Playing early music – an interview
In this conversation Nicolette Moonen, artistic director of The Bach Players, talks with Robin Kinross of Hyphen Press Music.
RK: This is perhaps part 2 of our interview. Part 1 [here] we made when the first recording was in preparation (2008). Then I asked about the formation of the Bach Players. Now I could start in the middle of things, with quite a specific question. It’s something I’ve often observed. When critics or promoters talk about The Bach Players, it becomes clear that for them this means the instrumental players. The singers are then like the cream on the milk – not really part of the group, not part of The Bach Players.
NM: They are named separately?
RK: Not just that, but people talk about The Bach Players and they understand that those are the ones who are playing the instruments.
NM: What makes you think that?
RK: For example, about the first CD somebody wrote that The Bach Players showed their understanding in playing the fugues, and then they were joined by the singers Rachel Elliott and Sally-Bruce Payne in the Stabat Mater. As if those singers were itinerant people who just showed up and joined the main body of the group.
NM: I’ve never read it like that.
RK: It’s in the English language: the players are the people who play … This seems a peripheral question, but I also think it’s central. It’s linked to an issue that I know is central for you: this music should be played in a rhetorical way whether there are words with the music or not.
NM: Yes, it’s not just when you have a text that you have to play rhetorically. You have to understand the language in instrumental music as well – you have to imagine a text, in the language of that particular composer.
RK: This is a reverse implication. The so-called players, the ones with the instrument in their hands not in their voice – they have to think in terms of a text, words, rhetoric.
NM: That’s exactly what I find important in the way we play. For me there’s no essential difference between a singer and a player – each is working with a text in their head. That’s why the close relation between ’singers’ and ’players’ is so important.
RK: So in your mind there isn’t any real difference between the two?
NM: No. We’re all musicians. We have a different means of expressing the music. Or we play a different stave in the score, but we’re all part of the same piece. The singers are very lucky to have the text. We instrumentalists have to use our imagination more, in order to add the text to our lines.
RK: And what about a piece in which there was simply no text? A concerto for harpsichord …
NM: Still, the mode of expression has to be as rhetorical as possible. You play in a spoken or sung way.
RK: Recently I’ve heard you speak about a certain kind of player who is essentially a singer, and another kind of player who you say is essentially a dancer.
NM: Yes, I think players have their strong points. Of course, one big part of instrumental music is dance music – that’s another kind of expression, for which you have to understand the language of the movement. As I’m starting to see now, that can be just as rhetorical as a way of singing. We come back to this: maybe the one thing that unites all music is language, and what we are trying to do is express something. Sometimes we have words, sometimes it’s a language without words, a way of communicating.
RK: In this perspective, would one put one kind of language higher than another? Verbal language is perhaps more essential than the gesture language?
NM: That’s a difficult question. It’s part of being human, to express ourselves, and to want to communicate. We have various modes of doing it: we use verbal language, we use gestural language … does this answer your question? In describing this I am using the word ’language’ all the time, and with this word I mean ’communication’. So what we’re trying to do is communicate. I think that’s what’s so essential in Baroque music – at the time rhetoric was the subject to study and it all had to do with communication.
Somehow in the nineteenth century things changed, and art became something for itself: art was for art. The artist became the focal point, rather than the audience, which in the Baroque era had been the point to which you communicated. The audience then started to get involved by focusing on the artist. The arrows went the other way round. Also in the nineteenth century, the predominant language became that of emotion – the emotion of the artist himself. Before this, as you can read in all the treatises, the aim of the music is to move the emotions of the audience. It’s not, as some people have misunderstood it, that there is no emotion. Yes, there is emotion, but the idea is to elicit the emotion in the listener. It’s not to see somebody crumble in emotion on the stage.
RK: It’s a complicated question. If you look at what’s going on in North Korea at the moment [after the death of Kim Jong-il], you see a collective emotion. I don’t know, but I could imagine this is more transmitted between members of the public, perhaps with the help of commentators on TV or radio …
NM: I think we can’t be sure about what we’re seeing there: whether it’s something they are expected to do …
RK: But what you see is a ritualized or formalized emotion. It’s not according to any rules we know.
