One of the most extraordinary and innovative conductors of our times, Paul McCreesh turned sixty this year. Yet, reaching a round-numbered milestone is not the reason for him being lauded with the Artist of the Year Award by Adventures in Music.
Instead, McCreesh’s thirty-five year track-record on conducting his fabulous Gabrieli Consort & Players, in concert and on disc, alongside a multitude of educational projects, often with youngsters in challenging circumstances, speak aloud for themselves.
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. 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”, McCreesh told in an interview we did back in May.
After leaving the university at the age of 21, McCreesh taught for four or five years at Leicestershire School of Music. Having created the Gabrielis straight after graduating, he was also taking the first steps into the profession of conductor. In the end, the passion for the latter took over and McCreesh 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.”
During the DG years, McCreesh and the Gabrielis amazed the music world with their inspired recordings, featuring top-class performances, historically informed and brilliantly contextualized. Albums like the Praetorius Christmas Mass and Bach Epiphany Mass, revisited the Lutheran service of the early 17th and 18th centuries, whereas Venetian Vespers recreated the mid-17th century service at St Mark’s.
Among all the albums McCreesh and the Gabrielis made for Deutsche Grammophon, the solo-voice St Matthew Passion, recorded at the Roskilde Cathedral in 2002, may just be the most striking one.
According to McCreesh, the idea of using solo voices was initially inspired by the work of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott he was reading.
”I found it more and more persuasive and yet, like everybody else, I couldn’t quite get my head around the idea of Bach without a choir. It went against all we were brought up to expect.”
Eventually, the definitive moment arrived at a rehearsal of the opening of Part Two of the St Matthew Passion with the Gabrieli Consort & Players.
”I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was getting increasingly ratty with my second choir, and I kept nagging them because it just didn’t seem soft, or light or elegant enough. And it got me thinking; if those eight top-class chorus-singers are struggling to get the finesse I want, maybe solo voices might be the answer.
And it went from there. I ‘came out of the closet’ and started to do Bach with solo voices. And once you go down that road, you never look back.”
In addition to conveying the inherent beauty of the music, solo voices often provide a more ideal balance between the singers and the instruments, solving many of the problems arising with larger vocal ensembles.
”Even in a good baroque choral performance of Magnificat, you hardly ever hear the flutes, no matter how wonderful musicians onstage. They just sit there – for the sake of beauty, tooting in the back! Now, Bach is too good a musician to write parts you can’t hear.”
Since 2011, McCreesh and the Gabrielis have been recording for their house label, Winged Lion, a sub-label of Signum Records. In nine years, thirteen albums have been published, most recently two ‘dramatick operas’ by Henry Purcell, King Arthur and The Fairy Queen, released in October 2019 and April 2020, respectively, to wide critical acclaim.
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.
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!
Maybe that’s actually something I’m thinking about more and more as I get older: how you distill 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.”
While it could be tempting to attach the epithet of ’Baroque specialist’ to McCreesh’s name, it would be quite misleading indeed.
”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.”
Among McCreesh’s recorded repertoire, contemporary composers from Thomas Adès and James Macmillan to Matthew Martin and Owain Park share playlists with music form plainchant to the twentieth century.
One of the most uplifting projects by McCreesh and the the Gabrielis, in both its concert and album incarnations, has been, without question, The English Coronation 1902-1953. Realized in 2018, the project recreated the lavish rite of the coronation of the English monarch.
Alongside vastly expanded Gabrieli Consort & Players, the project featured Gabrieli ROAR, an education project, where a dozen choirs from state schools join Gabrieli’s professionals.
”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.
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.”
While the pandemic-ridden year has been an unforeseen struggle for McCreesh and the Gabrielis, the conductor’s optimism has not been extinguished. With many exiting plans for his fellow musicians and lot of long term-plans for ROAR, McCreesh keeps looking forward to the future. Yet, the long months of uncertainty have not been easy.
”It’s been 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.”
However, from Christmas Day on, McCreesh and the Gabrieli’s are back in business, performing the Bach Christmas Oratorio in a series of six streamed programmes for Christmas and New Year, in conjunction with Live from London.
Thus, Bach’s magnificent oratorio will be presented as originally envisaged, one cantata on each of the six most important feast days of Christmas. Sung by an ensemble of some of today’s finest Bach singers, each programme will also include a short introduction by McCreesh and his musicians, and a selection of other brilliant works by Bach.
In addition, carols and chorales, which are such an important part of the German Christmas tradition, will be sung by young singers from across the UK as part of Gabrieli ROAR’s Bach to School project.
© Jari Kallio