Justin Doyle Discusses Monteverdi with Mark Berry

RKC17_Justin Doyle Antritt GP01_Fotograf Matthias Heyde
Justin Doyle from the general rehearsal for Vespers (c) Matthias Heyde

For his first concerts as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the RIAS Chamber Choir, Justin Doyle finds himself very much in at the deep end: dual-venue performances of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers of the Blessed Virgin (at the Pierre Boulez Saal) and the Missa ‘In illo tempore’, with which it was published (just around the corner, at St Hedwig’s Cathedral). ‘Finds himself’, one might ask, or was he pushed? I was lucky enough to be able to do so, on the lunchtime in between the first, Friday evening performances, and the second ones on Saturday afternoon (the latter to be reviewed shortly).

Doyle first spoke enthusiastically about the ambitions of the Musikfest Berlin, of which these concerts were part, and admitted that he would not necessarily immediately have chosen to perform the Vespers in the Boulez Saal. ‘It was their idea,’ he said, ‘but a very interesting one.’ Not the least of its difficulties, for such a performance, is its oval shape. What might seem to be a circle – like, say, the basilica for the Mass – is not. When I attended the first half of the General Rehearsal on the Thursday afternoon, it was, Doyle told me, the first time that the performers had been in that space, and certain changes had to be made concerning seating; sometimes, he had found himself unable to make eye contact with the performers. For a performance involving quite a bit of moving around, matters were thus complicated further. Rehearsals involve a great deal other than merely rehearsing. In this case, too, it involved speaking to performers, radio engineers, and various others, in a language other than his own ‘With no voice too,’ I learned, adding only to my admiration. (Yes, I know that others must do the former all the time, yet for us Englishmen and –women, it often comes far less easily.) ‘Everyone in the choir speaks English,’ of course, ‘but I made a conscious decision, even though it was twenty-four years since I’d done German at school, that it breaks down a barrier and it shows a degree of humility’: something, it might be added, for which conductors are not always renowned.

I went on to ask which edition he was using: an especially fraught question in the case of this work – or rather, as I would doubtless correct any of my students, ‘collection’, itself a distinction that gets to the heart of the problems, as well as the opportunities. ‘It’s from OUP: Jeffrey Kurtzman,’ a performing score made, it might be added, after considerable time studying the questions as well as the sources. That, at least was the score the choir was using, but Doyle had clearly made a thorough investigation of his own: not only because he said so, but because he spoke so clearly, intelligently, and informatively concerning what he had done. He had consulted every edition and more than that: ‘There are not a lot of stones I haven’t turned over in the last six months. And I keep going back to the same stones and having another look, and changing my mind. Between the General [Rehearsal] and yesterday, I changed a lot.’ What sort of thing? Presumably not who was singing or playing what, and when? No, but quite a few changes, not least on account of the venues, with respect, for instance to the cadential fermatas. ‘Are they actually stop fermatas?’ Does, for instance, ‘the sound need to go somewhere? And there’s nowhere for the sound to go.’ The partbook, for example, tells us something different from the Chorstimmen.’ Kurtzmann ‘lets you into his decisions, but … doesn’t box you into a corner. His notes are very useful and his book is exemplary. He shows his own ambivalence about certain performing decisions and his reasoning is always sensible.’ Just, then, what is needed for a particular performance in a particular – especially a rather unexpected – performing space.

Katharina Bäuml, the leader of the instrumental ensemble, Capella de la Torre, had also contributed, however. ‘She produced the instrumental parts, because we decided to do quite a lot of colla parte’ playing, that is (usually), when conductor and/or instrumentalist should follow the tempo and indeed rhythm of the vocal soloist(s). That made a nice contrast, Doyle thought – and such had been my experience in the rehearsal – with the use of only organ for the ‘Laudate pueri’. Monteverdi ‘says solo voices and organ,’ he explained, ‘but it’s a bit up for grabs quite what that means’. The way in which the movement could build, then, into something more than that meant that it could mirror ‘what the concerti do, starting with one solo voice, then two, three, and so on’.

‘As a collection, that’s clearly part of what he’s trying to do. But is it a structure as well?’ A bit like in the Selva morale e spirituale, I suggested. ‘Exactly. And that’s how collections tend to work. But this is full of very interesting touches. The first concerto is “Nigra sum”,’ which of course is a man singing “I am black and beautiful”, a female text. It’s a very similar text, but not quite the same, as that to the antiphons to several Marian feasts. Is it “filia Jerusalem” or “filiae Jerusalem”? Is it a “black but beautiful daughter of Jerusalem”? Or is it “black but beautiful, o ye daughters of Jerusalem”? Decisions like that: is it “a” or “ae”: do you go with the liturgical partbook’ or another source or possibility? … So we produce our own instrumental parts.’