NM: We don’t know … though when Lady Diana [Spencer] died in Britain there was a mass hysteria too.
RK: Well it was an unfair question, to ask which was the more important kind of language. Probably one just shouldn’t think in those terms. But there is another priority that I want to put to you. I have the feeling sometimes that good rhythm or tempo is a basis, but it’s inferior to good expression, where one breaks the rhythm and introduces this speaking element.
NM: We have the vertical and the horizontal dimensions in the elements that make up music. Melody doesn’t exist in itself, without rhythm, without the organization of the time factor. On the other hand, one couldn’t have rhythm without melody, unless it’s on just one note, or an unpitched rhythm – which could perhaps be expressive in itself. But in Baroque music there is always the element of melody as well. You have melody, metre, rhythm – you can’t say one is more important than the other. But, yes, if you only focus on rhythm, if you ignore the melodic intervals, for example, then expression falls flat on its face.
This perhaps like saying, as I would, that you cannot separate technique from music. You can’t just do technique – what is technique? On its own it’s empty.
RK: But one could have perfect technique without fully expressed music.
NM: Yes. That is possible and it happens. The old way – of the Paris Conservatoire, and the way in which that was set up – tried very hard to separate technique from music. That was a big break from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the composers were also musicians. There was no separation between the two. Also there wasn’t any organized conservatoire system. People became apprentices. Teaching was not done in such a systematic way. There wasn’t this standardizing of technique. The nature of the treatises changed very much towards the end of the eighteenth century. And to this day our conservatoires are modelled on the the nineteenth-century focus on technique. There are still a large number of teachers who can draw a family tree of where they have come from. They pass on that information. The word ’conservatoire’ tells us this. In that way classical music is a very conservative art; a bit like classical ballet. The early music movement was a protest against this.
RK: The early music protest happened within the conservatoires?
NM: Yes and no. The conservatoires were very resistant. Even today early music departments within conservatoires are treated very separately. Where I teach, at the Royal Academy in London, the students don’t mix. The so-called modern department seems to look down its nose at the early music people. There are very few modern people who are interested and who come to listen to what the early music department has to offer. From this it would seem that there are two different ways of working with music.
RK: I wonder about this, because in some areas one might think that the early music movement has been victorious. It’s just a few brave modern orchestras that now dare to play Bach, let alone anything earlier – they don’t touch it.
NM: It has become difficult for modern orchestras to deal with the Baroque repertoire. But what one does see now, for example in Jonathan Miller’s production of the Matthew Passion this year in London, is young players with modern instruments but playing with what I would say is a really good understanding of style. So that’s evidence for saying that a lot has happened.
RK: But has this been recognized yet in their education?
NM: I feel it’s not completely integrated yet. We still have a long way to go to make it part of everybody’s curriculum. At the moment, at least where I teach, early music is still a separate thing for those few modern students who are interested. I have proposed that we could teach anyone on modern instruments. That’s been heard but not acted on.
RK: Perhaps it’s time for a manifesto? On the one hand, this early music is very present, it’s there in the concert halls.
NM: Yes, people now just accept it.
RK: But, conceptually, there is a gap. The common understanding is that it’s to do with authentic performance, playing on gut strings, and so on.
NM: Yes, people don’t understand what the real difference is. They still think that all we are doing is trying to re-create. We are certainly trying to get closer to the spirit in which things were done. That means approaching music with a different attitude.
RK: I’m absolutely not an expert, but if you look at the early twentieth century, you see a lot of funny things going on: the famous violinists all playing on gut strings, and with styles that seem unformulated – individual. One begins to think that the standardization of style and technique came later in the twentieth century.
