The British conductor talks about letting his imagination roam through the worlds of Buxtehude and Pelles Gudmundsen-Holmgreen
What are Buxtehude's Scandinavian Cantatas like, and why have you decided to record them with the Theatre of Voices?
A friend of mine, who’s a violone player in Denmark, had the idea. He’d gathered together a number of pieces that had distinct connections with Denmark or Sweden. One or two of the pieces are in Latin, and two are in Swedish. That was the initial impulse and in fact I plan it to be the first in a series of recordings over the next five or six years on Buxtehude and his circle. There’s a lot of good Buxtehude that nobody performs enough.
Is that because it's tough to perform?
One of the reasons is that the scores are still not readily available in good collected editions. It’s getting there, but for his status it’s surprising. Is it tough? In a sense no music is easy. Even when the notes are easy, all music is hard.
What I try to do with the Theatre of Voices is make sure we have enough concerts to get to know the music and experiment with it so it becomes familiar. We're not just doing these Buxtehude pieces because they’re in a library somewhere. You need to get into it and let your imagination roam freely.
There’s the famous anecdote of Bach walking nearly 200 miles to hear Buxtehude play. What’s so great about his music?
What I like about Buxtehude is his sense of imagination. There’s a kind of fantasy element in his music. He writes very well ordered, clearly structured music, with wonderful fugues, but somehow there’s this little bit of – not exactly mischief – but you can see he’s enjoying writing the music. I feel that comes across to the performer.
There’s also the basic fact that he has good ideas – melodic material and musical gestures – that are used in interesting ways. Funnily enough, I’ve always been fond of his music, but I think it was listening to records of his organ works that made me understand why Bach went. There’s so much in it, apart from the fact that it’s incredibly well made.
How do you jump from Buxtehude to performing choral music by the contemporary Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen?
They're different but that's one of the enjoyable things of doing music today: we're spoilt for choice. You could even say there's a kind of similarity in terms of a fantasy element in Buxtehude and Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, although the results are completely different.
I came across Gudmundsen-Holmgreen when I was working with Ars Nova in the late 1990s. I was immediately attracted to his Konstateringer (Statements), though it’s hard to say why. It’s a setting of some poetry that’s like concrete poetry – there’s a visual element to how it lies on the page. Somehow he manages to transfer that into music in a natural, clear way. The sound is compelling.
So what sparked off the idea for this new disc with Ars Nova?
I got to know some of his other pieces through Ars Nova and then a few years ago, for a concert called 'The Cries and the Birds', I commissioned him to write a piece that incorporated the street cries of Copenhagen. He came back with Three Stages. It’s amazingly imaginative, fun to do and hauntingly attractive. That was the big spark. I thought we had to a whole disc of his choral music.
His Four Madrigals from the Natural World, settings of the Australian poet Les Murray, are incredibly virtuosic and effective, when it comes off in performance. They’re bitingly tough. And The Octave of Elephants is an incredible piece. He’s an important composer who should be much more widely known in the choral world and elsewhere.
Interview by Rebecca Franks
YouTube: Paul Hillier discusses Buxtehude
Audio clip 1: Buxtehude: Latin Motet No. 3 'Accedite gentes'
Audio clip 2: Godmundsen-Holmgreen: The Octave of Elephants
Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega