In conversation with Dominy Clements

Dominy Clements: Dimitris Tiliakos, you have a well-established presence as a musician and have achieved great things on the opera stage. With its two great cycles or ‘acts’ of twelve songs each it has been suggested that Winterreise can have a similar dramatic effect to that of a tragic opera. Is your approach to one of the greatest masterpieces of the German song tradition a break from being part of large-scale stage productions, or do you see it more as an extension of your theatre experience?

Dimitris Tiliakos: My occupation with German song repertoire is long-standing. It started with my studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in München and has not only fuelled but also affected my interpretation of the operatic repertoire and my outlook as an artist in general.

I believe that the relationship between Lieder and the opera is important, yet also two-way. By interpreting a set of songs, a singer with a history of experience on stage also has the ability to approach a poem text such as this differently, and to create a dramatic foundation upon which the wayfarer can personally evolve. On the other hand, undertaking the interpretation of Lieder offers an exceptional opportunity for the singer to interpret operatic roles with further clarity and articulation of the poetic and musical text. Therefore for me, this process does not signify a break but a continuation and progress.

Dominy Clements: Winterrieise was originally written for a tenor voice, but Schubert’s collaboration in performing Die schöne Müllerin with the baritone Johann Michael Vogl in the 1820s is well documented, Schubert himself pragmatically transposing his songs where necessary. Vogl was a deeply cultured artist and considered Schubert’s songs “truly divine inspirations”, but Schubert’s friends were shocked when they first heard Winterreise. With its sublime beauty and themes of forlorn love and despair this song cycle clearly has universal human associations, but its bony sparseness make it by no means an ‘easy listen’, and its emotional extremes and melodramatic spheres also arguably derive from the preoccupations of a remote past. From your perspective in our digital ‘easy come, easy go’ century what do you feel is the source of the enduring relevance of Winterreise to audiences today?

Dimitris Tiliakos: When Franz presented some of his new songs to his friends in a voice weakened from illness, most of them uneasily acknowledged only the dark side of this work and were unable to realise its deeper meaning and to appreciate the composer’s remarkable decision to fearlessly embark on his final and most significant journey of self-knowledge:

“Why am I avoiding the path
That other wayfarers follow?
Why should I look for hidden paths
On snowy mountains…”

p style="text-align: justify;">This is the question that haunts the wayfarer just before the end of his journey in the song Der Wegweiser, and this too is the question that torments Schubert himself. What does it mean though, for an artist to follow the difficult and hidden paths of his art? For me, it is this challenging journey that makes the artist deeply reflective and able to express meaning.

The path is not an easy one and it is definitely very lonely. As far as singing is concerned, the interpreter has to engage in an ongoing dialogue with the poetry, to be capable and to dare to create – through the songs – situations that are sometimes intense, at other times still, and in many cases not really connected with time as they are so emotionally charged and conflicting. In our day and age, it is true that this kind of dedication seems to be all the more rare. However it is very much a requirement for the artist who searches and follows his own wearisome path – his own wintry journey – in which he seeks his inner truth and expresses it without fear. Something like this, in an age where automation and virtual relations prevail is, I could say, like stopping time.

Vassilis Varvaresos: Precisely the fact that it is not an “easy come, easy go” experience for the audience. In the 20th and now 21st century I believe that what we find to be an exuberance of technology is in fact nothing more than a child-like fascination with a newfound toy. Later generations, more accustomed to living in a world that our generation is creating and discovering, will not feel the need to compare their experience of “today” to a distant past where things were “deeper” because (for instance) they took more time. We may experience the digital nature of our world as easy and fast, but these are just perspectives coloured by our fascination with novelty – very much like people’s fascination with the electric lamp, the telephone or the railway. What remains is essentially human – the terror in front of the abyss of nothingness, the age-old question of “who am I” and “where do I go from here”, the rollercoaster of emotions before loss of love – these are timeless entities that define us as human beings. And this is what Winterreise offers: not a window to a past, but a transformation of the present.

Dominy Clements: It has to be acknowledged that Winterreise is the work of a dying man and, as reported by Schubert’s friend Joseph von Spaun, the creation of a composer whose moods under the shadow of incurable illness were frequently deeply melancholy. History invites us to imagine the composer correcting the proofs of the second part on his deathbed. Do these aspects of this work and its background have any effect on the layers you seek to communicate, and in giving your all as a performer while staying for extended periods with such an atmosphere do you perhaps even have to guard against its effects on your own state of mind and well-being?

