Conductor Paul McCreesh turns sixty today. Best known for his work with Gabrieli Consort & Players, an adventurous period instrument-group he started almost forty years ago, McCreesh is a recording artist par excellence.
His most recent Gabrieli project has resulted in two new white albums on their house label for almost ten years now, Winged Lion, a sub-label of Signum Classics; Henry Purcell’s ‘dramatick operas’ King Arthur (1691) and The Fairy Queen (1692).
Renowned Purcell advocates for decades, McCreesh and the Gabrielis recently won both the Opera Award and Recording of the Year at the 2020 BBC Music Magazine Awards for King Arthur.
According to McCreesh, the new Purcell recordings are the result of both extensive background research and years of experience performing the music.
”I think we all felt collectively that it was time to reassess all the work we’ve done; a good moment to go back and look at the sources and to rethink the pieces through. We’ve been moving more and more towards trying to find the really specific way of playing this music.
At least fifteen years ago, we started a pioneering work on historical stringing, for example. Now you may think a baroque orchestra is a baroque orchestra is a baroque orchestra, but actually the reality is that most baroque orchestras are pretty much modern orchestras, in the sense that they play half and half instruments with semi-modern strings and many compromises.
I’m not particularly arguing with that, philosophically – you can play Bach marvellously on a piano after all – but it seems to me (So OK, I suppose I am arguing with it) there’s a degree of phoniness there. Or at least, one could actually take the matter a little bit more seriously, instead of playing everything from Monteverdi to Mozart with a single pseudo-baroque instrument.
So we’ve done lots of work on historical stringing and setting up instruments with the correct stringing in ‘equal tension’ systems. And then we took that one step further, doing a lot of work on historical bow techniques. Surely we are not the only group who have done that, but I think we’ve been the first to apply ‘French’ bowing techniques (actually described in English C17 sources too) to Purcell’s music.
We also started working with Jean-François Madeuf, the French baroque trumpet player working in Basel, who is still the greatest exponent in playing the ‘real’ baroque trumpet. By which I mean a trumpet without the ubiquitous finger holes… Jean-François and Graham Nicholson went to Warwickshire museums to measure and photograph a real English silver trumpet from about 1680 by John Bull, and then made two copies. These instruments, played entirely with embouchure and lip pressure, made us completely rethink our approach to articulation.
Now, I come from England, and we have the most amazing ‘baroque’ (and other) trumpet players, but again, almost all play this sort of semi-modern instrument, which was developed through the (19) 60’s and 70’s. I don’t decry for a minute the amazing artistry of their music-making with this instrument, but it isn’t really an instrument Bach or anybody else would have recognized. It works in a completely different way.
So, I guess with this project, and so many others, I’m trying to challenge myself, and the whole early music business, which – let’s be honest – has become a little bit of an industry, to push a little but harder, to be a bit more serious. There’s so much more we could discover if we take the time.
We started with King Arthur, which is a particularly difficult score to put together, as there’s no autograph source; everybody’s version of King Arthur is somewhat different. But I think we subjected all the music to the most thorough re-examination of the sources for probably for a good decade or two. I always been quite fond of King Arthur; it’s always like an awkward child, you tend to love it a little bit more. It doesn’t play itself – you have to work really hard to get it to work. But, after a lot of struggling, I’m pleased with the end result, especially the combination of serious scholarship and free musicianship.
With both The Fairy Queen and King Arthur I wanted to imbue the music with a sense of theatricality, but one which somehow felt appropriate for the seventeenth century.
If I’m honest, frankly can’t bear so many recent recordings of baroque opera, because there just seems to me a general lack of finesse. So often it’s all so hyped – anger far too furious, every sad emotion injected with faux pathos, ornaments often ridiculously over the top, recorders tooting away, percussion everywhere, hideous ‘clever’ continuo…yuk! Competitive strip-club dancing – everyone making flashier and flashier moves to titillate the audience. Part of this, of course, comes from stage production where directors too often are up to the same games.
You know, the last thing I want is hair-shirt performances of a baroque opera. There’s plenty of space for passionate emotion on stage, and clowning around too, in appropriate moments, but for me it still has to have certain finesse and elegance to it. But it has to be framed. I hope we got something of that in these Purcell recordings – a desire to achieve more with smaller gestures.
Maybe that’s actually something I’m thinking about more and more as I get older: how you distil the musical process? Taking things from the music all the time, digging deeper, and not just tinkering with superficial details. And of course, that is such a difficult thing to analyse, because as you know, every conductor will sit there in an interview and will say, in hushed tones, ’oh but I’m truly only a servant of the music’ Fine, I say, but why don’t you start by trusting the bloody score?