NM: Maybe. I think it crept in gradually. But you can already see it in the editions that were made in the nineteenth century, of eighteenth century music – of the few works that did survive. You see how they were published, smothered with expression marks that are from this later time. This was an imposition of these later contemporary values and means. For example, the Bach solo sonatas were studies for the violin, not music pieces for concert performance. But in editions of the nineteenth century they were marked with fingerings and bowings that have nothing to do with the fingering and bowing language of the time in which they were written.
I think within a hundred years of the music being written, this misunderstanding had happened. The emphasis was now on technique and mastery of the instrument, rather than the expression of the music and its communication with rhetorical means. In treatise of the nineteenth century, there are no chapters on the larger aims of playing music.
‘Modern’ players suffer from the idea that the way we play is devoid of emotion, and that emotion in music is their preserve – and that that’s what nineteenth-century music is about. We do deal with emotion, but in a different way. Do you wallow in emotion yourself, as a player, and expect the audience to be moved by your suffering? It’s very clear from eighteenth-century writings that what it was about was eliciting emotion. So you do have to understand emotions.
RK: Perhaps there are analogies, for example in catching a fish – your instrument is the fishing rod and line, and the audience is the fish. The way to catch your fish is not with a big gesture, but by subtle means: you do have to know the technique …
NM: I’m not sure if I can see this analogy!
NM: I think there are other things. Just look at paintings, look at visual art and the difference between seventeenth-century art and nineteenth-century art.
RK: So what does this mean? Very precise strokes in the earlier painting; the nineteenth-century way would be –
NM: – overindulgent. It’s this wallowing that I mean, where you feel it’s all very sad, or very sweet. Whereas if you look at a Rembrandt painting, you see something real, and you might actually be moved by it. Do you know what I mean?
RK: Yes, but I find Rembrandt is a dangerous example, because his work does seem to lead on to Romanticism, and because he was so much taken up by nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century culture – this dramatic light, dramatic darkness. My idea of Baroque is that it’s more evenly lit; or more even in temper.
NM: No, I don’t agree at all. That’s where the misunderstanding lies. Baroque music is not about a suppression of emotions.
RK: I think Baroque gives more place for a conversation as we’re having now: not screaming, but a civilized dialogue.
NM: I still don’t agree with you. It’s the difference between an artist experiencing emotion as he paints, and painting so that the person who looks experiences the emotion. It’s the same with the player. Baroque is a process of transference. And, if anything, Baroque music will elicit much stronger emotions in the audience, as we saw in the recent production of Lully’s Atys (Opera Comique, Paris) – very emotional, but not in a Wagnerian way. We can mention vibrato here: the huge amount of vibrato, which is supposed to move, but which in my ears is just self-indulgent.
RK: I think I’m expressing an aesthetic prejudice here. I might say that you can see the seeds of Wagner or excessive vibrato in Rembrandt or such dramatic painting, whereas I would prefer Chardin or Watteau, or that kind of calm art. But I’m ready to give up this analogy.
NM: I think you should really get away from it. I feel you want to put forward your own preference for visual things that are, I might think, emotionless.
RK: A Watteau painting is not emotionless; certainly it’s well organized, skillfully done. The same with Chardin.
NM: The same with Rembrandt.
RK: Well, I’m always worried with Rembrandt. It’s going to an extreme, and probably one shouldn’t use this argument, but in the twentieth century he became such a hero of Northern culture, following the theory of Julius Langbehn (in the book Rembrandt als Erzieher) that Rembrandt was actually a German.
NM: Let’s just look at him, and not what people did with him. Bach suffered in the same way. All the human emotions are expressed in that music. And, yes, afterwards, it was abused. I’ve already mentioned the nineteenth-century editions. But there were the performance – so slow, for example in Mengelberg’s performances – and, yes, it made people weep.
RK: I suppose it’s a quality of the most profound artists, like Rembrandt or Bach or Shakespeare, that their work becomes the subject of so many different interpretations, and misinterpretations.
What part does the audience play in your concerts?
NM: Without them we don’t exist!