Dimitris Tiliakos: Schubert was already sick with syphilis from the beginning of 1823, a fact that would determine his psychology and the remaining works he composed until the end of his life in 1828. Winterreise was composed one year before he died, when he was suffering from the pain of his illness as well as a deep melancholy, and this is the main feature of the atmosphere created in this set of songs. Yet under no circumstances should we mistake this as a suicidal mood or even as an underlying feeling. I could say that this series of songs, apart from the basic motif of pain and lost love, also contains other intense elements of determination and resistance towards fear of death, images of past joy and a deep awareness and reconciliation with the impending end in Der Leiermann. The winter journey talks about death as does every poetic or philosophical work which studies and processes life. Yes, the whole atmosphere of this series does indeed affect me, in the keen reflection that such a powerful work of art stirs inside me, in my thoughts, my voice and by extension my interpretation.

Vassilis Varvaresos: Anyone who has been next to a dying man or woman can attest to the fact that no depiction in words or painting, with the exception perhaps (in my view) of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, can come close to presenting adequately what imminent death does to a person’s sense of self and sense of the world. What the interpreter is called to do is to take the historical fact (that Schubert was, in fact, dying of syphilis at the age of 31) and transfuse this image with empathy. There is nothing elevated about dying, nothing poetic about not being able to get out of bed because you cannot stand on your own two feet. There is ugliness, loneliness, and the deep sense that God, or any other entity for that matter, is simply not there. This is no place for romanticism – and this is precisely why Winterreise is such a gripping depiction of despair and true loss in a state of deadly delirium. Because Schubert did, in fact, write his last works on his deathbed: ill, alone, dirty and delirious. This is the experience that Winterreise invites us to communicate – and in that sense, yes, the fact that Winterreise is the work of a dying man does affect my own state of mind and well-being.

Dominy Clements: Schubert’s name has been kept alive over the years where the poet Wilhelm Müller’s seems to have maintained a lower profile, despite sharing his ‘romantic’ fate of dying at all too young an age. In this way, text and music in Winterreise have become inextricably linked rather like a libretto to its opera. In contrast to a libretto, such poems can seem to make time stand still rather than act to propel a narrative. The artistic collaboration between poet and composer has its own powerful alchemy in creating unique world-stopping moments, but how far does your study of the literary text in isolation transfer itself to the music during performance?

Dimitris Tiliakos: Wilhelm Müller, the poet of the two only series of songs of Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, created a great chapter in the field of poetry of German romanticism, and his name remains alive and inextinguishable throughout time.

It is very interesting to mention that, in his brief life, this significant German poet was passionately devoted not only to his art but also with taking part in movements, the last one being that of philhellenism through which, inspired by the Greek revolution and the struggle of the Greeks for liberation from the Ottoman rule, he wrote some of his most important works.

I approached the poem script of Winterreise by translating it into my native language, as far as the study of the work is concerned, in order to delve deeper into its meaning, to come closer and to create a framework, something like an ideal ground, in which I wanted my own narration to take place.

Dominy Clements: Your origins and home are in Greece, but you have lived and worked for a significant part of your career in Germany. One might imagine that the differences of light and dark are as stark between nations and cultures as they are in the words and settings of Winterriese. In which ways does your own background inform your performance of this work?

Dimitris Tiliakos: My origin from two Aegean islands has contributed to a great degree to the formulation of my artistic persona and I want to stress that the life experiences I carry were consciously crystallized when, as an interpreter, I used them to draw deeper meaning from a piece of work or for a role.

From Greek culture one can learn quite early on the importance of the two opposing poles ΕΡΩΣ-ΘΑΝΑΤΟΣ (EROS-THANATOS which means love-death), which form the inspiration for the greatest part of ancient Greek literature that is both ancient drama and also traditional art. These are the two states of being between which the whole interplay of human life unfolds. It is these which essentially signify the great work of art upon which the whole work of Schubert exists. My Greek ethnicity and mostly the way in which I have experienced it, has given me the exceptional ability of infiltrating without prejudice matters of tragedy of mankind’s existence, love and death.

Dominy Clements: Perhaps both of you can outline how your personal experiences weigh against a desire to seek a path towards what Schubert might have expected to hear – an ‘authentic’ sense of style or a performance linked as closely as possible to the composer’s wishes, allied or opposed to a uniquely personal delivery of the poetry and music?

Dimitris Tiliakos: Schubert lived an intense life filled with passion, love and disappointment, and I have the sense that he would be indifferent to a purely academic and sterile approach towards interpretation. His work is generous, leaving the interpreter to bare his own personality and the most innermost thoughts that such a daring journey would involve. This is exactly what I do with forwardness and faith and my priority is to be deeply humane and real.

