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One of the leading baritones of his generation, James Newby discusses his first solo album of songs by Beethoven, Schubert, Mahler and Britten.

I wanted to learn the drums as a child, but my mum said that was too noisy, so I went for the next loudest thing, the trumpet!’ Baritone James Newby laughs when I ask about his path to becoming a singer. His mother unwittingly did him a favour. Learning music led to choosing the subject for GCSE, which meant joining a choir: at 17, a trip to Gloucester Cathedral led to a canon hearing him sing solo and advising him to go for a choral scholarship. ‘I was offered a year as a baritone, and during that time I applied for music colleges and everything just tumbled from there.’ Today, still in his twenties, Newby is a BBC New Generation Artist 2018-21, and is currently in a two-year contract at the Staatsoper Hannover. He has also just recorded his first solo album for the BIS label.

Entitled I wonder as I wander, the new recording is a wide-ranging programme of Lieder, performed with the experienced Joseph Middleton at the keyboard. The selection is both insightful and beautifully sung, highlighting Newby’s immaculate legato and ability to draw on a hushed yet rounded tone, plus excellent diction. I enquire if he chose these songs of loneliness and isolation as a response to the current pandemic or for some other personal reason? ‘It has corresponded with the pandemic, but last year it was super-relevant when I had just moved to Hannover. I definitely missed my family and home comforts and had a real sense of FOMO – that my friends would leave me out or even forget me. Germany feels like a better place to be in terms of lockdown. I was at home (in the UK) for the first lockdown and it was crazy getting back to Hannover – the opera house had to call border control, it was a big deal. The problem with travelling is you can’t quarantine if you have shows, and I have concerts coming up.’ He adds that the Beethoven songs An die ferne Geliebte were the first to be chosen and the programme was constructed around them: Britten to book-end the album; Schubert as that was particularly relevant having won a prize singing that composer at the 2016 Wigmore Hall Song Competition; and Mahler for contrast.

Newby’s working relationship with Middleton is obviously incredibly strong. ‘When we rehearse, Joe and I are very laidback characters, but when we perform there’s a concentration to the communication. We have confidence in each other, it’s quite instinctive. It can be terrifying, probably more for him than me!’ He has what he calls the ‘cough test’ (nothing to do with Covid): he notices that when people start fidgeting and coughing, you’ve lost them. ‘You feel an audience is with you, there’s a tension to the end of the song or concert. We once did a concert where we asked people not to applaud until the end, and afterwards people commented that it was quite claustrophobic and uncomfortable.’

So what was it like trying to duplicate this positive tension in the recording studio? ‘When we perform live we find a different gear, and it was tricky at first without the adrenaline, hard to find that extra ten percent. But I do feel that the album communicates what we wanted and the producer, Rob Suff, was brilliant in understanding how we wanted to record it, not just perform it. Afterwards I just had to leave it for a while before listening to it with objectivity and appreciate the good things.’

What about the contrast between singing opera, oratorio and Lieder? ‘I’ve done a lot of concerts and recitals – after I won the Ferrier Award [2016] just about every choral society in the country got in touch. When I sing Lieder, I mine my own experience and put that into the songs. In opera you take on a new character and have to use your experience within the parameters of being someone else. I loved singing the Count in Figaro, and my most amazing role was singing in Howard Moody’s PUSH, about Simon Gronowski, whose mother saved his life in 1943 by pushing him off a train to Auschwitz. It was special, a real highlight.’ And what next for Newby? ‘I love Mozart and am doing Papageno and also Guglielmo in Così in Hannover this season. They sit well for me and allow me to get on with the fun stuff, the acting, and finding colours in the voice. I’d love to sing Billy Budd, and also Marcello in Bohème one day. I’m best at being onstage and connecting with people. That’s what we’ve tried to do with the disc – make it as honest and close to live as possible, take risks and communicate.’

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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