RK: And what part does the space you are playing in? These are two further elements, after one has considered the music itself.
NM: That’s all been part of the plan of The Bach Players – to create good circumstances. There are many elements. The first thing is the choice of the music: the programme. And then the choice of the musicians who are going to make this music. And then the space in which you do it, and the way you use that space. For me it’s very important that we are not on a stage, that we are level with the audience. So I looked for spaces in which that was possible, so that you don’t get a platform.
RK: This is part of the idea of communicating something to someone –
NM: Yes, again it’s something that happened in the nineteenth century: the artist became more and more important, so he had to have a stage. The separation between the audience and the artist became greater and greater. The artist became untouchable for the audience, quite literally – in a physical way. Only a few initiated ones would go backstage at the end of the concert. You still see this in the Wigmore Hall and any other concert hall. It’s still the way classical music is presented. Go a little bit further and you would have a curtain, even. Usually there isn’t a curtain, but certainly the artists come up onto the stage from a secret space that the audience can only imagine. They come through a little door and do all this spiel of bowing down. Finally they disappear through that door, and that’s it. I was very keen to let the artist and the audience share the same space, on the same level. The only difference is that there are a few people there who are going to sing or play. The communication happens when we make music, but it also happens when we are not making music.
RK: In the interval?
NM: Yes, or when one of us musicians talks to the audience, to introduce a piece. Equality has always been a key word for me, both within the group, and then between us and the audience. We are all human beings in the same space. We do away with hierarchy. We all do what we are best at, and for the audience that is to listen, and for us that is to listen and to play.
RK: Further about the space – St John’s Downshire Hill?
NM: It’s an ideal space, and ideal size as well. It’s never felt right to go to a larger place than that.
RK: Because you lose the contact with the audience?
NM: Yes. And also for our instruments – the instruments are so important. If you have too big a space, it just doesn’t feel right. You have to project further than feels natural. But string players still want more and more powerful instruments, because the halls have increased in size. We are not playing modern instruments, and we shouldn’t try to make them fit the halls. Again, that would be an anachronism. I think what’s happened in the early music movement, because it has become popular, is that it has succumbed to modern demands. It hasn’t stayed principled enough. Or it looks at one aspect, and not the whole thing. So, we see early music groups playing in white ties and tails; they sit on a stage, in the biggest concert halls; and they boast about it in their CVs. In my eyes it’s complete rubbish.
Then of course there is the travesty of the conductor – early music is proud of having conductors! And the critics still haven’t addressed that, they still don’t ask ’actually, why is there a conductor?’. Why is there is this nineteenth-century figure waving in front of these people wearing tails, and not producing any sounds? It couldn’t be more inauthentic and inappropriate.
RK: These are perhaps elements of the superstructure of the music; there is also the place of the singers, which we started off with – you see it now always, for example, in performances of Haydn’s oratorios, in which the singers –
NM: – troupe on, wearing opera gowns –
RK: – you know they are an elite of people, who have been flown in, first class, with the conductor –
NM: – and the members of the orchestra are in the second rank, sitting behind the singers. The soloists in the orchestra get acknowledged, but that’s about it. And of course it’s all reflected in the structure of payments. Maybe there is some innate human need for all this, in the way that we seem to need royalty. I suppose it’s my anarchistic nature that I want to question all this.
RK: With these ideas you do limit yourself to playing in a small place, with people who are happy to do that. Then we know the problem of London, which is somehow resistant to this idea; and that it seems to be easier in a smaller city to find an audience. For example, after a couple of years, the audiences in Norwich are already larger than those in London. The implication is that this needs a decentralized context.
