Paul Esswood: I want to give this experience to other people

Dieses Interview hat meine Tochter Aglaia Maria Mika, inzwischen Poscher-Mika, mit dem Countertenor Pau Esswood gemacht, zur Vorbereitung des Buches Oper, sinnlich. Die Opernwelten des Nikolaus Harnoncourt von Johanna Fürstauer und mir, Anna Mika. Ich bin Aglaia sehr dankbar für dieses Gespräch mit Herrn Esswood, es ist unglaublich informativ und lohnt den Aufwand, es in der ganzen Länge und auf Englisch zu lesen. (Aglaia hat damals in England studiert).

Paul Esswood war vor allem bei den ersten Produktionen in Zürich mit Monteverdi und Händel dabei, hat aber auch viele Bachkantaten und Oratorien mit Nikolaus Harnoncourt aufgeführt und aufgenommen

(Matthäus Passion was PE’s first co-operation and recording with H)


PE: I will restrict myself to talking about operas! The 1st opera I did with Harnoncourt was H’s first opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse at Theater an der Wien with Federik Mirdita (they are friends from school), so I did Anfinomo, one of the 3 suitors to Penelope. When I turned up, Mirdita didn’t know what a countertenor was. No idea, this funny voice up there! So he said to me, maybe you are an old man? Really? – I was in my early 20ies. Could you be an old man? – Maybe! And I was thinking of one of the London organists that I used to know, who used to walk like this (PE gets up and demonstrates) – we have got a video – skating through the rehearsal. So I got a stick, and I walked around the stage like this (still skating) – well, that’s fine, said Mirdita. So that is how I sang the role, as an old man, with white hair, a bold pate(?) – very old!


AgM: Is that how you understood the part, yourself?


PE: No, but when someone says to you I want you to be an old man – the point is, in an opera house, there is a god, and his name is mister Regisseur, you do what he tells you, you know? Of course, I could have objected, but I was not that experienced in these days, it was before I had ever worked in Zürich, with Ponnelle, I had not done that many operas, and it was H’s 1st opera as well.



AgM: How did you 1st experience working w H as a young singer?


PE: He was the 1st conductor that had a big impression on me and also (the 1st) where I had a continuity of work. Many big conductors say, thank you very much, hope to work with you again, it has been fantastic! – and then you don’t see them for 10 years; whereas w H, I would see him many times a year, because we would always meet for the Bach Cantata project. Because I was heavily involved there, he would invite me to do other things, like Ulisse, so I was always there listening to the things he was saying. But here is a problem: I was very young, and young people are only interested in themselves and what they are thinking, and I don’t remember many of the things he was saying to me in those early years; you think: yes, yes! and you still do your own thing – in many ways. I didn’t realise just how profound some of his statements and ideas were. They were different to other people, and I had only realised that as I had gone through life, I realised what he did. It was not necessarily normal for most musicians and most conductors, he was always looking for an expression that had a deeper meaning, a deeper significance, one that came out of looking behind what one can see just looking at the paper. He was bringing his experience of his research to his ideas. And his research was very careful – he wasn’t a man who had read just one book. I had many directors who said, Oh, I have read that, perhaps we should do this – well, one experience is not enough, so H brought a lot of experience to things. He said things to me like, Don’t put too many ornaments, Paul, I don’t like too many ornaments. I didn’t take too much notice of that with Handel, because it is traditional that the singer is very extrovert, very self-centred, and I would think that it was part of the music that singers would add ornamentation, quite a lot. On the other hand I had my idea that if I was the only person in the cast who did that it is crazy – you have got one singer doing nothing, and the next singer going crazy, so it’s all a question of balance. I have learnt more and more in my life, and life is a question of compromise. But there was once a compromise that h once made that I can be critical about. He was doing Julius Caesar, at the Theater an der Wien, and he did not use a countertenor, he used a baritone. And I said to him, How can you use a baritone for the alto role? When you arrive at the final duet, they are supposed to be singing in thirds, but you’ve got them singing in tenths – how is this possible? And he looked at me, and just shrugged his shoulders. And then I realised there was no point in discussing this, because there were other considerations – it was a political decision. It was mentioned to me before that the Viennese public were not ready for a hero to be sung by a man with a strange voice up there. Even though I had already done many concerts in Vienna, in the Musikverein – so he wasn’t prepared to fight for me to sing that role. But when we made the recording he chose me, not the baritone. There are politics involved in music, like in anything else in life, and I think he had to succumb to the politics in order to put on a production of JC in the Wiener Festwochen. (tells some details about his work with Mirdita and the Salzburger Landestheater doing Jephta, and that he does not remember too much about its musical side)


Next came the Monteverdi Zyklus in Zürich. Harnoncourt wrote me a letter – somewhere in my house I still have that letter – it said, dear Paul, we have just done Orfeo, Monteverdi, in Zürich, with JP Ponnelle directing – it was a great experience, and we are going to continue to do the other Monteverdi operas, and I would very much like you to come and sing the Ottone in Poppea – would you like to do this? So H invited me personally to come to Zürich. I don’t think P had any experience w countertenors. So, of course, it would be nice to sing an opera with H in Zurich, and I remember, it was my early years as a singer, and I didn’t have a lot of stage experience. I am talking about the stage side more than the musical side – I will tell you about the musical side in a minute. Ponnelle was very kind to me, I was very frightened of him, because had a reputation of being absolutely genau, which is good. Discipline on stage is very important because you feel more secure as a singer if you know exactly where you have to go – I knew where I was standing to the centimetre. (13:04)


AgM: That is something I noticed watching the film (of Poppea).


PE: I remember one scene where I have to come up to Ottavia, and she gives me a sword and says, (expressively, rhythmically) I want you to kill – Poppea! And she lets go of the sword, and I just catch it before it hits the ground. And we did 40, 50 shows all over Europe – never once did I drop that sword! Because it was so well rehearsed, the distance between us was marked exactly from our entrance, we knew exactly where we were – so you feel confident! It is that kind of exactness.

