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“I'm American, You know” - Interview with Marc Minkowski, Part 1

Marc Minkowski, still exhausted from recording sessions of Handel, Haydn, and Purcell’s tributes to St. Cecilia, squeezes me in for a short interview during a rehearsal break in Salzburg where he and his orchestra, Les Musiciens du Louvre, are practicing for a performance of a Haydn concerto, Mozart arias, and the “Posthorn” Serenade. Going over the sixth movement of the Serenade, Minkowski gently, quietly coaxes his original-instrument players into getting phrasing and transitions just right. Suddenly, a rare sight: posthorn soloist Jean-Baptiste Lapierre, at first heard playing his part offstage, enters stage left—on a bicycle! Maneuvering carefully around the second violins, Minkowski, and then the first violins, he steers with one hand and manages to perform his part—flawlessly, at that—holding his instrument in the other. Better yet, he navigates the small strip between podium and the edge of the stage apron, back and forth, without crashing into the orchestra seating of the House for Mozart. His colleagues acknowledge this feat, twice repeated, with generous, bemused applause. (Surely this skill was not part of his job description when he joined Les Musiciens.) Too bad I have to leave Salzburg that night, missing the actual performance and audience reaction.

Minkowski apologizes for having little time; his exhaustion, visible and audible, is not put on. But he patiently listens to questions, volunteers anecdotes, and inquires if I’ve received “the Bach.” Bach is the obvious starting point for the conversation, since his recording of the B-Minor Mass has just been released in France and I had duly listened to it over the last few days. On the notion of “talking about Bach,” Minkowski takes a deep breath, shakes his head as if to jog his brain, and laughs. So much music has piled up since the recording sessions that he needs a moment to get into Bach mode.

The Mass is the first Bach Minkowski has recorded as a conductor, and the beginning of a series of recordings of the great sacred Bach works. This will include the Passions, obviously, and also the Christmas Oratorio? “Maybe.” Why Bach only now? “I stopped myself to record any note of Bach for many, many years—same with Mozart. Mozart, actually, I was performing a lot on the concert stage, but I thought I should be mature enough, because there are so many recordings of all these things and—better be sure you are in the mood. And the same with Bach. And with him that feeling was even stronger, because I played very little of Bach’s music in concert. A cantata here and there, some orchestral suites, but not a lot. After doing a lot of different repertoire, after performing a lot of Handel, Rameau, 19th-century composers, practicing Brahms, Beethoven, there is a moment where I had to go to the roots of this music, which are all coming from Bach. So I thought it was time.”

available at Amazon
J.S.Bach, Mass in B-minor,
Minkowski / LMdL

naïve 5145 (101:05)
UK | DE | FR
So when exactly does the point come where one thinks, “The world needs my B-Minor Mass”? Minkowski is nearly horrified of the presumptuousness implied in that question and he waves his hand saying “No, no, no, that’s not the point, no, no!” in that inimitable way only a French accent can vocalize “nonononono.”

“It’s just that all these studies about one singer to a part, they took a long time to be convincing. But for me, now I am convinced and I am happy that I waited, because if you read the writings of Mr. Parrot and Mr. Rifkin it’s so clear”—here he seems to pick up on my quizzically raised eyebrow, because he specifies, “Well, it’s not so clear . . . it’s clear, but there is”—he pauses to think for a few seconds and chuckles—“there is no chorus evidence, anyway.

“In any case, I thought that was a good, new world, a new sound, a new way of having the polyphony of Bach performed. And I’m a great fan of Glenn Gould playing Bach on the piano, because I think there is so much architecture and grandeur present. And I think that if you have a small body of singers, you can achieve the same clear polyphony in his works like a pianist alone or an organist or violinist.” Clear doesn’t mean small or timid, though, and that’s certainly true when listening to his recording. “Well, no, I hope not. The Mass is a monument, I think, like the Bach Chaconne for violin, it’s so incredibly—‘big,’ even with just one instrument.”

Which Bach recordings, since he has mentioned listening to them, did he enjoy particularly? “There are many, and they are maybe of opposite styles, but definitely Peter Schreier when he sings and conducts. His St. John Passion is fabulous. I think it’s so intense and so dramatic—and sounds to me so Germanic, so true. I mean it’s not done in a way I would do it, of course, but I’m completely convinced by the interpretation and the quality of the work. On the completely opposite side, I was a member of Philip Herreweghe’s orchestra [as a bassoonist] and I recorded the B-Minor Mass and the Matthew Passion and some cantatas with him. That was a completely different approach, but I was probably also influenced playing these works with him. Another B-Minor Mass I’ve been listening to for many, many years is Parrot’s recording, but also Rifkin’s, Junghänel’s, and even one of Karajan’s; there are always things that I enjoy and don’t like. And when it comes to Bach, generally, of course most of all Harnoncourt and Leonhardt. I was raised with their cantatas, the big LP sets, the brown covers, the score inside: that’s my adolescence right there.”

When I point out that he takes some parts of the Mass quite a bit slower than other HIP conductors, he chuckles, rather pleased, which, at the time of the interview I interpreted as a sort of approving “Mission Accomplished” agreement. But in direct comparison with two other recent HIP accounts, Veldhoven and Suzuki, the numbers don’t bear that out. Not only is Minkowski at 101 minutes faster than either, there are only two parts, the Agnus Dei and “Qui sedes ad dextram patris,” that are slower than both of theirs. In fact, upon closer inspection, Minkowski’s turns out to be the second swiftest B-Minor Mass on record, bested only by Junghänel, and even then only by a matter of seconds. Still, there are parts where he sounds rather more deliberate than Veldhoven and less hectic than Suzuki. In any case, he doesn’t address the question of tempos except by acknowledging that he is not ideological about such matters.

He is keener to point out that the first part of the Mass strikes him as substantially different from the rest, “darker, more extreme.” The second part he finds “more a story of contrast, of different styles, a small mosaic, very moving but a bit lighter, more of a panorama and inspired from liturgy, whereas the first part is a real prayer. When I see trumpets, timpani, and a 3/8, for me it’s a sign that this is a ‘fly to the sky,’ something that needs to lift off. So my idea is to make the beginning ‘flying’ as much as possible. Certainly [this in response to my suggesting his Gloria imparts hints of a Missa in tempore belli] I never have any feelings of aggressiveness in it. But of course it’s virtuoso music and 3/8 is a sign for me that we should play ‘in one.’ If you have agile enough singers who can do these coloraturas, then it can work. Which I think is what Bach had done. When Bach writes for virtuosity, whether it be for instruments or for the voice, as in Cantata 51, it’s because there were people who could do it.”

To Minkowski’s merriment, I ask him about the birds that contributed to the recording. If you listen closely—he asks me to point it out—very, very closely and loudly or with good headphones, and only between movements—you can hear the chorus of chirping birds delightedly extolling the virtues of Bach and sunshine.

“Yes—they already recorded in this church (Santiago de Compostela). Gardiner did a very nice cantata disc to which I listened and, although I heard the birds, I very much liked the acoustic. So I went there one year before our recording and I heard them even more than last summer, because the weather was a bit colder last summer. The birds are in a big tree, just behind the church, but our recording engineers said it wouldn’t be a problem and I thought that birds are part of nature, after all. There is a recording of Jordi Savall of Marin Marais (“Suitte d’un Goût Etranger”) and they’re much louder on his than on mine.”

Part I --- continue to Part II

Photos of Marc Minkowsky © Philippe Gonthier, courtesy naïve

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