Michael Pollock dispels the myth that the accompanist's job is just to sit down at the piano and follow the singer.
Every time a singer appears in front of an audience he or she exposes in public not only their voice but also their soul: it is therefore a delicate balancing act between having nerves of steel as well as interpretative sensitivity allied to secure technique. This is, of course, magnified in a competition situation.
Part of the job of the accompanist is to put the singer at ease as much as possible, to allow them to express themselves freely without feeling constrained or thwarted. Since each singer is unique - which explains our endless fascination with comparing different voices - it helps to build a rapport offstage as well as on, to achieve a meeting of minds. Singers will often feel vulnerable so, for an accompanist, a sideline as an amateur psychologist will definitely reap ample rewards!
Whereas in opera there is distance between singer and audience (not to mention costume, wigs and make-up), in a song recital there is nowhere to hide; the camaraderie of an operatic cast gives way to the relative solitude of just two performers on stage.
An operatic aria may last for several minutes and have oft-repeated lines of text conveying a single emotion; a song may last half as long but have far more unrepeated lines of text ranging from anger through self-pity to resignation - lots of (invariably German) words to be mastered and recalled in the heat of the moment.
Many accompanists specialise in playing only the song repertoire - others prefer not to go anywhere near singers! It is indeed a particular skill, as you have to be alert to the nuances of the poetry - in whatever language - while also accommodating the singer's needs. Low energy levels or the hall's acoustic are just two considerations which can affect the tempo of a song or the need for extra breaths. You can't predict those things in rehearsal so you both have to be adaptable.
It's a fine line between asserting one's own musicianship and being accommodating towards one's colleague: but a passive accompanist is no help to a singer - it must be a dual partnership. The great accompanist Gerald Moore wrote a famous book entitled Am I Too Loud?
But there should also be the question in a pianist's mind: am I loud enough? Am I contributing towards the overall atmosphere of the song without leaving the singer stranded? Am I helping to maintain the dramatic tension, and would it add to the mood of the performance if I bring out that juicy inner line or would that be a distraction?
Not every little detail needs to be rehearsed. Bryn Terfel, for instance, likes to leave an element of freshness for the recital itself (which certainly keeps you on your toes!). In those exciting performances where singer and pianist each react spontaneously to the stimulus of the other, the audience can believe that the composer is speaking directly to them through the performers. Let us hope that this competition will provoke such inspiration!
Michael Pollock has given recitals across the world with many distinguished singers, including Dame Kiri te Kanawa and Bryn Terfel. He was official accompanist for Cardiff Singer from 1989 to 1993.