I’m trying to get to the kernel of musical expression. Allowing instinct – perhaps my greatest gift – to fly free, but not neglecting the brain in the process of music-making. To think more. To read more. To take more care. To take more time. To resist the temptation of allowing the industrialization of our business to take over.
I think current fashions in dramaturgy are having a big influence on the way we play early opera. I’ve been privileged to work with some directors who have a fantastic feel for the language of opera, however inventive or modern the staging. But there have also been many frustrating experiences too. Seemingly endless weeks in the pit with directors unable to resist inventing some form of stage action every 45 seconds. Terrified the audience might be bored, (or maybe that they’ll be out of a job?). I think the greatest moments in opera are often the more reflexive ones – a lone voice in a still stage can move just as much as a herd of wild animals or a troupe of semi-naked dancing boys.”
As a result, McCreesh is having an opera sabbatical, but he still dreams of great productions
“If opera houses allowed conductors and directors to choose each other then I’d maybe go back. I surely love opera, even if I don’t particularly like baroque opera. I’ve really done enough Handel – I just don’t really want to be conducting in the pit for four hours with endless siciliano arias. But if I was offered a world-class cast and a great baroque orchestra, brilliant production, and one of those really great Handel operas, maybe Tamerlano or something like that, then there’s surely a reason to do it. But just sitting there for six weeks while another trendy director goes through their bag of tricks, no, I don’t want to do it, I’m too old.”
A Londoner by birth, McCreesh grew up in the eastern suburbs in what he calls a very normal suburban family. His father was a book-keeping accountant and his mother a radiotherapist working for the NHS.
“My parents were good parents, in sense that they wanted their children to have opportunities they themselves didn’t have. I liked music. I was quite good at it, but I was no virtuoso. Like many teenagers I wasn’t particularly focused, but I did arrange a few concerts with my schoolfriend musicians, and enjoyed that. But it was surely not written in the stars I’d end up where I am.
I went to Manchester University where I read music, performance and musicology. Even at university I had no real understanding what a music career might be. Maybe we were just naive. I look at young people nowadays and they seem to be quite focused about what area they might end up working in, and what their job prospects might be. That was surely not class of 1978!
Anyhow, I left the university at 21. I had done quite a lot of conducting with students, but I had absolutely no idea how that might evolve into a career. I taught for four or five years at Leicestershire School of Music. I liked working with the youngsters very much, although the routine of instrumental teaching drove me slightly crazy. Having created the Gabrielis straight after graduating, I was taking my first steps into the profession. With the help of a very irritating boss, seemingly far too few career opportunities in teaching, and above all, the madness of youth, I gave up a safe job and became freelancer.
Five years later I has an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. How did that ever happen?
There must have been some Machiavellian plan going on somewhere in my mind, but I didn’t expect to be there at that age. And I have to say, looking back at it, it was quite terrifying journey. Three or four years from the school classroom to work with the label of Karajan. I had to learn, and, by God, I had to learn quick. But thank you, Deutsche Grammophon! You were prepared to take a punt on a young musician. I think a lot of ideas I had attracted them, and they needed at that time to refresh the stable of early musicians; obviously Gardiner and Pinnock had been a huge success, (and ended up far richer than I’ll ever become!) All the same there was this feeling that the early music world needed some new names and they signed me up, alongside Marc Minkowski.
Of course, I needed to prove my worth to DG, but in the end we were together fifteen years, and I did a tremendous amount of very interesting work with them. I’m still hugely grateful because they gave me such a start to my career. Those were the good old days! We actually got paid to make recordings! I think it’s probably a legacy of which I need feel no shame, but of course I’d like to record some of those works again. I’m always rethinking. I think I’m a better formed artist now – I hope so – but there’s always something about discovering pieces for the first time. I hope that is still to be heard there!
Truth to tell, I was never just a ‘baroquiste’ as the French say. I’ve spent the last twenty or so years doing very little baroque music. The music business is lazy and just loves to pigeon-hole. I will be forever associated with the ‘sins of my youth’. But my ‘day job’ for twenty years has been guest conductor of symphony orchestras, in more or less standard repertoire, pretty much all over the world.
Now I have created the new Winged Lion record label, I’m able to record a far wider range of repertoire, including more than a few crazy projects! It’s hard because we need to fundraise huge amounts of some of these projects, but they are always labours of love, which feels good!”
One of those crazy ideas is a recording of Elgar’s masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius (1900). It’s another of McCreesh’s co-productions with National Forum of Music in Wroclaw, with combined choirs from Poland and UK, the Wroclaw Baroque Orchestra and Gabrieli Players. A series of performances had been scheduled for this summer and autumn, but, as with everything, Coronavirus has seen the project postponed to 2021 at the earliest.
“I’m determined that this project will happen, and my partners in Poland are determined it will happen. I have to remain optimistic. Obviously, what I can’t tell you of course, is the state of the music business if Coronavirus prevents us from working 12 or 18 months, or God forbid, longer.
Certainly 20th century British music has been a big part of my repertoire; Britten and Elgar especially, so it is quite natural for me to incorporate this music into to the Gabrieli whenever we can. There is a huge amount to be learned from playing on early 20th century instruments – Elgar, Walton, or Parry, as I think we proved on our ‘English Coronation’ project in 2018. It is a pity we can’t do more of that repertoire and more often. I’d love to do the two Elgar symphonies. If we were richer, we surely would.”
As with the Purcell project, or, in fact, any Gabrieli project, a lot of background work has been carried out with The Dream of Gerontius too. Restoring the sonic realm of an early twentieth century British symphony orchestra has been an intriguing task.
”The piston horn is a fantastic instrument. We have the first horn that was used on the first Gerontius performance, now at the Royal Academy of Music. It is basically a hand horn, with an inserted valve mechanism. You can play these instruments incredibly loudly, and they have this brilliant more focussed sound, so different from the modern horn.
As for the trumpets, there’s actually correspondence between Elgar and the leading trumpet players of his day. It’s obvious that Elgar actually wrote for instruments in B flat or F (or occasionally in A and other keys) because he wanted specific instruments, not because he couldn’t be bothered or because it suited the key in the score.
We’re also working with French school oboes and bassoons, which were used still played as late as the 30’s or 40’s in Britain. With string instruments, we are working on again a mixture of styles of instruments, because you got late nineteenth century instruments mixing with newer ranges of string technology, but still largely gut. Only really in my lifetime, from the sixties onwards, violins began to play with a majority of metal stings. The sound of a large string orchestra playing predominantly on gut, is quite remarkably rich and translucent; this is the sound of Elgar, Mahler, Sibelius and many others. I’m always transfixed and hugely excited by the range of colours possible.”
McCreesh’s passion for Elgar has come with years. In his early days, he felt quite differently towards the composer’s music.
“I remember playing cello in Gerontius once, on a conducting course, and absolutely hating it! I just couldn’t get my head around it. My advice to young people (and old too!) is, if you don’t like a piece, don’t give up. Come back to it, and if you still don’t like it, play it again. And you might just find it begins to speak to you.
Some music can be instantly attractive, because it is immensely impressive, which is great. I’m fine with that. Especially for young people, because that’s a wonderful way in. Yet, the pieces I end up loving the most, are often pieces that meant little to me first time through.”
In addition to Elgar, McCreesh has been spending time with Wagner too.
”I’ve been studying Parsifal recently. I’m not expecting Bayreuth to give me a call, but there’s something wonderful in that music that you can’t deny needs understanding. Wagner cast such a shadow on so much of the 19th and 20th centuries.
It’s often said nobody half-likes or half-hates Parsifal, and I know what they mean. But listen to it and, for all the excesses, you somehow can’t dismiss it. Even one hour, forty five minutes for act 1!
It is the most wonderful music, and so deeply rich with allusion. So what’s not to like; you’ve got medieval knights, you’ve got repressed sex and you’ve got religion. And for five hours! I learned my craft as a conductor with far too much Handel, and I think I have a good feel for pacing long structures organically. It is one of the things I sort of understand. But Wagner is such a challenge – those huge paragraphs of thirty minutes, then another that is twenty minutes and another one that is forty minutes. It is really hard to get those connections. But I’m sure I could fall in love with this piece – maybe the next life?”
However, making great ideas happen in real life, is not an easy task.
“It is one of the really sad things about the music business. Compared to where we were fifty years ago, there are thousands of new pieces now that have been recorded. And amazing numbers of interpretations of core repertoire, all sorts of conductors, all sorts of nationalities, all sorts of standards, all sorts of historical perspectives, old and new.
And yet when it comes to it, what do we do in concert halls and opera houses? It is the same old warhorses. Endless Bach Passions, endless Mozart Requiems, endless Mozart, Verdi and Puccini operas, endless Beethoven and Mahler symphony cycles. We never developed the audience to follow a wider repertoire. As money becomes tighter, programming becomes more conservative. There hasn’t really been a change in the core repertoire in the last fifty years.
Very often the promoter just says, ‘sorry nobody will come’. That’s of course a chicken and egg. If you never promote less well known pieces, then people won’t come. Sometimes, I think, the promoters could be more imaginative, but, in the end, much of their success is judged on how many people will walk over the threshold. I can understand, but it’s frustrating.”
In addition to all the Gabrieli projects and guest-conducting symphony orchestras, McCreesh is a long-standing, passionate advocate of music education, who is not shy to speak out for the necessity of demanding cultural curriculum.
