‘Music is a Great Leveller’: Julius Drake on Partnerships in Classical Music

A lot has changed since the days of wandering troubadours, but some aspects of that lifestyle are still familiar to musicians today: extensive travel, sojourning periods of time in different places, and putting on performances with the support of art-loving patrons. But as the world has become smaller and more connected, the net of relationships in classical music has become wider and more varied: in this day and age, musicians work with hundreds of fellow artists from all around the world during their career. Artistic collaborations are, in fact, such an integral part of classical musicianship that as audiences we often tend to take them for granted: in a concert, or listening to a record, we focus on the music and what the artists convey to us, while underneath it all, it is the communication between the musicians that sets the tone for the entire performance.

Pianist Julius Drake is the perfect person to talk to on the subject of partnerships in classical music: one of the finest instrumentalists in his field, he has collaborated with many of the world’s leading artists and performed in all the major international music venues, such as La Scala in Milan, Konzerthaus in Vienna, the Berliner Philharmonie and the Carnegie Hall, New York. “What I love most is chamber music,” Drake says, “which effectively means I love being on stage and sharing the music with someone else, or a group of people. I don’t like being out there on my own very much.”

While it is often the soloists who get the most media attention, the imbalance in publicity does not bother Drake; in music, there is an equal partnership: “[Playing a duet] is very much a two-way conversation, not one person dictating how it should go. The people I like working with best are listening to me just as much as I am listening to them.”

What is often overlooked, according to Drake, is that “while you are on stage as individual musicians, you are actually making one sound together.” In this sense, “music is a great leveller: as long as the other person is a genuine artist, with the same sort of commitment and belief in [the project] as you have, then you’ve got so much to learn — from anybody. It doesn’t matter whether you’re fifty and the other person is twenty; they’re a musician and they’ve got as much to say about it as you have.”

In classical music, as in any performing art, the artists are under constant pressure to find and express new aspects of works written many decades or centuries ago. Drake sees partnerships as being hugely beneficial to this quest: “For me, a lot of the freshness and the liveliness comes from the collaborations, ” he says. A piece one has played countless times naturally takes on new nuances, colours, and even tensions when you perform it with different people, and “even when you have a long collaboration, the interpretation changes [with each performance], because we as people are always changing. ”

At their best, collaboration may lead to partnerships that last for decades — such as that between Drake and tenor Ian Bostridge, who just celebrated twenty-five years of working together in a concert at London’s Middle Temple Hall. “Ian and I are also lucky, because the voice and piano repertoire [is] so rich — there’s so much great music for us to perform.”

But it is not only the collaboration between the performers that makes great art available to us — venues and concert promoters also play a crucial part in the process. “I often find that the [promoters] are as passionate about the music as I am, which is very passionate indeed,” says Drake. “These people who create the opportunities for the music to be heard really are the unsung heroes of our world — and the world of the arts in general.”

It was through the concert promoter Heinz Liebrecht that Drake and Bostridge first met. In 1992, Liebrecht was putting on a performance of On Wenlock Edge, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s song cycle for tenor, piano and string quartet, at Holkham Hall in Norfolk. He had the pianist (Drake) and the quartet he wanted but was still looking for a tenor, until he heard a young singer at an audition in London. This was Ian Bostridge, who at the time was still working as a researcher at Oxford.

In choosing the music for their 25th anniversary concert, Drake and Bostridge wanted it to reflect both their journey together — by including On Wenlock Edge, one of their firm favourites — as well as the history of the Middle Temple Hall. “We wanted to have the great sixteenth century poet John Donne in the programme, [as] he was associated with the Inns of Courts and preached in the Temple Church. The obvious choice was Benjamin Britten’s wonderful settings of Donne’s Holy Sonnets. The recital also included Britten’s arrangements of Purcell’s Queens Epicedium and works by Pelham Humfrey and William Croft.

The London-based Piatti Quartet opened the concert with Purcell’s Chacony in G minor, and joined Drake and Bostridge in the second half for On Wenlock Edge. The incredible range of expression in Bostridge’s voice, Drake’s delicate and haunting piano phrases, and the subtlety of the quartet’s tremolo strings and harmonies heightened the rich variety of textures in Vaughan William’s songs. This was the first time the Piatti Quartet had shared the stage with Drake and Bostridge, demonstrating how a very special connection between musicians can be reached regardless of whether the collaboration is brand new or has lasted for a quarter of a century.

And what enables all this, in the end, is the music itself. As Drake puts it, “great music is ever-fresh. You never tire of it, but you can also never quite predict it. It’s a strange thing — you know what’s going to happen, and yet it still takes you by surprise all the time. It keeps you young. It keeps you on your toes.”

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