Now, on the musical side, H was always there, for every rehearsal – and not just H, the whole continuo section. So you didn’t have one man going bang, bang! on the piano, you had 4, 5 people, with harpsichord, fagot, cello, Riegel organ, lute – because it’s an intrical(?) part of the movement in recitativo, it’s flowing, so P said, I cannot work w a singer unless I know how he is going to deliver the recitativo, because it affects the actions on stage. So they worked together, the music and the acting was together. I remember that 1st experience with Poppea, it was 6 or 7 weeks rehearsal, because it’s a very long opera – with all the little solos it’s a cast of nearly 20 people. It’s a big opera in that sense – very concentrated, very long, but fascinating, I was so fascinated by it! Every night in the performance in Zurich I used to stand, after my first solo scene, I used to stand and watch the next 4, 5 scenes from the side, because I just loved to watch it! It was beautiful – (expressively) the music and the actions were married! They really were, because H and P understood each other’s language. P understood what H did on the musical side, with the musical expression. H did not cover it with any romantic ideas, and yet H had done his own orchestration, his own interpretation of what would have been a bare skeleton manuscript. He thought, what would they have been playing although the parts had been lost so to speak. So he enriched some of the more exuberant moments with obligati strings, or Blockflöte, or something like this, or the harp – and P fitted into that somewhat light texture, which is not the normal sound you would hear in a romantic opera. In a romantic opera it is a much heavier, fuller sound – like Puccini, the recitativo is accompanied. The nakedness of a recitative – it’s literally all about the text. Now the thing about Ponnelle – he could speak four languages fluently! So it was marvellous hearing Ponnelle working! One rehearsal he would speak four languages simultaneously: To me and a Schottish tenor he was speaking English, to Eric Tapier(?) and Rahel Yakar he would speak in French, to all the people from the opera house he was speaking German, and to one of the nurses, Minetto or Minetta, I always forget her name, he would speak Italian! It was amazing! And as I say, H was there.

Just to jump forward to the last opera we did with P and H. We all met in a rehearsal room in Zurich, to start with the Madrigalbuch of Monteverdi. We were all there, it was 10 o’clock, nobody dare be late for Ponnelle! We are there, P comes, right, where is Mister Harnoncourt? So the assistant says he has had a problem with the aeroplane from Vienna, he has been delayed. Right, well we cannot start, I’m not doing any production until I hear the music. I need to hear H’s idea of this music, otherwise I can’t do a production. And P was a very important stage director in the world, he was recognised as one of the leading stage directors for opera, and he would not start a rehearsal until he knew the interpretation of the conductor. Now, I don’t know if you know this, but in the “normal” opera the conductor doesn’t arrive until one week before the première. It’s a man going bang, bang! on the piano, everybody sings their arias (AgM laughing: quite pointless!) well, yes, you could say that! And the producer pushes people: You go here, and you sing your aria from here, then you put your arms around her, give her a big kiss, then you leave the stage left, then you come on stage right… – none of that! It was a total marriage of sound and music, which is what that period of music was: Drama in musica. It was very much the drama being part of the music, and vice versa.


AgM: …and you can see how each movement makes so much sense!


PE: Yes, and it was so exciting! And H would also use different instruments in different combinations at different times, to bring out what was happening on stage, whether there was anger, sadness, happiness – he put that already into his own orchestration.


AgM: And did he choose his own instruments?


PE: Yes, H had his own orchestra, in the sense that it was the Zurich opera house orchestra, not the Concentus, but it was only those instrumentalists who wanted to play. They had to play in Harnoncourt style. Now, a normal orchestra would say, I’m not interested, but those who wanted to play with an informed style of Baroque music, yes, you can come and play. And then he brought other people into it, and they called it the Zurich Monteverdi opera orchestra.


AgM: …and H reworked the score.


PE: Yes, he reworked the score – purists would say that it should just be continuo – bang, bang! One story that an early music musician told me: the director said to the conductor (not P and H): it says tutti instrumenti – “all instruments”! Oh, that means two harpsichords! (both laugh) Whereas H, at that point, would bring in the string instruments, the Blockflöte, and the harp, to get maximum colour contrast. What he did not try to do was to change any of the music into obliterate, because the baseline is by Monteverdi – you don’t change that, you try not to move away from the style of Monteverdi. I have done Monteverdi, also in Salzburg with Balalaikas and Trombones, where the recitativos were conducted in 1, 2, 3, 4 with that kind of obligate (sings dada-didi, dada,didi…) while there was somebody singing a recitativo. Well, that inhibits you as a singer, if you sing (sings an example) Io vorrei la tua… you know, you need to go with the language, s a wum! on a harpsichord is enough. If you get dada-dada on two oboes (sings an example), you slow the music down, you slow the action down, and you destroy the quality of the language. The recitativo is all about language! H was very respectful of what material Monteverdi had there. He felt that a lot of it was missing because of the time – after 350 years you don’t always find all of the same material – music is not always stored in the same place. Music wasn’t always printed. You would get certain editions that were printed for certain sections or things were lost in opera houses. So a lot of reconstruction is often necessary from manuscripts that you find in museums. But, it was fantastic to see P and H working together. As a singer you felt totally secure as you knew exactly what you were doing both physically and vocally on stage. That is the point I would like to emphasise about that relationship, that the singers – it made it marvellous! When I arrived at the opera house some of the singers said, Paul, it is very interesting that you are here, because you are a specialist in early music! Because H wrote in the Basler Zeitung: I am not taking any specialists for my operas, I’m taking ordinary singers. So I thought: Ah, that’s interesting that he takes me, as so-called “specialist” for his opera cast. But I, in those days – it is strange to say that – but I never considered myself a specialist. I consider myself a singer, and I think a singer has an obligation to understand the style of music he is singing. But of course, after 40 years of singing one particular period – i. e.  the baroque period – I do know a bit more about baroque music than I know about romantic music.

