An Interview with Richard Egarr

By · Photography © Marco Borggreve · Date 08/17/2017

Skyping me from his house in Amsterdam, keyboardist and conductor Richard Egarr took time out of his vacation to answer some questions for VAN. Richard’s characteristic honesty and sense of humor really came out in the interview, as well as his enthusiasm and passion about the different mediums in which he performs and conducts. I wanted to find out if the boundaries between historically informed performance and “modern” performance are as strictly demarcated as some have suggested. To my great pleasure, I found out that they are not.

VAN: You’re working as much with modern orchestras as with early music groups this coming season. Is this unusual?

Richard Egarr: It’s becoming more common, though there has been precedent in the past. All the big historically informed performance players have been working with modern orchestras since the early days. Frans Bruggen regularly worked with major Dutch orchestras, and Nikolaus Harnoncourt worked with the Concertgebouw to great acclaim in the 1970s and ’80s. Even Ton Koopman, who claimed he would never touch anything after Beethoven, has played some Poulenc. Come to think of it, the only person who didn’t perform with modern players was Gustav Leonhardt.

Is there a standard approach to the convergence of a HIP conductor and a modern orchestra?

There isn’t necessarily a standard approach, but there are those who try and get modern orchestras to “recreate” the sound of a period ensemble by going through a shopping list of “don’ts.” I know several conductors who regularly stand up in front of orchestras and begin the rehearsal by saying, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. No vibrato, please.” I mean, it’s no surprise that an orchestra would get totally turned off from the first downbeat.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Requiem in D Minor, K. 626; Lorna Anderson (Soprano), Daniela Lehner (Mezzo-soprano), Andrew Tortise (Tenor), Stephan Loges (Bass), Richard Egarr (Conductor), Coro y Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia

What’s your approach?

I personally try to get away from litanies of what is and isn’t allowed and talk about color, gesture, and sound. For me, HIP is about learning from old instruments and sources to get a sense of what the composers were getting at, what they were doing with music. But the real joy comes in taking that experience and translating it into a language that’s digestible for a modern orchestra. When I worked with the Dallas Symphony a few years back, they hadn’t regularly played Bach for a long time, and I only had five or six hours to rehearse with them. So there wasn’t time to get the players to make their instruments sound like something they are not—a modern violin and a baroque violin are really very different instruments! But this shouldn’t bar them from playing Bach and Vivaldi. Showing modern players how to negotiate a style perhaps foreign to their instruments is a real joy. It’s also important work, as much of this music relies on modern players for its survival.

So you don’t think HIP has a corner on the market then?

No. The interaction between HIP players and modern orchestras is simply healthy, and even emboldens us to delve further into our field. Informing ourselves on both sides is paramount, of course, but it need not be threatening. At the end of the day, it encourages all of us to up our game.

In what ways?

Lots of ways, both academic and performative. In the academic sense, as certain traits of the HIP performance style become increasingly mainstream, crossover work really emboldens us to keep looking into under-researched areas. For instance, we’ve barely scratched the surface of early 19th century performance practices, where expressive devices such as portamento weren’t just allowed, but expected. In both the HIP and modern worlds, portamento is something we think ourselves glad to have “got rid of,” but in fact we may be limiting ourselves in musical expression by continuing to consciously eliminate it.

On the performative side, the convergence of modern and HIP players has increasingly upped the ante for orchestras to become a bit more flexible, but really it has made the HIP community step up its technical standards. It’s no secret that there’s a stereotype of the HIP player who can’t really hack modern music, can’t play in tune, has lackluster technique, etc. My great old-partner-in-HIP Andrew Manze has totally moved away from the scene, and has since spoken of his frustration.

But the tide is turning. As HIP is becoming more institutionalized, we’re being held to higher standards. Departments like the one at the Juilliard School have made huge strides not just in raising the profile of HIP in New York and the American East Coast, but have sought to meet the prodigious technical standards which other departments in the institution maintain. Similarly, we’re not able to hide behind our musicological knowledge anymore as it’s no longer a closed circle. Ours is the information age, so [musicians are] finding scores and sources at the click of a mouse, not from a week’s trip to an obscure European archive.

So are HIP players becoming more like modern players?

I wouldn’t say that, but I will say that there’s increasingly little room for waffling, making things up, and imposing bizarre stylistic choices on music which is very carefully notated. There used to be a tendency for the great HIP demagogues to tell the world what “was” and “wasn’t” HIP (especially here in the Netherlands). But as we’ve gotten pushback and reality checks from the rest of the wider musical community, we’re slowly moving past this.