NM: I think one has to remain incredibly stubborn to not go with the mainstream, in which you make your first recordings, then you pump them up with publicity, and go to the concert halls, get the critics to say that it’s the most impressive group in Europe or even the world. So it’s difficult to stay with your principles and say ’this is what I want to do, this is the music I want to do, even if it doesn’t necessarily get bums on seats’. The model we are resisting has been made perhaps two hundred years ago, or perhaps less. Certainly in Britain there is a certain model that a new group will follow, and then it’s survival of the fittest. In my eyes, it’s unimaginative – the choice of music has to be safe, pieces that the audience will already know, they will get the applause, and the reviewers will come. The reviewers will not come unless it is in a concert hall in central London. We don’t get them at St John’s Downshire Hill. That’s because it’s not a central, recognized venue – it’s not that our programmes are not worthy of a review, nor is it that we are not good musicians. Well, I refuse to go to a venue that’s inappropriate. I’m stubborn.
RK: And what about the programmes?
NM: The spirit of early music, when it started, had two aspects: one was to look at pieces that people knew well, but to look at them freshly; and the other was to play music that people didn’t know about.
RK: You mean in the 1970s?
NM: Yes, and earlier – the mid-twentieth century. Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, all began to be looked at differently. But, also – who else was there? who have we forgotten? So we rediscovered composers like Couperin, Delalande, Rameau. And now what I see, fifty years later … what does Bruce Haynes call it in his book [The end of early music], when it becomes core repertoire? Yes: they are part of the canon. There are some pieces that are done over and over again; the audience knows them, and is sure to come. Early music has lost its investigative aspect. The interesting thing is, I think, to put well-known pieces into some context, to combine them with lesser-known works: as in a museum, you might see Rembrandt surrounded by painters whose names you don’t know, but who were around at the same time, affecting each other. What I’m trying to do is to make sketches of the time, to make links, to let people become aware – for example, that culturally and politically France was so almightily important in the seventeenth century, and Britain was relatively less important. So you can come to a concert and start thinking about these things as well.
RK: What about French music, which seems to have become more important for you now?
NM: I think it is because I started looking at the whole French influence on Bach, and then I started looking – again – at French music for itself, and for the huge influence it has had on all of western Europe. It has reconnected me with my own roots – my French grandfather. I think we’ve forgotten that before Leonhardt and Harnoncourt came on the scene there were already musicologists preparing the way, and my grandfather Norbert Dufourcq happens to have been one of them. He did a lot of research into French music, which had been completely forgotten. It was a very exciting journey for him – all these musicians who worked at Versailles, and whose influence travelled across Europe. So that’s become a point of focus for me.
I was lucky to have been brought up bilingual, with French as one of the languages. Now I can’t see how you can play French music without having any knowledge of the French language – it’s one of the stumbling blocks for my fellow musicians in the UK.
RK: Do you think there are any British musicians who have been successful with French music?
NM: Yes, I do think there is one, and that is Jeffery Skidmore. Bless his heart, I have lots of things that I criticize him for, but he has a good understanding for this music. Working with him has been very interesting – especially on the French pronunciation of Latin, which really turns the music upside down – suddenly everything falls into place when you have understood that. Unfortunately he has left that strand of music, which I think he was very good at, to go mainstream. So what is he doing now? John Passions, B Minor Masses – you name it. It’s a pity.
RK: The superstructure was simply too powerful for him?
NM: Yes. He still does interesting things, but he thought that the way forward was to start doing the famous pieces. I feel he should have stuck to his guns. Apart from Jeffery … working with Andrew Parrott on French music was very interesting: he has a good understanding of it. John Eliot [Gardiner] has some understanding, but some things, like the French Latin, he just doesn’t want to see. He has been better for later French music, like Berlioz. But, on the whole, French Baroque music is an unexplored repertoire that people are quite scared of in Britain.
RK: I wonder if, more than other European music, people here suffer from a failure to see the rhetorical dimension, the idea of a very coded art, in which there are certain rules, figures of speech with Latin names, and the forms of classical theatre which have definite structures. You might think that if the rules are so strict, then it’s very difficult to do anything with it.