This specific recording is a result of a collaboration which was quite often based on an interaction of poetry, feeling and impulsiveness; a process which has driven us for the past two years of our preparation.

Vassilis Varvaresos: To dwell on the subject of authenticity is a perilous path to say the least: and that is because both theories can be adequately argued. Of course it is important to have a sense of what Schubert might have “expected to hear”. This is why we listen to Rachmaninoff’s own recordings of his music – because we may get an insight of what “the composer truly wanted”. And of course with today’s scholarship on authentic performance, both our mind and ears are open to new, more abrasive and challenging interpretations of a number of works in the core repertoire.

However, like all things, the pursuit of authenticity is merely a tool: for the artistically uninspired mind it becomes a way to force an opinion – for the artistically creative mind, it becomes an opportunity for expression.

For instance – Schubert’s piano was most definitely not the grand Steinway with its plush and round sound that we know today. His piano’s pedal would not have had the grandeur of today’s pedal, nor would the sound project and sustain in the same way. This idea gives one food for thought: how does it sound if almost all of Gefrorne Tranen is played without a hint of pedal? Isn’t the piano’s naked sound more appropriate for this chilling song?

In that sense, ‘authenticity’ is a tool, like pedalling with the fingers as opposed to the foot, or voicing a chord from the inside out rather than singing the top voice. And like all tools, it does not replace true creativity – it merely serves it.

Dominy Clements: Vassilis Varvaresos, the role of the pianist is vital for projecting the essence of Winterreise, and as with the vocal part there is a significant recorded legacy from great accompanists such as Gerald Moore. To what extent do you take ‘lessons’ from this musical ancestry, and to what extent do you feel you can forge new paths in these songs?

Vassilis Varvaresos: I am a firm believer of legacy, and the need for the new generation of performers to be humble above else in front of the artistry of the great masters of the past. I believe this because I find such an approach (the quest for humility) to be the best advocate for learning. Like the great painters of the Renaissance who forged their style through their apprenticeship, I also feel that we are lucky to be the “students” of the great artists of the past.

That said, and because music is such an integral and vital part of who I am as a person, I cannot but be involved in a work in which I feel very strongly that I have something to say. Learning from the great minds of the past sharpens my own tools of expression and chisels down what I truly want to say: precisely because people have said the same thing before me. It is comforting to know that you are trying, as Brahms once said, to walk in the “footsteps of giants”, and because it is nice to know that giants did, in fact, exist.

Dominy Clements: Your passion for Romantic music can be also heard in your work with violinist Noé Inui in sonatas by Schumann and Strauss (NC15004). Are there ways in which your approach to sonority and colour of tone change between partnering an instrument and the human voice, and between the more abstract world of instrumental chamber music and the direct literary connections related to songs?

Vassilis Varvaresos: I actually feel that the piano is much more closely related to the voice than to any other instrument. The reason for this is because the piano’s mechanics and soul, if you will, are so far removed from the basic elements that comprise “expressivity” (namely sustaining a tone and being expressive within the note), that pianists are forced to think like singers much more than other instrumentalists. I am not saying that other instrumentalists do not think in terms of song – but I am saying that a pianist cannot but think in terms of the voice. It is our obsession with the “singing tone”; it is Chopin’s obsession with belcanto; it is the fact that most great lieder composers were pianists: we lack in reality so much of what other instruments have ready-made; that we must rely on our imagination and, as Busoni said, always ask the impossible from the piano.

In that sense, I do feel a big difference between working with a violinist or in a trio setting, and working with a singer. In chamber music the piano is part of the larger texture (even though there are more similarities between the piano/violin and piano/voice combination than with piano trio or piano quartet). In collaboration with a singer the piano sets the stage, provides the lighting, comments on the poetry and underlines the mood. I always think of the piano as the universe in which the human voice must inhabit, grow, and flourish. I provide the world; the voice is the world’s humanity.

Dominy Clements: The point has been made that the greatest song composers were pianists rather than singers, from Schubert and Schumann via Brahms and Wolf to Debussy, Poulenc, Britten (who was also a noted accompanist) and beyond. Does it help to think of Winterreise as at the very least a piano ‘art form’ as much as a singer’s? Where can the essence of interpretative give and take be found in this most intimate of chamber music partnerships?

