The Prince Consort Featured in Gramophone

20 May 2011

Excitement is building up with a month to go until the release of Other Love Songs by The Prince Consort.  The upcoming release features two sets of Brahm's Liebeslieder-Wälzer and a specially commissioned song cycle from Stephen Hough, Other Love Songs. Gramophone took time to sit down with The Prince Consort and Stephen Hough and talk about the recording and how it came about in the latest issue. Other Love Songs is released on the 13th of June in Studio Master quality and on SACD.

The Prince Consort's debut recording in 2010, Ned Rorem - On an echoing road, is an album of duets, trios and quartets from 'Evidence of things not seen' interspersed with songs. In less than a year, it has been named 'Editor's Choice' by Gramophone and received the 'IRR Outstanding' award from the International Record Review. Their debut recording is available to download now in Studio Master quality here.


Gramophone Interview

Love, composed on the wing

With just months to write his song-cycle for The Prince Consort, Stephen Hough composed in hotels, on planes and backstage.  The results, reflecting Brahms and alternative love, are a delight finds Jeremy Nicholas.

Sharon Osbourne didn't like what she heard.  Not one little bit.  Thanks to her, The Prince Consort were bundled out of the bar of the Dorchester hotel at last year's Gramophone Awards.  How a world premiere was nearly scuppered is now the stuff of legend.

To be fair to the feisty erstwhile judge of The X Factor, the music being rehearsed was not quite right for a cocktail hour.  The song, a setting of AE Housman's "The colour of his hair", demands blood-curdling off-beat thumps of the keyboard played with the fists and marked ffff.  Ms Osbourne summoned the manager, made some colourful remarks about the music, and the rehearsal was curtailed immediately.  "I was really worried that she'd think we'd ask to be there so we could get on The X Factor or something," grins Alisdair Hogarth, artistic director and pianist of The Prince Consort.

They had been rehearsing two numbers from a new song-cycle by Stephen Hough completed only weeks beforehand.  Jennifer Johnston, the group's mezzo-soprano, explains diplomatically: "We got to the Dorchester but found that the room we had been given to rehearse had been taken over as a press studio.  So the manager of the hotel took us through to the bar of the Dorchester where people were quietly drinking their afternoon tea, and it was all too much for a few guests."

Johnston, Hogarth, countertenor Tim Mead and Hough himself are at the Wigmore Hall to talk about the creation and gestation of Other Love Songs, the title of Hough's eight song settings for soprano, mezzo, tenor, baritone and piano (three hands) released in June on Linn Records.  Mead, gallantly, is on hand despite having only two lines to sing in the cycle (though he is the virtuoso page-turner for "The colour of his hair").  The three other members of The Prince Consort, soprano Anna Leese, tenor Andrew Staples and baritone Jacques Imbrailo, are profitably engaged elsewhere.  The Wigmore is an apt venue.  All these artists enjoy a strong relationship with the hall (with Hough its incoming artist-in-residence) and it will be here, on June 11, that Other Love Songs will receive its official world premiere following a recital by Hough which will include the world premiere of his piano sonata, Broken Branches.

This is a golden period of creativity for Hough.  How did the idea for the cycle come about and how on earth did he find the time for it?  Hogarth was the catalyst.  He wanted the group to make a recording of the two sets of Brahms wrote for SATB (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) and piano duet, the 18 Liebeslieder, Op 52 (1868-69) and the 15 Neue Liebeslieder, Op 65 (1874).  "The first Brahms set was written at an upbeat time in his life when he was in love with Robert and Clara Schumann's daughter Julie.  Between that and the Neue Liebeslieder six years later, Julie went off and married someone else.  That's the reason the second set is a lot darker and more disjointed.  We thought it would not be a good idea to go from one set to the other.  It needed something else in the middle.  The easy thing to do is to jam the Schumann Spanische Liebeslieder [Op 138, 1849] in between the two.  That's a common piece of programming which lots of people have done over the years.  It's for piano duet and SATB so it matches the Brahms perfectly.  But a lot of what we do in The Prince Consort is about finding new ways of presenting old pieces.  The idea was to commission a piece that would attach to the end of the first Brahms set and to the beginning of the second.  We wanted to make a CD that was to be listened to from beginning to end rather than, in this iTunes world, to download your favourite track.  It's a journey."

