The Handel Institute
The Handel Institute

Issue 7: December 2002

Interviews with William Christie, Paul McCreesh, Nicholas McGegan, and Trevor Pinnock

Introduction: During 2002 David Vickers interviewed a few conductors that like Handel a lot. Although some of the resulting conversations became public property thanks to and The Guardian, until now quite a lot of these interviews remained unused. The Christmas season seems like a good excuse to make them public, along with an apology that no new material has appeared for a while. This will be rectified in the New Year (in quite some style!).

William Christie
[A few days after a performance of Rodelinda at the Royal Festival Hall in London]

On the merits of Rodelinda in the modern theatre:

“It keeps the audience's attention - it appeals to 20th century stage directors. It stands very high in the pantheon of things. We've canonized a few operas such as the magic operas and Giulio Cesare, but there are so many great operas - Partenope is a glorious opera, and the second of version of Radamisto is tremendous! There is very little bad music, and with Handel you have a choice between youth and exuberance, or the wisdom of maturity.”

On the importance of Handel in his career:

“I don't think I've spent a year in my professional life without doing Handel - and in 2 years time we're doing a staging of Saul in Aix-en-Provence, hopefully with Andreas Scholl as David, Kurt Streit as Jonathan, and Franz-Josef Selig in the title role. I'm also doing Xerxes in Paris. A recording of Theodora has been made and will be coming out, but due to two other recent recordings will have to wait until the market can take it.”

Paul McCreesh
[Prior to a performance of La Resurrezione at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London]

On the Queen Elizabeth Hall:

“It’s always nice to work in London. We’ve worked at the Barbican more often in recent years, but we’ve worked here before and we’d be very happy to work here again. It’s just a question of, well, partly internal politics, not least because the O.A.E. [The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment] are lucky enough to work here regularly. It’s a good size, it’s got good space, and has a reasonably good acoustic.”

On La Resurrezione:

“What I’d love to do with La Resurrezione is to do it staged, which is how it was originally done. It’s not a big dramatic piece, but it could be really beautiful, and I’d love to be able to do it in a really beautiful setting. Of course we are doing it in Rome next week in a baroque hall. It is a piece I really love doing – I did it before about 5 or 6 years ago – and it will be great to perform it in Rome. I hope it becomes a more regular part in our repertory.”

On having to perform Handel theatre works with inadequate forces:

“We’ve got a big orchestra tonight by modern standards, but in many modern performances of Handel operas and oratorios the orchestra is generally too small. There’s one reason for that and it’s a five-letter word that begins with “M” and ends with “Y”. I absolutely despair – and it is partly, frankly, because there’s no desire in this country to do early music properly. We have many extraordinary wonderful players, and yet the whole industry is left to starve on the vine because nobody will support it. We’re all supposed to be making a million pounds from recordings - ha bloody ha! Which might have been true in the mid-80s with the Hogwoods and Gardiners, but at least they’ve got the royalties from the glory days that younger groups like us don’t have. None of the groups now are doing anything other than struggling. Why is it deemed completely normal to go across to the Royal Festival Hall tonight and hear Sibelius or whatever with 150 people on the stage, and you simply cannot countenance the idea of having a 60 or 70 piece baroque orchestra in London for more than perhaps one project a year? Until there’s the political will to support more specialist orchestras that are completely unsubsidized, until this is resolved - and frankly I have no confidence that it ever will be – we are not going to see Handel operas or oratorios done by the forces that they should be done. When we record these we do actually do them with orchestras with 20-25 violins - which is what one should use - but the reality is that we have to split the orchestra on tour so everybody gets a chance to play the piece because we can never afford to tour with the complete orchestra. It’s very frustrating. We have no home market here, so we can’t do it. When we did Solomon at the Proms 4 or 5 years ago it was fantastic: we had a huge orchestra with 10 oboes, 5 bassoons, a serpent, full brass and at least 40 string players. So we had about 100 people on the stage, which is hardly Zemlinsky or Gurreleider, but at the same time it makes a noise! You can do certain things with small forces and it sounds marvellous - you know I’m doing the Matthew Passion next month with a tiny orchestra and 8 solo singers, so it isn’t that I’m a size Queen. But it is frustrating that you can’t go to hear a Handel opera with enough string players in the pit. I’m doing Jephtha next year for Welsh National Opera, and I said to them that I was not prepared to countenance conducting a Handel oratorio, especially with a fantastic chorus like they’ve got, without an increased woodwind section - and because they are serious about it, they are happy to do that. So I’m lucky, but you still have to fight your corner, otherwise they look at the score and say ‘there are only two parts, so you only need two oboes!’”