So that are the initial impressions I had working w Harnoncourt. (00:23:07)


AgM: …and you were probably there from quite early stages, as a singer – you saw the process of their (P and H) work developing.


P.E. Yes, well, generally speaking, you are only invited into the rehearsal studio when you are involved in a scene. You don’t necessarily see other people’s scenes. Maybe, if you arrive early, you creep in at the back and you see another person producing a scene. So you, at some times, see how it would develop. But you don’t tend to see some of the scenes until you start to do runs of big sections, like a whole act or something. Then you see how all the scenes fit together. It is unsatisfactory sometimes as a singer – you don’t see the whole picture until quite late in the process, which I’d say is the normal situation for many conductors when it comes to operas, that they don’t see it until it’s already fixed on the stage! That means as a conductor you have no choice about musical… you know, you think a singer is going to come in – oh no, he is coming in a little later, he has to run up and turn the clock of the (not clearly audible) or something, oh, so you wait – how long do I have to wait? 10 seconds? Oh, alright, I wait 10 seconds! But, you see, where is the motivation in waiting 10 seconds? If he is there at the deciding moment, when they are doing this on stage, when they are rehearsing it, the conductor can say, “hang on, that is too long to wait!”, because the music demands more activity there, “Ah!”, you say – the stage producer – “then I do something different there.” That’s why I’d say it’s such a phantastic relationship between P and H.


AgM: Because they didn’t make life difficult for each other.


P.E. No, it was full cooperation, and mutual respect and understanding – I think that’s… like a marriage – like a marriage SHOULD be! You know?


AgM: Yes, I do! And how about Dido and Aeneas – because that was a different Regiesseur?


We did that in Graz. No, they put me at the top of the stage, where the lighting is – I had nothing to do with the production. They put me…they said, “yes, oh, we want a spirit! I want you right away (not clearly audible)…


AgM: …so you weren’t visible?


PE: No, no. But I did an earlier one, with H, in Amsterdam! We had already done it years before, in Amsterdam – that was also w Federico Mierdita. There I had a lot more on the stage – they prepared me on the stage, because the witch said, “I think (check score) looking like Mercury”, so I came on the stage and they put a costume on me, prepared my face. Yes, that was… in a way, it’s difficult, I have always been very self-sufficient as a singer – I prepared myself well, I had my own… I had a good feeling for style, so H didn’t have to say much to me. He said a lot to other singers. I can tell you a little story: once we were doing Monteverdi, and he said to all these singers on the stage during one of the musical rehearsals, “ a dot in the music means a rest!” “ha, a rest! A dotted note! Oh!” All the singers looked at me because they knew I was … “Paul, what does he mean?” So I quickly translated from an instrumentalist’s concept to a vocalist’s concept: it means a diminuendo (sings) a rapid diminuendo, to give life to the music. A dot is a relaxation within a note. Now, in Romantic music, often you sing through the dotted note (sings) – so it’s a different style. What else? Another interesting story somewhere, I was going to say to you… I forgot now… Oh yes, we were doing Saul in Zürich, we did Saul, yea? So he did this one duet, for soprano and alto, David and Michal, the one he is going to marry at the end. And we had this happy duet in 6/8, and H did it very slowly. “Oh”, I said, “Niki”, I said, “it’s very difficult to sing that, because they’re very happy, and they want to dance about –“ “Paul, you’re right!” (both laugh) Oh my God, I was so shocked! Oh!


AgM: And did he change it?


PE: Yes! Straight away! Amazing, because you see, in those days – I have changed, I am a senior person musically now – people ask me my opinion more than when I was younger – but I never used to say anything to conductors! A singer must not speak to a conductor! You do what a conductor tells you, yea! But sometimes you feel, I need to say something, because something feels wrong, like it’s not going to work, and yes,…


AgM: You felt you could!


P.E. Yes, I felt I could, because I felt strongly about it, I felt he hasn’t taken into consideration that we two characters (sings, demonstrating the difference) – it’s almost sad! And I wanted it to be happy!


AgM: That’s quite interesting, because he is known for taking things a lot more slowly than many – I remember, for example, in the Zauberflöte again, the Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen, that’s very, very slow and in a different world, whereas most productions show them… But they are dreaming about someone else, they don’t have anything to do together, for him it was in a different…, very slowly, very quiet.


PE: H is a thinker, you see, he thinks about things. I mean, because you say slowly, yes, and things have got fast – but things have changed in the baroque world, they’ve become faster and faster and faster and faster –


AgM: Nowadays, you mean?


PE: Nowadays, yes, because things that Niki did 30, 40 years ago, people are doing even faster – because one of his cantatas, I remember, on the BBC, they were doing comparisons of other people’s recordings, and one aria he did – not w me, but w another voice – was just twice as fast as some other famous recordings – so, he makes up his own ideas about tempi, and why not? Because you don’t follow other people’s conventions – you follow your own feelings according to YOUR knowledge and experience of that music –


AgM: Hopefully!


PE: Yea, because that’s what music is about, it’s discovering what you think the composer wants out of that music. It’s trying to follow the train of thought of the composer because, I try to tell my students, the composer is number one, what he writes is your starting point, it’s a Frechheit to… – I can’t think of the English word! – to assume that you know better than the composer.


AgM: What if the script is not very clear? If it’s a very old piece?


PE: That’s always a problem! Well, you tend to dig around in other works that that composer has written to try and solve those particular problems. There might be a similar tempo or movement in some similar work, where you think, well, he probably might have meant something like this. Normally those things are usually only some small details, like a note is wrong or something like that, it’s not usually big things. But often manuscripts are unclear – composers were in a hurry, like we are today! “I want this for the weekend” You know, poor Haydn has to write fast!