”I think the biggest problem we have in education, particularly in cultural education, is that we talk down to young people. That, and the fact that within the education world, there are a few people who are absolutely passionate about giving cultural experiences to young people, but a whole lot of people who are either indifferent or actually deeply hostile to the concept. The latter particularly annoy me.
What right do we have as teachers or parents to deny people access to some of the greatest minds that ever walked on the planet? Just because we have decided in the year 2020 that it does not fulfill a particular political or social agenda?
I’m also tired of ‘educationalists’ telling us young people find culture unapproachable, or irrelevant, or just too difficult. Well, maths is irrelevant for many of us, and often difficult; so is much literature. Isn’t it our job as teachers to make it interesting and relevant?
So in music education, we get this obsession about ‘creativity’ – not in itself a bad thing, but it needs careful defining. The idea that you give a child an electronic keyboard, they pick out six notes out, can’t write it down, and you call that a ‘composition’? Where’s the intellectual rigor in that? It’s completely stupid. And without connection to the great music of the past and present, it seems to me we are depriving young people of access to one of the most stimulating things in humanity.”
In order to make things happen, McCreesh and the Gabrieli established their own education project, called Gabrieli ROAR, where a dozen choirs from state schools join Gabrieli’s professionals in certain projects, including some recordings.
”With ROAR, it is not just musical progress these people make, it’s also about providing a platform for increasing young people’s self-confidence and expression. I think it’s one of the things we need to work on much harder with young people, as the world becomes more difficult and we become more unforgiving. I think people can learn so much from the process of communicating in different ways. Performance is one of the ways that make that possible.
Our huge Roar choirs, a mixture of young singers and some professionals side by side, provide a great safe space to connect with ‘core culture’. The visceral joy of singing together, even more when accompanied by a huge orchestra, offers a thrilling environment which is both supportive and challenging. Let’s give all kids that opportunity.
The ROAR experience it is about inviting young people into our professional world, it is not about writing some patronizing piece of rubbish designed to ‘engage’ or to be ‘relevant’ but ultimately vacuous. So maybe we tend to do quite a lot of music by dead white European males, but I’m not going to apologise if we offer young people Bach, Mendelssohn or Britten.
All the best music is challenging. The reason we write music is that life is challenging. Music is an emotional language which works. And what is so amazing, is that even more than language, it seems to transpose itself over centuries with very little difficulty. You can hear a piece of medieval plainchant and it can still sound beautiful in a completely different context, maybe a thousand years later.
And, whilst I’m on my soap box, can I add one more thing? If teaching music in schools makes you a better mathematician, improves your IQ, or makes you a more efficient tax inspector of the future, than that’s all marvellous, and a very good reason to invest more in arts education. But PLEASE let’s teach culture for what it is – a celebration of humanity – not just a means of increasing test scores.”
With the coronavirus pandemic and its repercussions upon us, McCreesh and the Gabrielis are facing unprecedented challenges, those taking their toll on the whole music business around the globe.
”It’s a very difficult time in history, and we are blessed it seems with probably the lowest level of politicians, at least in the UK, I have seen in my life!
I’ve had to learn to be a businessman as much as a musician. We’re all facing endless cancellations and near zero income; many musicians will have no work for probably at least year, maybe a lot longer. So I cannot promise we will see this through – that’s the sad truth. Even after nearly forty years. But, my God, we’re going to throw everything we can to survive this – that I do promise.
So, I’m still optimistic – at least on most days! I have many exciting plans for Gabrieli, recordings, and lot of long term-plans for ROAR particularly, even if everything at the moment is on ice. It’s a very disturbing experience, and actually quite upsetting process. I think it is hard, sometimes, for people to understand what it is like to take an artist’s voice away. I know I’m not the only one feeling tearful.
We don’t know the extent of the likely damage; For me, if it’s just six dark months, I could almost see advantage. It is actually quite nice here and the weather is lovely, and I can do lots of things I should have done for years. (And of course I do understand many younger musicians can’t afford that luxury.) But when you’re sixty, and you’re looking at the future and there’s nothing in your calendar, other than cancellations, you do have that horrible feeling ‘will I ever get back’, knowing how fickle this business is.
Our business model is based on international touring, and at the moment that is completely impossible. It is very difficult time for us all. I think we’ll see lot of casualties. I also think a lot of people will leave the business, because they cannot effectively support their families.
To some degree, the major orchestras are sort of protected. But if this goes on as long as I think it might, are governments or local authorities really going to pay for symphony orchestras to sit home for a year, two years, three years? I don’t think anybody’s safe.
But, the world will not end, and music will still be there, eventually, and in some form, to help us through. That I do know.”
© Jari Kallio
Photos © Peter Reynolds, Sim Canetty-Clarke