Nicholas McGegan
[Prior to a concert of with the O.A.E. at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London]

On how concert programs are devised:

“The way this came about is that it is part of a series of concerts, and this one was originally called something like ‘Mr Handel’s Concertos’. It was actually put together, well, not really by me. So I’m just conducting it, though I made a few changes in it, and cut as many repeats as I could [laughs]. I suppose the idea of it is that you have a concerto grosso, then you’ve got one of the concerti per due cori, you’ve got an oboe concerto – which is being performed in this strange recently discovered Rostock version which has all sorts of previously dubious parts clarified, and this version of the concerto is having its premiere tonight – and then the Fireworks Music, which is not a concerto but is a good piece to do because it pulls in the audience. Then with the aria “Vo far Guerra” from Rinaldo - that’s as close as you can get to harpsichord concerto! The only thing we don’t have is an organ concerto, but there is only so much you can do.”

On the “Gloria” which he ‘premiered’ in 2001:

“Whether it is by Handel or not depends on to whom you talk. Personally, I don’t give a damn – I think it’s an extremely good piece of music; it’s beautifully written for the voice, and it might as well be performed rather than recorded. I think it’s nicer to listen to it in a concert rather than just on the radio.”

On why the O.A.E. concert was an opportunity for Dominque Labelle to sing “Ritorna, o Cara”:

“Unfortunately it was cut when we did a production of Rodelinda in Göttingen two years ago - only because the stage director [Igor Folwill] insisted. Yet the stage director’s concept was fine in every other way, and besides which these things are meant as productions, not as historical documents.”

On the impossibility of creating a truly representative evening of Handel:

“Handel is a very generous man in terms of the amount of music he wrote, and it is simply not possible to do justice to anything in only one concert. If you have a Handel oratorio, and you’ve only got one, do you have a sacred one or a secular one? If you’ve got to choose between Semele and Theodora – who are two ladies about as different as you can get, one’s a saint and the other’s a minx – you can’t get all of Handel into it. If you choose to represent Handel’s operas, do you choose Tamerlano or Xerxes? They are worlds away from each other. So to do one concert that is even vaguely representative of only one particular genre is bound to omit certain things.”

On performing a miscellaneous program more than once:

“Actually this week is rather fun. We’re doing this concert four times: in Bristol, London, Basingstoke, and Cambridge. So in actual fact the joy is doing a concert 4 times, as opposed to putting in the rehearsal investment and then you just do it once. That actually is a bit of a bore because the music is never allowed to grow. You plant the seed, and then you cull it. Very often with a dramatic piece things change quite radically over 3 or 4 performances. Roles grow. Sometimes they shrink. There’s a different energy for the last performance as there is for the first, just as there is with Shakespeare plays. So it is actually rather nice to do this music more than once.”

On the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment:

“This is my annual outing with the O.A.E. I did Scarlatti with them last year in Göttingen, and Haydn and Mozart the year before that. So it is rather nice to do Handel with them. We actually recorded 7 of the Opus 6 concerti grossi, but Virgin have so far only issued one CD of that. So there are still 3 more in the can somewhere, which make up half of a CD that they have paid for! But they’ve pulled the rug from under it, with only another 5 or 6 concertos to go. This is a pity because we’ve performed them all – we’re doing one of the unrecorded Opus 6 concertos tonight.”

On the recording industry:

“The record industry is in a mess, and to make CDs is no longer as worthwhile as giving performances. I personally listen to a lot of recordings that are made at concerts. I always find that recorded concerts are much more exciting in effect – particularly for a dramatic piece. The way an opera is usually recorded is to start the sessions with the final chorus because its got the most number of instruments and people in it, and then you sometimes end up with a day of recitatives at the end. Any idea of dramatic development is completely in the hands of the editor, which means it is non-existent of course because you cannot let a role grow by performing it backwards. The nice thing with some of the Handel operas we did in Göttingen for Harmonia Mundi is that at least we did four performances before taking them into the studio. So at least we did know how it worked. But the traditional way of recording it is based on economics.”

