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Eastern adventures

There is real optimism in the air at last, and with the prospect of a vaccine some of us may soon be able to chart a way back to performing reality. Alternative History has invitations on the stocks to perform Polish and other music from central Europe, so I’ve been re-visiting repertoires that I haven’t sung since Hilliard days. Our forays into the old East began when Graham Dixon asked us to take part in a short series for Radio Three. Along with Jacob Heringman (one of the first times we played together) and aided by Peter Hellyer at the British Library, we recorded our first Polish music (in Latin, needless to say). We subsequently did memorable concerts in Bratislava, Krakow and Prague, and these were literally labours of love as we were paid in local currency which wasn’t convertible. The last person to see us off at the airport usually got to go home with whatever we hadn’t been able to spend, and we took off with armfuls of music, local produce and (in my case) ice skates, glove puppets and once even a complete sledge. On one trip we went by hire car from Austria to Hungary and had an exciting moment on the border when the Hungarian guard asked us to get out of the car and open the bonnet, which initially we declined to do since he was already outside and could easily do it himself. There was a brief moment when we realised no one had ever refused this request and a gun poked through the window, after which we changed our minds.

The first recording we did for ECM after we left EMI was of music by the almost unknown and rarely performed Walter Frye. It was a hugely significant moment, when we realised that Manfred Eicher wanted only the music that we wanted to record, regardless of how saleable the composer might be. It cemented our artistic collaboration which went from strength to strength and would eventually include a million selling album. Walter still hasn’t come into profit decades later – though it’s getting close and a few Christmas purchases might finally push it over the line.  It also cemented our relationship with legendary Tonmeister Peter Laenger from Tritonus, who went on to engineer Officium and albums by the Dowland Project, Trio Mediaeval and Alternative History.

It was his ‘Ave Regina’ that first put us on to Frye. This exquisite motet appears in manuscripts all over Europe (and even on the ceiling of a French chateau). One of the sources was the mysterious Codex Speciálník, and on one of our music-buying trips to Prague I’d picked up a copy of an edition of some of the motets, and another volume of Czech medieval music which also included older pieces from Spec. After the success of Officium we wanted to do something completely different yet distinctively Hilliard, and the mixture of medieval and early renaissance music from all over Europe in a single source was perfect. It not only had Josquin and Agricola as well as Frye and fellow Englishman John Plummer, but the extraordinary Petrus de Grudencz (he of the acrostic clues to his authorship). We tracked down Jaromir Czerny at the Charles University, and with input from Charles Brewer,  Graham Melville-Mason and Peter Hellyer ended up with more music than we could get on to one album. Codex Speciálník is still one of my favourite Hilliard recordings. I also love Barbara Wojirsch’s elegantly minimal design, the cover printed on matt paper and the booklet pages almost transparent. It just has the three things you need to know printed on a white background: artists (in black), music (in red) – and ECM New Series (smaller but even blacker).

Many of the Hilliard albums were recorded at the monastery of St Gerold in the Austrian Alps. For much of that time we were hosted by its one remaining monk, Pater Nathanael. He was a person whose deep spirituality never obscured his genial hospitality and encyclopaedic knowledge of Austrian wines. A friendly smile was never far away, and nor was a corkscrew. We loved him. He retired to the mother house of St Einsiedeln, and last week died of the cancer that he could no longer fight.  St Gerold was a kind of spiritual and musical home for us,  and for those of us privileged to know him Pater Nathanael was its heart.

Gordon Jones   JP   Manfred Eicher   Pater Nathanael

photo Peter Laenger

2 Responses to “Eastern adventures”

  1. Linda Hirst says:

    So good to read this and remind me too of retro days and many summers with the Hilliard Summer School in Cambridge and Germany on the Rhine. Yes there is hope, but only a little for singers whose careers had just begun and have cruelly stopped before they started, as no-one in the govt. cares enough.
    Teaching them is good, and they are all getting better – let’s keep hoping that there will be opportunities next year and following, if they don’t give up altogether.

  2. John Potter says:

    Ah yes – the summer schools were wonderful! It’s very hard to know how things will turn out for young singers. I’ve never been so glad to be the oldest singer I know. Difficult choices ahead for everyone. I wonder how long conservatoires will be able to continue to develop amazing singers for a rapidly contracting profession.

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