The Consort had worked a lot with Graham Johnson, Roger Vignoles and Malcolm Martineau.  Hograth then had the idea of involving pianists who were better known for their solo endeavours.  He contacted his old teacher Philip Fowke, who agreed to a few performances with the group.  "Then I phoned up Stephen.  He declined, as he had decided to play less chamber music in favour of more composing.  But it got me thinking, and out of that conversation came Stephen's song-cycle Herbstlieder, which premiered at the oxford Lieder Festival in 2010."  The success of that venture led to this second commission from Hogarth.  Instead of using the obvious Schumann, would Hough write a cycle that linked the two sets of Brahms? The process began last July.  "When Alisdair approached me, my first thought was that replacing Schumann was a tall order," recalls Hough.  "Then he said they would be recording the CD in October, and I thought, ‘Oh good, plenty of time ‘til 2011'.  Then he said, ‘No, actually it's October 2010'!  How was I going to write a song-cycle in less than three months?  I was leaving for a tour of Singapore, Korea and then on to America.  I'd have a lot of time on the plane.  Maybe I could find some texts.  Well, I did - and started getting some ideas.  Then Al asked about linking musically from the end of the first Brahms set to the beginning of the second.  So the cycle now starts with the man humming the theme from the final Brahms song of Op 54 before the piano plays a kind of distorted version of it."

Hough is amusingly frank when asked what informed his choice of poems.  "I just looked up ‘love poems' on the internet.  I came up with the last one first - ‘Do you love me?', the passage from Chapter 21 of St John's Gospel.  When I was in Singapore I sketched the first song [Claude McKay's ‘When I have passed away'] and ‘Kashmiri Song'.  There's an extra verse that Amy Woodforde-Finden didn't use in her famous setting [‘Indian Love Lyrics', 1902]."  Hough explains insouciantly in the score, "I have used and adapted the traditional Indian Bhairav scale for this setting". "Google again!" he admits now with a triumphant chortle.  "I looked up Indian scales and thought, ‘Well that one looks rather fun. Adapted, of course'."

All these were sketched and the remaining texts chosen by the time he got to Korea.  The first part of "Because I liked you better" (Housman again) was sketched at his hotel; the E major section came to him backstage in the hour before the concert.  By the time he left Asia, he had completed most of the songs.  In New York, wanting a spirited number to enliven what was in danger of being a collection of slow tempos, he thought of "All shall be well" (Mother Julian of Norwich).

Were they easy to pick up and characterise, I ask Jennifer Johnston.  "Yes and no.  The poetry is wonderful, very well written so that you can immediately grasp the sense of character, but putting together certain parts [of the music] was naturally more difficult because the harmonies of the duet that Anna and I sing aren't necessarily predictable - which is great: like all good music, it's often the stuff that's harder to learn that you end up enjoying the most."  It's Johnston who delivers the fourth song, "Madam and her madam" (Langston Hughes), in her native Scouse - to hilarious effect.

Not surprisingly, the three hands of the two pianists have plenty to get their teeth into, but Hough insists that it is not difficult to play.  "I never write something that's a struggle to learn, because I don't want to sit all day practising.  There are only a couple of passages that are more than Grade Seven, and that's in the second song.  And maybe the few brutal moments in ‘The colour of his hair'."

Why three hands - and not four to match the Brahms?  "The one thing you won't find here is a conventional love song, man loves woman.  None of that nonsense," says Hough with a wicked smile.  "There are other kinds of love.  So you have the two gay-inspired poems [‘Because I like you better' and ‘The colour of his hair'] and the lesbian poem [‘Kashmiri Song'], so I thought the three hands would be like the 5/4 waltz in Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony.  Different love.  Different duets.  Different texture.  Also there is nothing in waltz time in this set - except for a little quote in ‘Because I liked you...': a little memory or anticipation of the Brahms."

On the CD, Philip Fowke and Alisdair Hogarth are the pianists in the two Brahms sets, Hough and Hogarth in Other Love Songs.  Both Hough and Fowke studied with the legendary Gordon Green; Hough and Fowke are longtime friends; Fowke taught Hogarth; Hogarth and the members of The Prince Consort met while studying at the Royal College of Music (on Prince Consort Road, behind the Royal Albert Hall) in London: if not Lieves Lieder, then certainly Freundschaft lieder.  But don't count on Sharon Osbourne joining in.

The Prince ConsortThe Prince Consort
Other Love SongsOther Love Songs