How so?

Well, French music is one area where reassessment is underway—with huge resistance from the French, of course. We know that composers like Froberger and François Couperin were extremely, extremely detailed in how they notated music, and Couperin even writes over and over again for players to “Do what I say!” The important thing though is that it’s not just us that know this now, but everyone can know it. As such, we’re being challenged to start accepting things like notation at face value and deal with the notes on the page, and less with vague “contextualization.”

One of the most incredible performances of French Baroque music was under the baton of Reinhard Goebel, in the film “Le Roi Danse.” But it’s only because he went to painstaking lengths to perform all the rhythms as Lully notated them. In particular, he did away with the received tendency to overdot and overshorten anticipatory notes. I believe Reinhard once called it “Roccoco scheisse,” a practice from the 1960s when all music was given the same treatment in the early days of the HIP movement.

Louis Couperin, Suite in C, Passacaille; Richard Egarr (Harpsichord) 

How does it affect you when you work with modern orchestras?

I would say not a whole lot because I don’t tend to think of myself as just an HIP musician. People love to pigeonhole you, and marketing is a reality, but both in my personal taste and in my performance career, I’ve got a global appetite. I’ve recorded Leopold Stokowski arrangements. Two years ago I did a Gilbert & Sullivan production for the Edinburgh Festival. I love Björk, Prince, and Cliff Richard. I’ve got some of my daughter’s K-Pop on my iPhone right now. Some is better than others…

I’ve found that working with modern instruments keeps me sharp. I’ll be playing Mozart’s Sonata K. 491 on a Steinway soon in Luxembourg, which in some ways is just much easier than on a fortepiano: so much so that when I go back to a fortepiano, it can feel like I’m wire-walking. Similarly, when I played the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 last year on a Steinway with the Utah Symphony, I felt as if I had to do some weight training for my fingers. In short, it doesn’t necessarily change my approach, but it keeps me in check.

You’ve got an all Byrd and Purcell program coming up at the Edinburgh Festival. How does such a program interact with your global appetite?

I’d say Byrd and Purcell are the funkiest of the funky and they’re really my favorites to play. Byrd is all about resonance and tone, while Purcell brings out the whacky—even the Monty-Pythonesque—in music. I suppose I really enjoy playing them on a harpsichord because of the color and sound worlds that can be produced. I’ll be playing Byrd’s “The Bells” on my program, and the imitation of the overtones and the decay is something that can be done beautifully on the harpsichord. With Purcell’s suites, if you allow the harpsichord to resonate as long as possible, all the diverse and crunchy harmonies really stick out at you. When combined with a strong tuning system, you’re able to create a fantastic sound world that’s totally kaleidoscopic, with color upon color upon color.

But you’ll be playing all of this on a harpsichord, yes? Not on a virginal or a spinet?

There’s nothing to say that professional level harpsichords weren’t used by the great musicians of the period. The level of complexity of the music requires a complex and sophisticated instrument. Personally, I find the sound of the muselar or the virginal to be interesting for all of about three minutes. Then again, they really weren’t built as concert or artistic instruments; they were built for amateurs to use in their homes. A bit like the recorder.

J.S. Bach, Partita No. 6 in E Minor, BWV 830; Richard Egarr (Harpsichord)

Beg pardon?

I have issues with the modern attitude to the recorder. It’s nice enough, but it never existed as a professional solo instrument except in the 20th century. It’s something that every wind player probably knew how to play and it was used when needed as a special color. If you look in Bach’s original parts of the St. Matthew Passion, the recorder lines are written in the violin parts: for all we know, the violinists may have been doing double duty too. Don’t get me wrong, recorders can be played well, but it’s often the case that they’re not.

Right, so how do you decide where to draw the line with these keyboard instruments?

I suppose it’s a matter of taste. But my personal taste is to play on finely constructed, professional instruments. I’ve recorded some composers using such smaller instruments for the sake of variety, and indeed something can be learned from them in small doses. But it’s simply the case that harpsichords are larger, more resonant, and more flexible. Virginals just sound the same, are too small and have design flaws—there are many negative comments about them from their time. They’re just a bit defective.  You shouldn’t have to use an instrument you don’t like or that simply doesn’t work. ¶