AgM: Or Bach!


PE: Or Bach! “I want this for Sunday!” “Oh my God! And he wants an obligato trumpet part? Oh my goodness!” So he writes it out. So it’s not always clear what notes they were – that kind of thing.


AgM: Do you think it’s still set in stone? Do you think he probably wrote that in a hurry and ideally he would have written something else?


PE: Well you see, everything is meant to be set in stone – but then, 10 years later, they change the stone!


AgM: oh dear! (laughs)


They do, yes, because more things come to life, more evidence comes, more research is discovered. At the moment, at this moment of time, we know exactly what it is. But 10 years later it’s different.


AgM: Exactly.


PE: That’s the fun of life! But… I tell you something that H once said in a restaurant, when he was talking to the (searching for the word) producer? (Aufnahmeleiter)


AgM: You tell me!


PE: He was asked by this man – I have forgotten his name! – what do you think about so-and-so a musician – do you think he is very good? “He has no phantasy!” and I have always remembered that, and I have tried to pass that onto my students. It’s no good being brilliant and good technique, clear diction, lovely instrument – but where is the phantasy? If that creativeness… that is difficult to describe – you are either born with it, or you learnt to develop it – it’s something that comes from you inside and comes out into your way in which you perform that music. Phantasy – it’s the ability to be free within a framework, it’s a bit like rubato in music – rubato of the brain, phantasy, that you have the freedom to do something totally extraordinary, and yet you are not breaking the rules – but you are stretching them to the maximum.


AgM: When people talk about expressing feelings, do you think that’s –


PE: Yes, it’s the same thing if you like, yes, but you see, it’s like I was saying to somebody today – one favoured Italian term we use: espressivo – I said, what does it mean? And this girl said, “expressively”. Yes, but what does “expressively” mean? What does it mean? What do you do? Do you stand on one leg? Do you switch all the lights out? What does espressivo mean? Nobody knows what it means! I know what it means: It means you have to do more with the crescendos and diminuendos. You have to be more… more contrasts! To make it more dynamic in the sense – not dynamic in the sense of loudness – but dynamic in the sense – it’s like phantasy again, if you like – it’s that word –


AgM: or alive?


PE: More alive! Which means, whatever you are doing, right! I want a lot more of it! You know? – espressivo!

H’s music is always espressivo – he takes everything, and he makes it – just like that, but more so! If it’s slow, it’s very slow, if it’s fast, it’s very fast. And when he does something, he does it with – good word in English – panache! (Both talk briefly about the etymology of “panache”) With style, with a spark of genius! It’s not just doing it, it’s done with conviction, and with,… je ne sais quoi! That’s what we say in English – in French especially! It’s taking something to the ultimate, if you like! And that’s why he inspires you – and also, …no, I was going off a different tangent there.


AgM: If you like?


PE: No, it wasn’t a good thing I was thinking there…


AGM: How about other conductors you worked with, is there anything you can compare?


PE: Here’s an interesting one: I think I am not alone as a singer, or as a musician, in saying that conductors are not liked! Because once, they are dictators, they tell you what to do, and – they are always wrong, aren’t they? (both laugh) They get everything wrong! (35:50) My brother used to play in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, cello, and they had a modern composer. He brought his piece along, and they had to play it, and this arrogant young composer said, “You are not very good!” – to the BBC Symphony Orchestra! – “You are not doing the right thing that I put into my score! Follow me and do what I show you!” They said, “alright, we’ll follow you!” So they followed him – it fell apart! Of course! Because, conductors – it’s very easy to become absorbed in yourself and in your own glory. I am conducting now and I feel that power has a very strong pull – like being a prime minister! Wow! The power factor, oh! But see, H’s motivation was purely on getting the best out of the music. And I know with his Concentus musicus – they were all friends! They grew up together! The stories I heard about in their early days his house would be a cresh(?)! They’d bring their little children along, somebody would be looking after them, Alice would be cooking the meal and playing the violin at the same time – it was like a large family! And these were people mainly from the Wiener Symphoniker, and they wanted to explore this area of early music, they had that in common, because they were all fascinated and interested. Niki was the one with the expertise who had done a lot of studying and reading. They experimented how they could get the instruments, who would copy them to reconstruct them, the style – how would they have played it, with this non-vibrato sound, and what would the tuning be? You don’t tune like a modern orchestra is tuned, it’s different tuning. So those early days must have been very exciting, working to discover how THEY thought it should be, (37:50) because – very different schools – there is another school in Amsterdam, probably people in Paris were working… in England, we were very heavily into Renaissance music with people like (thinking) it will come to me later, so – David Manroe, I worked with him a few times, he died very young, unfortunately. But we were very heavy, at the same time, into Renaissance and Medieval music, but the mid till late baroque was what H was doing, along with Leonhardt in Amsterdam, and they were doing a lot of development in order to make recordings, because things you would have heard on recordings were a little cruet (look up meaning!), meaning that people of an almost amateur standard, who couldn’t play in a Symphony orchestra, would say, let’s play some little Vivaldi, some Telemann or something. H wanted to do it seriously on a professional level, and the people he was working with were professional musicians, who were already at a high standard on their modern instruments. So this wasn’t a get-out or another way to earn a living, it was done for reasons of wanting to make the music live, and that’s an interesting thing: with H music does live. And I, in my early days on the English scene, working with different conductors, we would do a lot of Händel oratorios, and when we get to the da capo, the repeat of the aria, “oh, it’s a bit long, let’s cut it out” – (AgM: No!) – oh yes!… everything was cut – “let’s cut the introduction of the orchestra, it’s too long!”. There wasn’t the understanding, or the expertise, to make the music LIVE, it didn’t live! It was like bringing something out of a museum, saying “that is old!” “really?” “Yes, it is old! Now we are going to have a cup of tea!” But that is not the reason – OLD is not interesting, it’s “what does it do?” That’s what it DOES!


