of discs later, he took a step back, turned down a recording contract and went back to school: the Guildhall School in London. Now he’s joined by pianist Malcolm Martineau for a recording of songs setting texts by Shakespeare. He spoke to BBC Music Magazine about how the recording came about.
Tell us about the story behind this recording.
Malcolm Martineau and I did a recital to open the Leeds Lieder festival a couple of years ago with an actor and a soprano and we took the skeleton structure from that. I also tried to source as many other Shakespeare settings or Shakespeare-themed pieces – I spoke to some people from the Royal Shakespeare Company and then Malcolm introduced me to songs by [singer] Cleo Laine and [composer] John Dankworth. I tried to get something traditional with the music by Schubert and also go down a less-known path with some of the other pieces on the recording – the Dankworth, the Chausson, the Tippett.
The final programme is very varied – there’s even a piece called Dunsinane Blues putting a jazz-twist on the story of Macbeth.
Yes, that’s quite fun. I think it would have been easy for us to put something together of Schubert and Wolf songs but that’s been done and I really wanted to do something that was unique and fun, while still having the pathos of Shakespeare.
There’s a world premiere recording on the disc too – of Alex Woolf’s Three Tempestuous Tunes. Why did you decide to include that?
I used to work with Alex’s dad at the Guildhall – he’s the head of stage management there – and he told me about his son and said I should keep an eye on him. I kept seeing him in the press winning competitions and then Malcolm and I discussed the benefits of having premiere works on the recording. What I was trying to show was that Shakespeare was timeless – so we have composers from Haydn to somebody who’s only 17 and won the BBC Proms Inspire Young Composers’ Competition last year. It brings it back to our age. I’m really chuffed that I can give him a bit of a platform for his music because I think he’s going to be a name to watch.
Why do you think Shakespeare’s writing has always attracted composers?
It’s funny – there’s a lot of repertoire but I’ve spoken to a few composers and some are quite frightened to set it because of the iambic pentameter. Trying to set ten beats into something in compound time is quite tricky, I think. When we were looking through the repertoire I realised that what brings me to Shakespeare is the fact that it’s got pathos without ever being sentimental. It touches you, but in an intelligent way.
Tell us about how your working relationship with Malcolm Martineau?
I met Malcolm about six or seven years ago when I was at college and we’ve worked together since. He’s amazing because he works with the Simon Keenlysides of the singing world but he’s also really keen on nurturing young singers. I feel ridiculously lucky to have him as my partner at the piano for my debut recital album. What really strikes me about Malcolm is that he sees you as a complete equal and he’s always willing to change and learn and work together. He’s a gorgeous singer as well – he kind of puts you to shame because he says ‘what about trying to do it a bit like this’ and then he sings it better than you.
And why did you decide to record the album on Resonus Classics, a download-only label?
In a former life I did quite a lot of recording for big CD lables and I thought what is fantastic about what Adam [Binks, manager of Resonus] does is that it is so available, it’s just a click away. There are a lot of people who see opera and singing very much from an online point of view so I thought it was actually quite important to get behind this digital revolution. I’m a young man and I thought ‘why not be a bit of an ambassador for it?’
Nicky Spence’s ‘As You Like It: Shakespeare Songs’ is available to download now on Resonus Classics