Interview: Pianist Malcolm Martineau sings the joys of working with Susan Graham

Malcolm Martineau and Susan Graham at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, Calif. last week (Peg Skorpinski, San Francisco Chronicle Photo)

In the middle of a continent-spanning solo recital tour with mezzo-sorpano Susan Graham, accompanist Malcolm Martineau sounds as as keen as a conservatory grad who has just won his first competition.

You’d never guess from his enthusiastic tone that he’s been working steadily for more than 30 years — always the backup guy on the piano, but never a wallflower.

Susan Graham, who still has Toronto opera lovers all aglow from her turn as the title character in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride last fall, returns for a solo recital with Martineau on Saturday evening at Koerner Hall.

The accompanist reveals that the programme — divided into “good girl” songs in the first half and “bad girl” songs in the second — is his creation.

Martineau and Graham have worked together so much “and I know her and her voice so well,” that the singer gave her accompanist license to create an entirely new concert programme.

“I had lots of bits of paper on my living room floor,” says the Edinburgh-born Londoner of the process of sifting through hundreds of options. He likens programming a recital to preparing a fine meal.

“First, you have the starter, which is something by Purcell that focuses on text. That gets the audience’s attention, plus it’s in English, which also helps in this part of the world,” Martineau explains. “Then you have the meat of the programme, which are songs about Ophelia and Goethe’s Mignon.”

That set of seven songs includes pieces by Hector Berlioz, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Peter Ilytch Tchaikovsky, Henri Duparc and Hugo Wolf.

The bad girls come out after intermission, with Joseph Horovitz’s Lady Macbeth and the song cycle Fiançailles pour rire, by Francis Poulenc.

Dessert is a selection of musical stage favourites from Noël Coward, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim.

“It’s good for Susan not to do only French songs, which is what she is best known for,” says Martineau.

The tight bond between singer and accompanist comes through in the rehearsal process, as well. The pianist says the dynamic is completely different, depending on whom he is working with. In the case of Graham, they got together in early December to rehearse.

Rather than analyze each song, she sang and he played. “Everything simply evolved without us talking too much,” Martineau recalls. “Each song was able to find its course without us actually deciding on anything.”

The evolution continues with every performance. “Susan and I looked at each other after our last recital and said, oh, so that’s what it was,” says the pianist.

With apologies about sounding “all new agey,” Martineau says he perceives two circles of energy in the concert hall: one between the singer and the pianist, and a larger one between the performers and the audience. “You send out energy and it comes back, you can feel it, and you know how they’re receiving it.”

The performers subtly change their performance in response.

Martineau, who gladly abandoned a solo piano career in 1980, much prefers a backup role to that of the singer in the spotlight.

“I’m like the feed for a comic,” he says, in trying to describe the indispensable side of his job. And, although he only has music to work with, while the singer has the more expressive text to handle, Martineau says, “I try to play the words as well.”

That is what explains his uncommonly rich and expressive approach to every accompaniment.

Besides a full concert schedule that includes recitals this year with Magdalena Kozená and Dorothea Röschmann in Europe, a North American visit with hot English mezzo Kate Royal in the fall, and several studio recordings, Martineau also teaches at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

“I like to work on duos, so we can get the whole performance to work,” he says. Having both singer and accompanist in the classroom together means that Martineau can work on an “overall view of the song” — one that might lead to “a whole way of working and thinking” that emphasizes collaboration over ego.

He knows of what he speaks.


For all the details and ticket information for Saturday evening’s programme, click here.


Here are some clips of Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau in action at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland (a recital that’s available for streaming at

John Terauds


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