• A Short Interview with Sir John Eliot Gardiner about Period Instruments

    Given the controversy about Historically Informed Performances with the use of period instruments expressed by some of Opera Lively's interviewees (not only conductors have referred to it, but also singers like Vivica Genaux and Anthony Roth Costanzo), we decided to include here this fragment that is not a complete interview, but contains a brief exchange exactly on this topic, between one of the most prominent conductors of the HIP movement, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and Luiz Gazzola, on the occasion of one of the performances of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in their 2012 American tour. [Opera Lively interview # 67]


    Photo - courtesy of Askonas Holt - © Sheila Rock / DECCA

    John Eliot Gardiner, one of the most versatile conductors of our time, is acknowledged as a key figure in the early music revival. Founder and artistic director of three ensembles – the Monteverdi Choir, the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, John Eliot Gardiner also appears regularly with the most important European symphony orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Royal Concertgebouw, Czech Philharmonic and the Orchestre Nationale de France.

    The extent of John Eliot Gardiner’s repertoire is illustrated in over 250 recordings made for major European record companies (including Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, Philips Classics and Erato), which have received numerous international awards. Since 2006 his recordings have appeared on the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra’s independent label, Soli Deo Gloria, established to release the series of live recordings made during the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, for which he received Gramophone’s Special Achievement Award in 2011. SDG’s catalogue has expanded to include recordings of other Bach masterpieces, including the St John Passion, the Brandenburg Concertos and the complete Motets, a Brahms symphony cycle, and a cappella recordings with the Monteverdi Choir. Many of the label’s recordings have been awarded international prizes, including Recording of the Year in the 2006 Gramophone Awards and the Diapason d'Or de l'Annee in France for the Bach Motets. SDG’s latest release is a live recording of Beethoven Symphonies 5 and 7 with the ORR from Carnegie Hall.

    As guest conductor, John Eliot Gardiner continues his close relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra. In Spring 2010 they completed a three-year Beethoven cycle taking in performances in the UK, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich and Madrid. During the 2011/12 season he toured with the LSO in Germany and conducted the Bayerischer Rundfunk Orchester in Salzburg. In Spring 2012 he worked with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra for the first time, combining forces with the Monteverdi Choir and touring Schumann’s Manfred in Italy and Spain.

    Following the success of his revival of Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2008, he returned there to conduct Rigoletto in April 2012. He finished the 2012 season with two performances of the Berlioz Requiem at the Festival de Saint-Denis in Paris and with a much acclaimed semi-staging of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at the BBC Proms.

    He is currently engaged, for the beginning of the 2012/13 season, in an extended European and North American tour of Beethoven’s Ninth and Missa Solemnis with the Monteverdi Choir and the ORR. This will be followed by concerts with the Royal Concertgebouw, Teatro la Fenice, Leipzig Gewandhaus and the LSO. A day-long Bach Marathon event at the Royal Albert Hall with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists at Easter in April 2013 forms part of John Eliot Gardiner’s 70th birthday celebrations and continues with performances of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with the London Symphony Orchestra in Brussels, Paris and London, and The Marriage of Figaro at Covent Garden.

    Amongst numerous awards John Eliot Gardiner received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Lyon in 1987 and from the New English Conservatory of Music in Boston in 2005. He was nominated Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1996 and Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2010, and awarded Germany’s Verdienstkreuz (1st class) in 2005. In 1992 he became an Honorary Fellow of King’s College, London and of the Royal Academy of Music, and was visiting Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge in 2008-9. He received a knighthood in the 1998 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.


    OPERA LIVELY – Maestro, what does playing period instruments bring to a performance?

    Well, I think that what it brings to it is this: it makes the textures, the individual timbre of the orchestra more personal, more vocal, more distinct, and more distinctive. The disadvantage of the modern instrument orchestra, which on its plus side has much greater smoothness, much greater stability, much greater homogeneity, is precisely that [laughs]. It is too smooth, it is too homogenous! The period instrument orchestra, insofar as we’ve reconstructed it or were able to reconstruct it – and believe me, it’s not a fetish, it’s not something that is an end in itself; we are not antiquaries, we are musicians, we live in the 21st century – allows us to bring you music that we believe in, very passionately, and that has character, and poetry, and religion with a small R, and philosophy. We bring it to you, to an audience that is alive now. But we choose to do it by using the means whereby the composers were able to transmit this music to posterity; not by an overlay of far later, anachronistic sonorities.