On why he likes working with the OAE:

“It’s a bit like driving a Porsche – you get incredible excitement just from sitting there, and I’m lucky because I conduct the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra as well, which is the American equivalent in a way. The thing that’s also terrifically nice is that because I trained in England and I’m British, I’ve known some of these people for 30 years. I’ve played in orchestras with them when I was a flute player, or a harpsichordist. So it is sort of like coming back to a club of which you are a member, but you are an overseas member – you see all your old friends and people you know when you drop in, but you don’t see them every day anymore. It’s a bit like being on holiday, and I love being back in London.”

Nicholas McGegan
[Another interview prior to the 2002 Göttingen Handel Festival]

On what makes the Göttingen Handel Festival special:

“It is wonderful to have a festival dedicated to one composer, and to be able to feature in any one year certain aspects of that man's music and personality. This year it’s ‘Handel and the French Influence’. The other special thing is, of course, Göttingen itself, which is an absolutely gorgeous town. A little bit like Cambridge in that it is a small University town, but its twin town is Cheltenham. There is no other town quite like it in England or Germany, and it's not a touristy town at all. It's also a very intimate festival - there is nothing really quite like it in England.”

On what distinguishes Göttingen from the other big Handel Festivals:

“Its main competition is Karlsuhe - which is quite different and is based in what is otherwise an opera house the rest of the year - and Halle: which is so enormous that you really can't take the whole thing in. At the Göttingen festival you can see everything in a long weekend, and absorb everything on offer. The London Handel Festival is much more spread out over time and location. So here Handel fans can take in 4 concerts in one day if they wish to - and many do!”

On experiencing an opera production at Göttingen:

“In the old days recordings used to come out of it, but over the years it has been quite interesting in that we've been able to do some research into how these things might have been staged at the time. It is nice not just to read about historical staging in books, but to experience it on stage - and we have a lovely theatre: it's a different experience going to a Handel opera in Göttingen than at the Coliseum, and it is even more intimate than Glyndebourne - not necessarily better, but just different. It is an experience that is very difficult to find in Britain. It is also to a very large extent an international festival - people come from all over the world to hear music performed by musicians who also come from all over the world.”

On Handel opera:

“Handel was a man of the theatre. His dramatic works really come alive when you perform them. I've never met a Handel opera I didn't like. Some aren't as critically admired as others, but sometimes when you put them on the stage you find new things you can't identify from the page. What I enjoy is deciding to put on an opera, and then being able to decide exactly who I want to be involved. It’s a bit like planning a dinner party and deciding who you want to invite. The rehearsals are great fun. It almost like organising a Murder Mystery weekend, but with music instead of the murder.”

On why Alcina was chosen in 2002:

“Since the festival does have a theme each year and we had the possibility of having a dance team come - one of the very best in the world - its seemed sensible to do one of the operas which was most concerned with ballet. We'd already done Ariodante and Arianna in recent years, so that only left one option - which happens to be one of the most marvellous operas Handel ever wrote. Maybe Teseo is more French, but Alcina hasn’t been done in Göttingen for a good many years. We decided to pair that with Athalia - which is very French because it is based on Racine.”

Trevor Pinnock
[After a performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in which he played the concerto on the ‘Handel House’ organ]

On being a soloist in an organ concerto:

“I've played Handel organ concert quite a lot over the last 30 years or so. I had an organ scholarship at the RCM [The Royal College of Music]. I didn't keep up playing the big organ, but have often used it for continuo purposes and in 18th century concertos. Yet when we recorded the Handel organ concertos, Deutsche Grammophon also had Simon Preston on their books, and wanted us to provide the orchestra for him. But I've often performed them in concert.”

On using the ‘Handel House’ organ:

“That was very interesting. This is an organ that has a typical specification of an organ of Handel’s time, which is very unusual to hear in a modern concert hall. Each individual pipe had to taken out, and carefully transported to the South Bank from St George’s Hanover Square, and then all moved back again. It is a much more painstaking process than with a conventional portable chamber organ, and the people who supervised the process of dismantling and rebuilding the organ for us said that they are unlikely to do all that again - it's a very difficult job.”

Relevant Links:

The Musicians:

Les Arts Florissants

The Gabrieli Consort

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

Göttingen Handel Festival

The English Concert

The News Stories:

The South Bank’s “Discovering Handel” Concert Series

“Best Show in Town” (Review of the 2002 Gottingen Handel Festival),3605,720698,00.html

Andrew Manze Succeeds Trevor Pinnock as Director of The English Concert


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