AgM: And it shouldn’t sound like it’s old!


PE: No!


AgM: It should sound like it’s burning right now!


PE: yes, because when these instruments were built, they were living, they were doing something! I did a recording of Schumann, Liederkreis and Dichterliebe, with Nicholas McGeeger(??) in Budapest, Hungary. They took a Graf piano out of a museum – it was from the same year, or one year difference, from when Schumann wrote those cycles, and they restored it, it took them 6 months to restore it. It wasn’t perfectly restored, they could only get the pitch up to about 432, 434, because the wooden soundboard would have cracked if the would have put it any higher in pitch. But the quality of the sound – it was so soft, so gentle, a wooden… it’s like hearing the difference between a modern transverse flute and a baroque flute – a different sound! The piano was sympathetic to the words and the music of the text – you get a modern Steinway or Yamaha on a concert platform, one of those three-meter things – the sound hits you in the face, it’s demanding, so you can’t be subtle, you can’t be so warm and tender – the sound was another world!

And this was what H was experimenting with, it was a different world-sound, a different sound within our perception of that period. When you have a different style, a different period, different instruments that are capable of doing different things, when you have baroque violins, you can go much faster with no vibrato. Different bow – you can move across the strings very quickly. So articulation becomes easier, faster, more florid, more exciting – the crescendo is done with the right hand with the bow, not with intentive vibrato like a modern violin would do, it would give you more vibrato with the left hand – that’s not the way in baroque music, so H was experimenting w all these things. And it brings the music alive! And this is the interesting thing: my agent was saying to me many years ago “Paul, I thought early music was a flash in the pan (just for a few years and it’s gone)? No it’s ten, 15 years and it’s still growing strong – I’m surprised!” he said. But it’s because it speaks to people! And now our public is educated – they know what they are listening to, they like it, they want more, they understand the difference between good and bad performances amongst early music ensembles. (43:08)

The world has come a long way! I think a lot of conductors and musicians, when Early Music started in the 40ies and 50ies, “this is like a craze, like the mini skirt and rock `n` roll, it will go after a few years – but no! And it’s because it’s living, and that’s the important thing, it’s not dying.


AgM: And would you say H brought that to England as well? I suppose there is a very long tradition (of Early music).


PE: Uuuuh, no, you see, we are very isolated in England – we do our things our way, and the only place where the Monteverdi operas came to the UK was in Scotland. It was some of the worst reviews he received from various critics. They thought they knew how to do Monteverdi better, because we would do our Monteverdi differently in England – of course we would, everybody does it differently.


AgM: And how would you do it? Can you describe it?


PE: It would not be done in the kind of lavish, colourful way that H did, because H, though he is a North European man, you can almost imagine that he has a temperament of a Latin, Mediterranean person, yea?


AgM: Yes, or South-eastern European!


PE: Maybe – I feel it in Europe – if I want a cold, sedate kind of thing, you would probably start in England and go up to Scandinavia, North Germany or something. You would get down to Italy, Spain, Portugal, get down to the hot climates, to get more of the Latin temperament – the music is much more… passionate, alive, earthly! It’s to do with people’s lives! I mean, I look at English church music, how we praise God in our churches – very cool, oh dear, it’s the Englishman who doesn’t tell you anything about himself, that’s how (not clearly audible) now, when you get to church music of the Latin – and I’ve done a lot of it – it’s much more passionate – it’s secular music with the sacred words! And that’s how it should be performed – with earthly feelings! Not pure, pure, no crescendos, not too many ornaments, nice sedate tempos, because God is holy – “don’t wake God up, because he’s asleep” – you know? So I think it’s different, and H was admired by lots of people, but I think it took a long time for people to embrace him – but of course he has a lot of fans in Britain! When he started his Cantata series, and those recordings were released by Telefunken(?), that opened many people’s eyes to the possibility of doing Early music in another way – if you like, taking these books off the shelf and blowing all the dust off them – and they’re new, not dusty! Or like a painting, it’s not a dark, grey picture – you take the grime of years off, and it’s a bright, colourful picture! And that’s the reality, that music became much more vibrant, alive – and yet he has a big (not clearly audible) now, he has been doing things with one of the big London orchestras – Beethoven concertos… he has never done operas here!


AgM. No! Strange enough…


PE: No…


AgM: So you would say the English tradition is very independent?


PE: We are very reluctant to embrace what is happening on the continent, because we have an isolationist’s attitude – if anything is going to happen it’s going to happen here first! I have had experiences like this all my life! I wanted to do an opera for Opera North once, and I wanted to do it with a tenor friend of mine, it would be nice – but then the opera said, “But Esswood hasn’t done any operas!” – I said, “Come on! What nonsense! I have done operas in Stuttgart,…”, they said, “What have you done in Stuttgart?” I said, “Philip Glass, Akhnaten, world premiere in Stuttgart!” They came back: “Oh no, he didn’t do that, that was so-and-so at the English National Opera!” They thought at the ENO was the world premiere! I did the world premiere in St, but St doesn’t exist for England – and it’s one of the big houses in Europe! That’s how it is! That water, that English channel –


AgM: …does a lot!


PE: …not only protects us, it also divides us, so we are not necessarily European – mentally – in Britain! It is a problem. And I have done things, I conducted Dido and Aeneas at the Academy here about 20 years ago, and someone came up to me, and they said to me, “Huh, I can see H’s influence on you, Paul!” – I was astonished! I did not know what he meant! How could my interpretation of Dido have anything to do with H? But looking back over the years, what they meant was that my performance was not a typically English performance. It was too extrovert, it was too full of innovative ideas – which H is a master of! H doesn’t say: “Oh, that goes like this, because I have heard it like that” – no, H asks, “Why should it go like that, why should it be like that? Because my experience of the composer is this – how it was in the 17th, 18th century” – he puts it into context if you like – and that leads you to another conclusion. I mean, my voice – countertenor – I hear a lot of English countertenors, and we have a strong tradition in England of countertenors singing in churches – but if you want to be a soloist you have got to forget how you sing in an English choir: very reserved, very correct, very nice, very beautiful – but no passion allowed!