    OL - You often perform with your Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique coupled with the Monteverdi Choir. Is there an advantage for the choir when singing with a period instrument orchestra?

    JEG - Not only the individual instruments of the period orchestra are more distinct from one another but also they are easier to blend with or juxtapose to a choir. My burden as a conductor is to persuade the choir to adopt, to emulate the technical virtuosity and instrumental velocity and color contrasts of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique.

    OL – And how does the orchestra in its turn adapt to the choir?

    JEG - When I’m addressing the orchestra, I encourage the musicians to ‘sing’ with their individual instruments with the same cantilena, and the same expressive legato, but also articulation, of the singers of my chorus. So there is a real ‘entente cordiale’ between the chorus and the orchestra. That’s really the defining hallmark of what we try to do; it’s to become more like each other, to make the orchestra sound like a choir, and to get the choir to sound like an orchestra. It may sound strange but I believe very strongly in it. I constantly say to the orchestra, ‘Put words in your concerts! Put words in your articulations!’ There is a constant feeling of personalization of utterance. I hope this gives you a little flavor of what we are trying to achieve.

    OL – And what about when you are playing a piece that has voice soloists, such as Beethoven’s 9th, or an opera? Your orchestra is often tuned to a pitch of A430, while operatic singers are more used to A440. Is it difficult for your singers to adjust to the lower pitch? Does it cause problems for them?

    JEG – Yes. At the time of some composers like Beethoven, the orchestras played to a pitch of A430 which is much lower than what most modern orchestras usually play, which is A440, and particularly in the United States they play even higher than that, at A442 or A443. Does it affect the singers? Yes, of course it affects the singers! Singers can’t finger their pitch in the way instrumentalists can finger it and adjust to it. Singers have to do it by ear. Particularly operatic singers are used to singing very high, very loudly, and it takes them a while to adjust, to come down to this pitch. It’s not easy for them.

    OL – Does the choir suffer from the same problem?

    JEG – No, the Monteverdi Choir is used to singing with all sorts of pitches. We sing at 415, 430, 435, 440… Sometimes when we join modern orchestras like the London Symphony or the Paris National Orchestra we sing at 442 or 443.

    OL – What is the cut-off point at which the instruments change more definitely to the modern ones, and your orchestra will then not tackle that music?

    JEG – As you come closer to the 20th Century, even the 1920’s, there is a cut-off. The real cut-off is about in the 1920’s or 1930’s. We did a piece by Stravinsky last year, the Symphony of Psalms from 1930, and that still sounded quite subtly different from a modern orchestra, when played by my instrumentalists. We were using 20th Century instruments and we were playing them insofar as we could, in a Russian 20th Century style, but the stringing of different sonorities had timbre differences that to my ears were clear. But there is obviously a point of diminution, when these instruments, in terms of chronology, cease to have currency and validity. The differences become marginal, or they sound wrong, and modern instruments need to take over.

    OL – Thank you for these very clear explanations.

    JEG – You are welcome.


    Since we talked about his orchestra, choir and soloists interpreting Beethoven's 9th Symphony, let's listen to them playing and singing the 4th movement (Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, the Monteverdi Choir, and soloists Gilles Cachemaille, Anne Sofie von Otter, Luba Orgonasova, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson):


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    Comments 3 Comments
    1. Jephtha's Avatar
      Jephtha -
      Thank you for posting this, Almaviva! Fascinating to hear such a passionate artist as Sir JEG giving us some insight into his workshop. I was especially interested by his comments on pitch and singers. He does not mention that in some venues, A can be as high as 450 (Berlin) or even 465 (Vienna). I feel sorry for sopranos and tenors who must sing at such heights! On a warm night at the Wiener Staatsoper, the Queen of Night must soar almost to top F-sharp, or, for real shock value, G-flat!

    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      You're welcome, Jephtha. 465??? Wow!
    1. HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
      HarpsichordConcerto -
      Fantastic interview! You're lucky to have interviewed a great living conductor!

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