That reminded me of something I had been intending to ask following something I had observed in rehearsal, and which I had long wondered about when it came to conducting the work. How difficult is it to handle the metrical changes involved and yet, as Doyle had put it during that rehearsal, immediately for the performers to ‘lock in’ to a new tempo? A case in point would be the ‘Sonata sopra Sancta Maria. ‘It’s not really that difficult. But we were all quite new to the space. The trick is always to prepare. I’m not actually beating like a normal conductor; it’s much more waft here, because you don’t want to get in the way too much here either. With respect to the tactus, it’s a down and an up. Is it cut-C or C? If you look at the part books, the partis generalis often has a cut-C; the others have C. Maddening! So if you go the Roger Bowers route,’ for which, see his Music and Letters article, ‘it cannot quite work – it’s interesting, but ultimately it must have broken down, because the part books didn’t match each other. So it tells me that the organist is being reminded that it’s a quicker tactus: as simple as that. If you go through the Magnificat, all those different sections sort of all work with the same tactus. Whether it’s a one- or a half-tactus, you’ll hear the difference, of course.’ I shall not even attempt to write out the musical demonstration he gave me, but it unquestionably convinced. ‘As long as you’re doing the maths three bars earlier, you will be fine, with preparation. And I can show it. But by last night, we’d prepared so that I could more or less stop conducting it. Get them singing and then abdicate.’

How much, then, of a distinction is there here, or should there be here, between choir and soloists? Should one think of them separately at all? ‘I’ve always thought of it as an eight-voice piece, not unlike Andrew Parrott says. Elsewhere, I’d probably do it with individual voices, because there’s not a lot for the individual soloists to do, the ladies in particular. Or I could have done it by giving solos to individual members of the choir, but that puts a lot of pressure on them to be major soloists in the same concert, and I thought then that I wouldn’t have the dramatic [spatial] possibilities. So to have extra bodies does help.’ That said, all the members of the choir would be capable of it, and indeed here they had a mixture: the third tenor, Volker Arndt, for instance, would be stepping out of the choir (very successfully) from time to time. Moreover, the ‘warmth and the luxury feel’ of a German choir, partly born of the greater rehearsal time available by comparison to an English choir, helped further dissolve any distinction. ‘It goes in deeper,’ as opposed to the traditional English ‘shortcut’ of sightreading and minimal rehearsal. Not that he wanted the tenors to sound the same: Arndt, Thomas Hobbs, and Andrew Staples all had different voices, but they would complement each other.

Ultimately, though, decisions would always come down to the following sensible principle: ‘Work out what Monteverdi would have done. Work out whether that was his ideal, or just what had to happen. Did he, for instance, have double reeds? Probably not. Or rather, he would have had them in Mantua, but not in the cathedral. And then whether they played in Venice or not; certainly for the festivals they had them. But if he had had players who could play as well as this, would he have used them more? And would he have used more singers if he had had them? And this is a RIAS Kammerchor concert. They can pretty much do everything.’

We closed, doubtless predictably on my part, by talking a little about the man whose name – and example – adorns the hall: Pierre Boulez. Boulez never conducted the Vespers, but thought very highly of Monteverdi – who would not? – and planned at one point to conduct the work as part of his opening concert season for a reformed Paris Opera (a project that, sadly, never came into being). He also spoke fondly of having heard Roger Désormière rehearse the work. I asked Doyle whether he could imagine what Boulez might have brought to the work, almost certainly conducting it on modern instruments, and certainly with a high modernist aesthetic. Would his own approach have anything in common with this imaginary performance, not that it need do so? Doyle had always had the regret of having had to turn down the opportunity to assist Boulez with the BBC Singers for a Prom, ‘because I was on honeymoon. Everyone has regrets, but that would have been a very short marriage, I think, otherwise. I think, though, given this room, and given that this is a festival concert, I think he would have done something quirky. I’ve put in sandwiches of vocal and instrumental movements, so there’s a nice logic to it. He wasn’t mathematical – well he was, but he wasn’t only that – but he was precise. And I have an instinctive drama about me, I think, which can sometimes be a little bit crazy, but I also have to plan a lot. And the more you plan, the more you can release that drama.’ Rather than be merely arbitrary? ‘Precisely. Never just whimsy: planned whimsy. So I think Boulez would rather have liked this, especially with the pre-concert concert [the Mass], in a different space, making use of what is different, as well as what they have in common.’ Why, I asked, could we not have more of his programming too: Machaut and Webern, Bartók and mediæval coronation music? ‘We can – and we will,’ I was assured.

With that in mind, and our time almost up, Doyle pointed me to the choir’s debut concert early next year in the Großer Saal of Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie. Playing with the Ensemble Resonanz: the Choir, under his direction, will perform Bach, Victoria, Henze, and James MacMillan. If only the website did not already read ausverkauft

Click here to read Mark Berry’s review of Justin Doyle’s two Monteverdi concerts with the RIAS Kammerchor.

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