AgM: Perfect sight-reading!


PE: All the technique is perfect! But where is the phantasy, the passion, the earthiness?


AgM: Not in church! (49:54)


PE: Not in church! But they’re wrong, because as soon as I cross the water it is in the church! As soon as I set my foot into Europe, all the European composers, that music is earthly! I feel it! And H was one of the influences for me on that, to see that it is secular music! Just because it is in church it does not mean it is to be with that attitude “Don’t touch!” – That’s our attitude. But no, that’s not H’s attitude! He sees the music for what it is – as music! And music is expressing the words. Now, sacred words are just as expressive as secular words – if you say, “Hilf mir!” for example, hilf mir, Jesus, or Maria – that is as strong as “Hilf mir, Adfolfo” in some opera, isn’t it?


AgM: Because a human being is saying it! (50:48)


I guess it is hard to differentiate between (not clearly audible) H’s operatic work, his concert work and his sacred work, because sacred work for him is still drama, is still opera – and it is for me! Everything I do, the words are number one, the words always come before the music – the composer starts with the words! Words are then expressed through music. So it doesn’t matter whether you are on a stage or whether you are in a concert, its still drama, it’s still dramatic. If you are going to suddenly take the drama out of concert work just because it’s a concert or sacred works, the you lose half the value of that interpretation which is the imagination that the composer can put in to expressing those words through the music, so it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Bach Cantata or a Händel Oratorio, or Mozart, Haydn or Vivaldi’s sacred works – it’s dramatic work!


AgM: So your own conducting – so you would say it is not very influenced by Harnoncourt?


PE: (Pensive) Yes, it is! – But it is influenced by other people as well.


AgM: Or you probably developed your own style?


PE: The thing is, one does not analyse where the influences come from. I just analyse what it is I want to do – but then you have to say, “Why am I like this?”(52:42) I am only like this because of the influences around me. But when you take all these influences, out them in a pot, shake the pot up – then you roll out the dice: you get a different combination! So I am doing my thing, my way, but all the influences are probably more apparent to other people than they are to me – because I am a product of all my experiences, that’s what human beings are, isn’t it? You can be a product of your experiences and your imagination. So I let my experiences and my imagination go as far as I dare, within the confines of historical knowledge… Have I expressed that well? (AgM: Nods: “Yes”!) Because I think it’s important to be faithful to the original concept, the original idea – because only that way are you going to do justice to the music! If you just put down your own colours onto a painting, why do a Madonna and child? You might as well do a Picasso version –

I was in Poland some months ago working with a young stage director – strangely with Dido and Aeneas – I cannot tell you some of the things he said to me, it was not even printable! But he… two of the things he said during the conversation was 1) “I don’t care about the music” (AGM: No!), second thing he said was “I don’t care about the text”! (AgM: Incredible!) So I said to him, “Why do you do Dido and Aeneas? Why don’t you do a modern work?! He wanted to get through a philosophy! And his philosophy was – I won’t tell you about it because it’s just absurd!


AgM: But where did it come from if it doesn’t come from the piece?


PE: It came from a book he read, about Greek philosophy! He read about Greek philosophy, so that’s what he wanted to set on stage – but I saw it on the stage, I saw a video of it before I did it… it was `as clear as mud´ as we say in English! Nobody in the audience would have understood that philosophy! It just looked like a mess to me. So you have to start with the basic premise that whatever material you have, it is a privilege to have that material as a starting point. Don’t destroy the ideas of the words and the music because you have a ´better` idea! Because the chances that you have a better idea are… unlikely! Because we are lesser mortals than Bach and Händel and Monteverdi and Mozart – we are lesser mortals! So I wanted to be faithful to what they have put forward, but I also need to find a way to really understand what it is they mean, because notes on a paper don’t tell you that much, do they? They really don’t! You have to have a lot of experience as well as knowledge in how to bring it alive! That’s the great thing about music, it’s not like painting! Painting you can’t change. People have different interpretations in their mind when they see a painting, but the painting stays the same. Music doesn’t stay the same! Everyone put it into sound, but it sounds different from one conductor, one orchestra to another. It’s quite interesting, really! It’s the same music, but it’s differently done. And of course, some people like one interpretation better than the other. But what H – back to NH again – I think he created a new understanding of the sound and the vitality of the music which wasn’t there before. And part of that of course was experimenting with old instruments, because that opened up a new chapter, opened up a new possibility for the sound picture – they do make a different sound, I mean I work with modern orchestras and baroque, and on a modern orchestra I can get them to do very interesting things – but it never sounds like a baroque orchestra. And you can’t say what’s better – which is better, fish or meat? It’s just different – of course it’s different. I love a modern orchestra, but I also like that shapes of baroque music, and sometimes early instruments are better at creating shapes mainly because the musicians playing the instruments understand it – whereas you get the musicians playing on the modern instruments, they are not necessarily doing that exclusively – the are doing Verdi, Puccini, Wagner the next day, and that is where their bread and butter and their understanding is. So you ask them to play Händel, Bach, Monteverdi – they haven’t got the understanding. And you say, “do this on the string, do that on the string” – they do it, but it doesn’t sound the same, because they don’t understand why. And comprehension is necessary, isn’t it? I can get some of my young students to make lovely sounds and shapes, but it’s not convincing, because they are not convinced, they haven’t got the shape of the music into their body, the swing of the music or something – they make lovely crescendos, accents – but it all sounds cold and calculated.