Vassilis Varvaresos: I often see the lieder repertoire as the actual (see, objective) realisation in sound of what all these composers had in mind always when writing for the piano. What are Schumann’s Arabesque op. 18, or parts of Kreisleriana, what are the Schubert’s Impromptus or Sonatas if not “songs without words”? The piano is singer and accompanist, orchestra and soloist, conductor and actor. In that sense the lieder repertoire is as much piano repertoire as it is song repertoire. I see the partnership as a very complex web of interactions – especially in a cycle as deep and profoundly unsettling as Winterreise. As I said in my previous response, the way I see the piano’s role is that of the World, in which the voice is born, grows and flourishes. I believe that the essence of partnership is precisely allowing the humanity of the voice to clash against the turbulent and at times unforgiving nature of the World itself. At times, in Winterreise, I feel that the piano should be a friend, a companion to the journey – but most of the times I feel it is at odds with the wanderer, it personifies the coldness of a Nature that simply observes as the hero declines into nothingness.

Dominy Clements: In his songs, Schubert is considered to have raised the status of the pianist beyond anything that had gone before, giving the accompanist the responsibility of carrying every kind of emotional and psychological impulse for the poetic text. Like an actor required to portray multiple layers of character and intent this has to be a challenge you relish, both in your own creative input and in that sixth-sense communication between you and Dimitri’s. Do you both seek consistency between performances: exploiting those special moments prepared by the composer, or do you value the spontaneity – and risk – in each time discovering a magic somewhere beyond the score?

Vassilis Varvaresos: I think that we both value spontaneity and risk because we have sought deeply into what the composer intended, at least in our view. The piano in Winterreise is Schubert’s subconscious comment on the poetry. If the poem is the work’s consciousness, the piano in Schubert is deeper than its subconscious – it is the “id” of the world, it is the archetypal element that permeates each song, it is the abyss of nothingness that the wanderer has in his mind even without knowing. Music, in that sense, does begin where words end.

However, in my partnership with Dimitris we have worked long and hard to discover together the terrifying centre of what happens between piano and voice, what world it is that opens up after the opening bars of Gutte Nacht, or what does the willowing sound of the piano give to the vocal line after the terror in Lindenbaum. Carefully studying the score and the poetry and discussing the “character” of each lied was meticulous and fantastic work. All of this, however, serves the spontaneity of performance – during which we both always discover new layers of meaning, translated into new choices in tempo, new types of rubato and new choices in texture.

Dominy Clements: And one final question. In one of the most significant songs in the cycle Der Wegweiser, we are forced to contemplate the wanderer’s journey at a point of crisis: “Eine Straße muß ich gehen, die noch keiner ging zurück”, the road from which no-one ever returns. This is no doubt intended to imply death, but considered optimistically could also be a description of time: that one-way road we all have to follow. What would be your future wishes, for yourself and for all?

Dimitris Tiliakos: I think that Winterreise touches upon a very important and terrifying subject: helplessness when faced with the abyss of our own existence. Talking of Winterreise as a march towards death or life is, in my view, too narrow a reading and too romanticised a point of view. I see this cycle in a more gripping reality – I see in it the voice of people who suffer from depression, schizophrenia, or simply human beings faced with extreme pain, loss and suffering. This is not a journey towards life, death, or redemption. There is no redemption in Winterreise – there is no action. Nothing really happens in the cycle: the hero does not find love or accept his fate.

Winterreise is an observation of the human soul. It is an attempt to understand what happens in our souls when faced with the Leierman of our own existence – what can happen when the shock of nothingness knocks on our door; when all of our work, family, friends and activities: in other words, all our attempts to forget, turn out to mean nothing. My future wish, to myself and to others would be to re-examine these questions and look at them in the eye fearlessly. We live in a society that pushes anxiety, stress, disorder, fear of death under the carpet – we live in a forgetful society where happiness stems from a false sense of immortality. Winterreise is so gripping even today precisely because it is not romanticising the fact that there are moments in one’s life when nothing makes sense, where everything is a cold winter, where one arrives alone in an abandoned village and the only thing he or she hears is the sound of the Leierman. And this experience is not necessarily an experience of death. It can be the experience of loss of a loved one, or the experience of not being able to understand all the malice in the world. We must address these issues with fearlessness, and I believe that Schubert’s monomania and fascination with the abyss of the human soul shows a way: that the only true change and revolution in everyone's lives comes through inward introspection. Action is what happens in our souls.

So, in short this is my wish: that we don’t forget that there is pain and suffering in this world – and we are not immune to it. And that we act upon it by changing ourselves in the only way possible: from the inside.

Reproduced by kind agreement with Navis Classics © 

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