NM: People can’t see beyond the rules? Yes. But the more I work on it, the more I see that there is a misunderstanding of the rules, and a misapplication of them – and that’s all because the one thing that doesn’t get discussed in the treatises, because it’s taken as read, is the language. French was the language that everybody spoke, whether you were French or German or whatever, so it wasn’t an issue. But now people don’t speak it. It’s become a difficult language. And if you don’t speak French, you just don’t get the music – in the same way that you don’t get the English music if you don’t speak English. So one can hear it spoken with the wrong accent, like English spoken by a French person. It can sound laughable – endearing, but not right. I think that’s what’s happened with French music. So people either dismiss it and say ’I don’t like this’ or they say ’I don’t understand it’ (’I’m scared of it’); either way, it means ’let’s not do it, it’s too difficult’.
RK: Even chamber music by Couperin or Rameau?
NM: Yes, it’s the same thing. It’s misunderstood. It gets played in a sort of Germanic way, or an Italian way. Somehow, of the two main styles, the Italian style has won. It’s more accessible. Whereas, at the time, the French style was omnipotent, and Italian style was struggling to get through. So I do get frustrated, living in England, where people are linguistic philistines. It’s a real shame for a country to have such a powerful language of its own: it hasn’t worked in its favour to have this monolinguistic culture. They need to bring back languages.
RK: I can see that this affects what musicians you invite to play.
NM: Yes, I like to invite foreigners.
RK: Not just because they have interesting names?
NM: No, and interestingly it’s the instrumental players who are foreign. The singers that I work with are English, and they are fantastic. Why? Because they are so good with the languages – they actually do language.
RK: They’ve also come through this funny English system of church-based singing.
NM: Yes, which has made them into very good singers. But I wouldn’t work with singers who are no good at language. And with the instrumental musicians I do struggle with those players who have no other language than English.
RK: You can tell it in their playing?
RK: We haven’t mentioned any of the musicians by name. But from what you have said, I do get the strong sense that there is a Bach Players idea, something you are striving for, and it doesn’t really matter who the musicians are, as long as they fulfil these functions.
NM: I see it as a large pool of musicians, and I see my role as bringing them together. I like bringing together people who I think will fit together.
RK: But also bringing them up? Has this happened with younger players?
NM: Well, of course in my teaching that happens – I try to make students aware of different styles, different languages. One can only try to inspire, and see where the student takes it. But if I had to devise a course or a school for early music, language would be compulsory. The English would have to choose to do either French or German, or perhaps to learn Italian.
RK: To have formal lessons?
NM: Yes. Ideally a musician should know all the main European languages, and Latin. So that when you work you understand what it’s about. Then you go back to what happened in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Perhaps you didn’t learn foreign languages then; you would learn Latin: the music was either in Latin or in the vernacular. But now, if we want to be complete musicians, we have to learn languages – there is no other way around it. How can you do an opera in Italian, if you don’t understand Italian?
RK: You mean for the string section?
NM: Well, first of all the conductor. But I do think that for the instrumentalists they need to understand what’s going on, and more than just grasp the story – you need to understand the words in your mind, so that you can play the same thoughts and feelings. It becomes so superficial if all you are doing is just playing the notes.
RK: Perhaps you can describe how rehearsals go in this group. Is this different from other groups?
NM: Every group has its own character. But the main difference in our group is that we don’t have a conductor. We have strong personalities. My role? Well, I do lead the rehearsal. I make the schedule and decide how much time we will spend on each movement. [That’s also a matter of economics, so that each musician can be there optimally and their time isn’t wasted in hanging around.] So I keep an eye on the time. I have also prepared what I would like to happen musically. But at the same time there is a fluidity – it is chamber music, and we work on an equal basis. But there is an organization for what happens. If we were like a Quaker meeting, then it would take far too long – it’s not possible.
