MUSIC / Leading from the front: The accompanist Roger Vignoles finds that conducting offers a different view of the music. Antony Peattie reports

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Sir Georg Solti recognised his talent early on. Roger Vignoles was about to be taken on at Covent Garden as a vocal coach when, as a formality, he was sent to play for the music director.

Vignoles says: 'Solti made me sight-read the first scene of Rosenkavalier, which I did very badly, but afterwards he commented that I was 'a very musical boy. Can't understand why he doesn't want to be a conductor'. I think my success there was because I didn't' From a young age he wanted to be an accompanist, which reflected both his main interests, music and languages. Having read music at Cambridge, and then studied piano at the Royal College of Music, London, he fell into coaching, when his Cambridge friend David Atherton asked him to help on Birtwistle's Punch and Judy.

Later, he was offered a job as repetiteur at Covent Garden, London, but hesitated to commit himself full time. He accepted the offer when he saw it would help towards his ultimate ambition. 'I worked on operas by Strauss and Wagner, on Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande - it was extremely satisfying, even though few opera singers in those days were interested in recitals. The challenge any repetiteur faces is to re-create the entire orchestral sound on a Steinway. I learnt to play orchestrally.

'Since then I've habitually thought in terms of instruments, even when playing purely piano scores. I actually believe composers have thought that way too. If you imagine strings or woodwind it immediately changes the articulation and colour, the pedalling and timing of what you play. In a way, I've spent most of my professional life trying to make a piano sound like an orchestra. Now there's a sort of logic in trying to make an orchestra sound as I have imagined it should.'

Vignoles made his debut as an operatic conductor last year, seated at the harpsichord in Handel's Agrippina at the Buxton Festival, to considerable acclaim. This year, he conducts Britten's Turn of the Screw in Bath. He stresses that this doesn't mean he is giving up accompanying - 'I still feel me at the business end of a piano' - and is soon to accompany Kiri Te Kanawa on a tour of South America.

But there's no doubt that conducting fascinates him: 'It offers a different viewpoint - at once more detached and more involved. You become less obsessed with detail, when you're not executing it yourself, but you get to see the structure more clearly. In opera in particular, the conductor has such responsibility to create a metrical coat-hanger on which the music is suspended. With Handel, I worked especially on how to manage the move from recitative to aria, so as to hit the tempo I wanted. With Britten it's of course another matter entirely, a question of handling some quite fluid tempi and changes to them.'

As he talks, it becomes clear why he is in such demand as a teacher, as well as a performer, all over the world. His knowledge in matched by an engaging enthusiasm to share his insights and by an easy authority. 'At Cambridge in the Sixties it was fashionable to turn your nose up at Britten's music. The word 'eclectic' was used to insult it. But as the years go by, it becomes more clear how wrongheaded that was: his operas are alive in a way that few of his contemporaries' are.

'Britten is a supreme actor in his music, adopting a wide variety of languages to suit the individual occasion. That's his strength as a dramatist, not his weakness. Even within the claustrophobic confines of The Turn of the Screw, he identifies each character with a different way of singing and of inflecting words. Then they all borrow each others' music to make a point about their inter-relationships: the children suddenly take on adult ways of behaving, and we can hear it all in the music.

'I'm also struck by Britten's control of pace. Take the scene in the schoolroom: the preceding interlude is a riotous fugue in 5/4 time, full of noisy childish high spirits. Then after the prosaic Latin gender rhymes comes the song 'Malo' - and the entire theatre holds its breath for three minutes: the temperature suddenly drops, a strange, melancholy atmosphere takes hold and you don't know where you are.'

If Vignoles does know where he is in Britten's world, it's partly because he has made something of a speciality of his vocal music, performing and recording the cabaret songs with Sara Walker and the complete canticles with Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Michael Chance. He also worked as assistant conductor and chorus master on the world premiere of Death in Venice in 1973.

'I do feel I'm on home ground, because I know Britten believes in what I believe in. It's there in the way the music relates to the words: there's a precision in how he notates what he wants, which I respect. One aspect of my job as conductor is to act as the conscience and voice of the composer, pointing out that if Britten put a pause on the third beat in the bar, that's because he wanted it there and not on the second.

Accompanists have been seen as underdogs, seated handmaidens to the standing stars. Has Vignoles' rise to solo status, the maestro ruling his band and the stage, gone to his head? 'I wondered myself whether it would, before I conducted Agrippina. But both conducting and accompanying involve partnership, just like any other aspect of music.

'You start from what your inner ear tells you it should sound like and put that up against what you hear and then revise it. Between conductor and players there's a sort of unspoken contract in which they ask, 'What do you want to hear?' and the conductor asks himself, 'What do they need to see, in order for me to get the sound I want?' '

'But there is one area where the conductor wins over the accompanist: it's his show, sink or swim. It's up to him to mould the whole into a successful performance - whereas as an accompanist, I'm responsible for the architecture and for leading overall, but powerless to alter the frame of the performance, which is set by the soloist's limitations. Well, now I'm leading from the front.'

Vignoles has no intention of giving up accompanying. When pushed, he admits that he would 'almost kill to conduct The Magic Flute' . . . Maybe he won't have to.

Roger Vignoles conducts 'The Turn of the Screw' at the Theatre Royal, Bath, on 8, 10, 12 & 14 August.

(Photograph omitted)

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