Karen Cargill © KK Dundas
Karen Cargill
© KK Dundas
This month, we explore the world of Lieder. What makes a good programme? How should audiences approach Lieder recitals? We talk to today’s leading exponents of art song to gain an insight into a world that can sometimes be difficult for audiences to crack. The latest singer to offer her thoughts is Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill. 

Bachtrack: What criteria do you use when putting together a programme for a song recital?

Karen Cargill: Each programme is representative of a particular moment in the lives of both musicians and this is always an interesting place to start, working out what type of atmosphere you hope to create, which composers you feel could best take you to that place through their sound world. Text obviously plays a hugely important role in that so we then explore various songs looking for the combination of beautiful text with interesting composition. Key relations and tempi are also very important to help the recital flow and we do spend a large amount of time constructing the programme with that in mind. The beginning is key, that you set the tone for the journey yet allowing to make both musicians comfortable. Recitals are such exposed performances, you want to start out feeling as calm as possible. That being said, you also want to end on a high note giving energy to the audience to go home with.

 What advice would you give audience newcomers to Lieder recitals to help them approach the repertoire? Should performers talk to their audiences during recitals

 A song recital is such an intimate experience, I love when singers introduce some of their programme giving the audience a greater insight into them as a performer. It's so interesting to hear their idea of a song which may encourage an audience member to think about it in a different way.

An open mind and open heart is the best way to approach your first Lieder recital. Curiosity and flexibility are two important parts of our jobs as musicians but also as an audience member, be curious to experience different genres, languages, styles, some which you might fall in love with.

Read the translations when you arrive, make yourself comfortable and settle in for a fantastic journey.

How does it feel to see heads buried in programmes following the text during a recital? Would surtitles help? Should the audience read the texts beforehand?

 Understanding the text is paramount in a Lieder recital. I would much rather that audience members felt comfortable and if reading translations allows them to do that then great! Sometimes we become too hemmed in by a certain protocol of behaviour and I think that can be intimidating to new concert-goers, particularly regarding the rustling of paper, yet that means the audience is engaged. Surtitles would help this issue, but for me part of going to a recital is the atmosphere of the hall and spaces like the glorious Wigmore Hall, Kleine Zaal at the Concertgebouw and the Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall would be spoiled by the addition of surtitles. The beauty of those rooms is as much a part of the recital as the music.

What advantages are there to the Lieder platform from the operatic stage?

 They are such different experiences for all involved, musicians and audience. While opera is a more 'cinematic' performance, the song recital is a singular voice describing a personal journey. The intimacy of a Lieder recital is something very special and allows you to completely lose yourself in the music and while you can lose yourself in an operatic score it also has such a large visual aspect to it.

Being close to the performers is such a special thing, you can feel the relationship between both musicians and gain an understanding of their personalities which always adds something unique to the songs.

Karen Cargill © KK Dundas
Karen Cargill
© KK Dundas

What is your favourite song/Lied to perform?

There are so many songs that mean something to me, pinpointing particular moments in my life that I couldn't possibly narrow it down. The songs of Gustav Mahler are incredibly important to me because of my passion for his music and the beauty of the texts he chose. "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" never fails so make me cry. At the moment I am constructing a French programme and am immersed in the world of Duparc and Chausson, "Amour d'antan" by Chausson a particular favourite right now, there are just so many wonderful songs to explore!

Which languages do you prefer to sing in?

Much of the repertoire I sing at the moment is in German and I do enjoy the sound world that the language allows for. Perhaps that is because the vowels are so close the Scottish dialect? French is a language I love, the romanticism of the sounds, the fact that you can "taste" the language and that it evokes a certain atmosphere.

 Do you have a regular pianist to partner you in recitals? What are his/her best qualities?

Since 2000 I have exclusively worked with Simon Lepper and am so richly rewarded because of our friendship. We love to spend hours fine tuning our programmes, discussing texts, creating stories, and developing a musical journey that we know will be exciting and rewarding. Having someone who believes in you so much is invaluable, allowing you to feel free enough to make the music you want to. Simon is an incredible musician with a huge amount of knowledge and love for music. He is patient, hugely supportive and knows my voice perhaps better than anyone. In some rehearsals he has suggested a tweak of a particular vowel and it has made a massive difference to the sound. We talk about everything from music to wine to travel, our relationship is much more than just music. I owe so very much to Simon.

Click here to see Karen Cargill's forthcoming engagements.