There are some things that I’m rather strong on, for example with the language and all that. But there are things that, for example, Silas [Wollston] is very good at – with harmony, and picking up wrong notes. Everybody has their points. So together, if we allow people to say what they think, the atmosphere is such that people don’t just do it because they have to, but they do it because we are working together to make something. The Bach Players is also a reaction on my part to what I have experienced in other groups. I have felt sometimes that I was in a group with wonderful musicians, but that they weren’t allowed to say what they think – because, in the famous words that I was told one day, ‘some people just don’t know their place’, or in other words: ‘you are not in charge, shut up, you don’t say a thing’. I never understood it. This doesn’t help to make anything better. But that’s how things are in orchestras.
RK: One of the nice things I see in The Bach Players is that people do swap, from violin to viola, for example. It happens more than in other groups.
NM: Yes, most musicians that I invite are musicians rather than instrumentalists – they can play on more than one instrument. I can, and I like to be with others who can. It’s good to feel you can have a musical dialogue with the other players. I don’t want them to follow me, I want them to play with me. So if there isn’t any ladder of importance, then everyone can be themselves – as David Attenborough said the other day on TV, ’every snowflake is different’.
RK: But I have sometimes seen that a player has done things that you didn’t really agree with. They got their way.
NM: Yes, that’s inherent in the way we work.
RK: It seems to be inherent – and there is this margin of what is acceptable even if it’s not what you expected.
NM: I still have some way to go! I can be rather late in coming to see that something isn’t what I had wanted, and that I wished I had pushed for something else. Yes, in that way I take on the director’s role. So I do both – take on that director’s role, and allow others to open their mouths. It’s a balance. And, as you know, I have experimented by putting ’director’ after my name, and then I have taken it out. Part of me says, yes I am the director – but I am doing it in my way. Yet it has felt very strong to say ’this is The Bach Players’, and it’s not centred around one person. It’s also a reaction against all these groups which are about one person – Paul McX or John Eliot Y – and some groups have been started recently, usually with some Latinate name, that just have a director and the players are simply not named in the publicity. With The Bach Players, the musicians are all named in every piece of publicity; we all take bows together. That feels comfortable to me. But it’s a continuing process of development and growth. It has had its ups and downs. On the whole it’s a happy group, and that’s I think because people feel that they can be themselves.
* * * * *
NM: We were talking about emotions in music – some people think that if you do Baroque music, there is no emotion involved. I completely disagree with that. How can one explain this? Maybe one can think of comedians. A good comedian makes you laugh, while a bad comedian laughs himself. It’s a matter of having the power to touch an audience with whatever emotion you want. Musically it means that you as performer do not wallow in the emotion – then it falls flat. The same with sadness: if you are going to cry on stage, it doesn’t work.
RK: To take the example of the actor Mark Rylance. I think he has a special quality, which is the conversational quality. That’s the register that he inhabits.
NM: Do you think it is that he puts himself on the same level as the audience?
RK: Yes. And even with Shakespeare, which is very difficult language, you feel you understand everything.
NM: He makes it very normal.
RK: You feel he’s elucidating, and to do that you need quite a calm approach. It’s not overt emotion, it’s more a clarifying procedure that he does.
NM: It’s putting himself on the same level as us the audience, and telling the story, but not living it. That’s one of the differences: do you tell something, or do you live it? It’s something that we’ve seen with Mark Padmore over the years, that he’s started more and more to live the story – it’s something I don’t enjoy – whereas he used to tell the story.
RK: He becomes a romantic victim.
NM: Yes, you want to put an arm around him. The good performer makes you the audience member feel that emotion of suffering.
RK: Another example is Jaap Schröder’s recordings of the solo sonatas and partitas of Bach, which I feel is like speech, like conversation. You don’t feel he is trying to amaze you with technique, it’s more a clarification of the music –
NM: – like hearing Leonhardt play. It’s a matter of delivery. Like hearing someone speak at a funeral. If they are in tears themselves, it doesn’t work.
RK: Yes I can remember a funeral where that happened and it was rather awful. There was another funeral recently where the speeches were very calm and quiet, and that was much more affecting, because you were prompted to think of the person who had died and were given the mental space to do so.
NM: I think it’s really about bringing on the emotion in the listener, and as a performer moving away from your ego.