AgM: And do you use modern and old instruments when you conduct yourself?


PE: Yes, yes. (58:25) It depends what I’m offered. Some towns say, “Will you conduct our chamber orchestra to do this work?” I say yes, and it is interesting for me because with a modern chamber orchestra with little or no experience of baroque music, I have to explain everything! That means I’m learning! If they say, “We have this fantastic baroque orchestra, come and conduct” – there is nothing for me to do – I lift my hands, they start, they’re fantastic! Because they know! I am a little… I am not sure whether you should say this, but I am a little arrogant sometimes, I say, all these well known early music specialists, they don’t need to know anything, because the musicians around them are so fantastic! There are so many good instrumentalists now in Europe that are playing early music – thousands! In London alone there must be 4, 5, 6 early music orchestras – when I started, there wasn’t even one! And then there was half a one! And then they said, yes, we have a baroque orchestra but we can’t find an oboe anywhere, we have to bring one from America. I remember one famous American oboist who died young as well – he also worked with H a few times – he died young. But there is such a shortage of oboists! Now there is plenty of good oboists – I think the world has changed fast! It is an important part of our musical culture, the early music scene has become a very vital part of music making.


AgM: And very popular! Maybe more accessible to people who don’t necessarily go to the opera.


PE: Yes, I think early music is easy on the ear. If you listen to Wozzeck or Wagner – well, Wagner should be easy but it’s not – Strauss or something, for people who don’t normally listen to music, that’s not easy to understand! You put a Händel opera on, or a Vivaldi opera – the music is a tune with a nice, simple harmony – initially, basically! And they can understand, so it’s popular in that sense. For the public it’s easy music. But as you say, critically, the public are demanding more and more understanding of the performance to get a stylistic presentation, because that is something the public have learnt now, that early music does have its own style. I tell my young students, I say tastes change, but styles don’t. A baroque style is always a baroque style. The way we interpret it, in 20 years time it might be differently, because our tastes have changed, we want it to be more this way or that way, because of how we are – like fashions change – long skirts, short skirts, it changes! A skirt is a skirt, but it changes. But if you want to put on a presentation of a Victorian or a Renaissance performance, you have to have the right clothes – so that doesn’t change when you come to the style: that is set, you can read it in the book, how they were dressed, or, with our knowledge now, of reading different people’s experiences in the 17th, 18th century listening to music and reconstruction of the instruments – we hope we are getting an understanding of how the style was – how we interpret it, that is our taste in the year 2008 – that is how I try to see it.(01:02:18)


AgM: Could I still ask you one more question? (PE: Yes.) Regarding your role as a countertenor, do you think there is something very special about that sort of voice and that sort of character that is somehow in between male and female – like a perfect mix in a way? (PE strongly: No) No? You wouldn’t say so?


PE: I said this 40 years ago in Berlin to a newspaper man: I am a singer first, and countertenor second. I can’t help my voice. (AgM: Laughing with surprise) God gave it to me. People say, “God didn’t give you that voice”, but he did! It’s a natural phenomenon of the male voice to sing an octave higher: I didn’t choose my voice – I find it more natural to sing in that voice than in my base voice. I find to sing basely very fremd, very foreign for me. So that’s where I always have sung, and… it has nothing to do with sexuality at all. It’s difficult that people find it effeminate: that means you have to fight a lot of prejudices. So I have always been very careful in the kind of music I have sung – I don’t sing female songs, I sing male songs, because I want people to take me seriously – I’m a serious singer, wanting people to understand that I am a man, singing male roles, singing man’s music, just happen to be higher than lots of other voices – higher than the tenor, baritone and base. But otherwise that’s where it ends. I know the historical context is slightly different because we have to talk about the castrati, but that’s another story and that would take us another hour to talk about! You could argue that I had a possibility to make a bigger impact in the world, because when I started there was only about one or two other countertenors, so the world was at my feet so to speak. But on the other hand I have to produce the good, I have to be good – there is no good being mediocre or moderate! Musicians, critics, connoisseurs, enthusiasts don’t want a second-rate counter tenor in preference to a good mezzo-soprano. There is no good being second anything – you got to be the top! And my models were the great singers of the day. I wasn’t interested in other counter tenors because there weren’t any other counter tenors to be interested in! So that was not a measuring stick for me at all. I wanted to get my technique sorted and I wanted to sing well in the perceived idea of what was good technique in the 1960ies when I started studying. And I think I have changed a lot over the years, I’ve changed a lot – how I sang then is very different to how I sing now, though I can still see the threads of the technique as the same. But I think I have become different in my interpretation, I’ve tried to become more espressivo, more extrovert, bigger contrasts – contrasts of beautiful things. It’s not good having a small contrast because it’s not seen or heard, because you want a full range of possibilities when you are doing anything artistic – you want to go from this extreme to that extreme. So I try to stretch myself – that’s why I have done modern music, Renaissance music, medieval music – I’m stretching myself, because you don’t know what your limitation is until you try! I’ve tried everything just about! But I must say, I love baroque music! But for the voice sometimes, I have loved singing Schumann, Schubert – but Schumann in particular, I just love it! Because it’s like the voice can actually ring a bit freer. There is a lot of restraint on the human voice when you are singing early music, it’s a bit clinical sometimes, with coloratura –


AgM: Technical!


PE: Very technical, yes! I want to get away from the technical onto the emotional side a bit more. But that’s just part of one’s development of character, isn’t it? It’s a character thing. Now I have to think the years are moving and I can’t always sing, and sing, and sing, so I’m doing less singing and more conducting! Because, as you know from today, I have a lot to say, I’m thinking a lot about my music – I want to give this experience to other people! In teaching and in directing, to try and create. What I am saying put into musical vowels. – We haven’t spoken very much about H, have we?


AgM: I think so, yes!


PE: Oh, alright… He is not an easy man to know! He would talk very enthusiastically, and then, two minutes later, he is gone! And you think, oh, what happened? I think his mind is very quick – I could never tie him down for a conversation. I don’t know whether this is to do with him being busy, or whether he had always problems with his health, because he has this Kreislauf problem. And Alice, his wife would say, Niki, we have to go now! She would rescue him, just when I was getting to talk with him – I was a bit frustrated by that, I wasn’t allowed to talk to him, to discuss something after the rehearsal had finished. There wasn’t a lot of relaxation time – he’s gone! Whereas I spend a lot of time talking to instrumentalists and things, because as a singer, instrumentalists were always behind me (in the concert setting), I have never seen them – 40 years and I have never seen an instrumentalist, they’re behind me! I used to turn around a lot, that’s very important in rehearsals, so I faced the orchestra so they could see me working – communicating so they could see what I’m doing. They think, oh my god, he is doing that with the phrase – they can see my face, my body language, that’s helpful! (01:08:56) (…) Now of course, I am conducting, what I find interesting is the different motivations among the instrumentalists, and they are very enthusiastic – some of them would come to me afterwards (01:09:32) and say, oh, when you said so-and-so, how did you mean that? Did you want us to do… and then we have a long conversation (…) I find it interesting (some details about his work w a certain cellist). The baseline is so important in baroque music, it’s sitting on the base, the way it is constructed. (…) It is very important not to be arrogant as a conductor – I am just one of them! I am the same as the rest of them, just the one with the responsibility to bring it together, but they have the responsibility of making sounds! I am only here to help.


AgM: And with H, was it more possible to… did you feel you were more equal? Could you voice your opinions more than with other conductors?


PE: H spends a lot of time working with the orchestra, asking them to do different things. I was listening to that. But to me personally he didn’t say a great deal about my style of singing. I think he was generally content with what I was doing, so I think I was receiving things from him buy watching him working with other singers or working with orchestras – it wasn’t a direct conversation as such… sounds a bit arrogant, doesn’t it? (AgM: No…I believe you!) I can’t think of many things that he said, like Paul, would you do that or Paul, would you not do that. I put some appoggiaturas in some Bach once – (loud)“What are you doing??” – I thought, right, doesn’t like that! And then that comment about not too much ornamentation in Händel – fine! And we did a lot of oratorios, I didn’t do a lot of ornamentation; as soon as I started doing operas I did a lot more cadenzas – and yet, I watched him – I remember when we did the Saul in Zurich, the tenor has a big aria, that’s the part of Jonathan, did a big cadenza, he has a sort of aria in several sections (…) Alice was always leading the orchestra with Niki (01:13:16) – she copied him! (…) It was like a competition, like a conversation!


(Das muss man vielleicht erklären, denn PE hat viel vorgesungen zur Erklärung: es war eine Tenorarie und Alice Harnoncourt spielte die konzertierende Violine, und sie improvisierten zusammen)


So where does this fit into the theory when NH says, not too much ornamentation? What does he mean? (…) Ornamentation does not mean rewriting a piece, it means “to ornament”, and with an ornament you can still see the original foundation, you mustn’t destroy the original. So maybe he was giving me a warning, like “don’t go too far” or something…


AgM: Maybe – or maybe Alice wanted more, maybe she thought about it differently than he did – because she has a lot to say!


PE: Aaah – well, he allowed her to do it, and my wife was in these performances, she was in the choir, she said, H – his face was lit up with excitement, it is lovely to see people having a little musical competition – (…) I think Niki liked those kind of things, that fits into his concept of music being alive, now! – You can’t generalise and say a man will always say this or that. You know his recordings of the four Bach (overtures) suites? After 15, 20 years he re-recorded them all again, because he was not happy with his own interpretation – why? Because his ideas have changed – and that’s important: you must not be stuck as a musician! As an artist, you are always developing, changing. The day you stop is the day when you are dead as an artist! You must not think “this is how I do it”, because next year you might do it differently. You can change your mind, because it’s living – like we are living! And because we are living, we are changing! You work with the same in two years time, you will be a different person, whether you like it or not! So it’s marvellous that he re-recorded his own works again – they are not definitive – they are only definitive when he actually did it! But a year later – when I listen to some of my recordings I think “Why did I do that ornament? Why did I sing that phrase like that? Why did I do that?” Well, at the time I thought it was the right thing to do! Now I would do it differently – that’s alright! It’s just – I don’t want to hear it! (both laugh) Let somebody else listen to it!


AgM: Are you able to see any continuous development in his work? Would you be able to say how he developed? (PE: Ooh, that’s a difficult one!) That’s a difficult one, because now many people say, why does he conduct Nabucco, why does he do Lulu – because he started off with early music, why does he do Aida…?


PE: Well, I can’t answer with his own personal motivations. Maybe he is ehrgeizig – ambitious? Or maybe, what I would like to think – when you have discovered how music began, you bring it through a natural development. Through Mozart, Haydn, into Beethoven – now most musicians go into early music, then they play Chopin on the piano, and then they go and play Bach afterwards – and the Bach sounds like Chopin! But they start here, towards the end of Western music, and they go backwards! Really you should start at the beginning! When you read a book, do you start ¾ a way through the book? You start at the beginning of the book! It’s the same with music, you start with medieval and Renaissance music, and the mid baroque and late baroque – that is the preparation, where the Rococo comes from. Where does Mozart get his ideas from? He got them from what happened before! Not from what happened after! No! H is not alone – Norrington is doing it, Hogwood is doing it, J E Gardiner – they all moved out of the Early music period into later periods.


AgM: And they carry on.


PE: And they carry on! They bring their ideas with them into a new genre, into a new performing style, but it’s a natural progression, and I think there is nothing wrong with that, it’s a natural way to go forward – anyway, you don’t want to do the same thing all your life! (01:18:30)

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