Emmanuelle Haïm: the drama of the French baroque

Lindsay Kemp speaks to conductor Emmanuelle Haïm about her own baroque ensemble, working with modern instrument orchestras and the French baroque

“I didn’t have an aim” says Emmanuelle Haïm of the time in 2000 when she founded her own baroque music ensemble. “We were third-generation ‘early-music movement’, and I think there was a new and different energy in the air. I had people around me with the same way of thinking as me, and I just wanted to do it.” It’s a familiar story with hopeful young ensembles, though not all of them last as well, and indeed not all catch on as quickly, as Le Concert d’Astrée. From a modest-sized ensemble of voices and instruments they grew quickly in size and reputation as they were taken up by promoters in centres such as Amsterdam, Berlin, London and New York, and then by Virgin EMI. The group’s first concert was in 2001, and their first CD appeared in 2002 – a collection of Handel’s Italian duets featuring names such as Natalie Dessay, Véronique Gens, Patricia Petibon and Sara Mingardo that almost casually advertised the calibre of singers Haïm was already to call upon. Since then there have been widely praised recordings of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Monteverdi’s Orfeo (with Ian Bostridge) and Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno among others. “As good as it gets”, was how the New York Times described one of their recent Handel performances. Says Haïm, “I’m interested in drama, theatre, what happens on stage. In baroque music the vocal repertoire really nourishes the instrumental one. I like both.”

Of course, rapid success like this does not come from nowhere. Haïm was already in her late thirties by this time, having studied harpsichord and organ at the Paris Conservatoire and worked for several years deep at the heart of French baroque music scene, gaining the kind of practical and musical grounding that cannot be faked or fast-tracked. “I was playing continuo keyboard for [William Christie’s] Les Arts Florissants and [Christophe Rousset’s] Les Talens Lyriques, I was meeting conductors like René Jacobs and Marc Minkowski, I was accompanying and teaching baroque singing classes at the Paris Conservatoire, playing for Christophe Coin’s cello class. Just thirsty for knowledge, I would say. I learned enormously from those conductors about the way they made things happen, how you do an opera, how you research the music.”

Perhaps, then, Haïm’s break-out into directing her own ensemble was inevitable. Yet when it came, it was also into an independent career of her own in which she has made her name almost as much for guest-conducting baroque music with modern-instrument orchestras as with her own period one. A key moment came when she was invited to conduct Handel’s Rodelinda for Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 2001, and drew from the modern-instrument orchestra playing that combined stylistic authority with convincing ease of expression – not all that easy to achieve when, as Haïm said at the time, “maybe some modern orchestras would be frightened of doing something incorrect”.

Since then she has been in demand from modern orchestras all over the world who want to add stylish baroque performances to their concert seasons. How does she get such quick and satisfying results in Handel, Rameau and Purcell from orchestras used to Mahler, Berlioz and Birtwistle? “The life of a modern orchestra is totally different from a period one”, she explains. “They work on a week-by-week basis, whereas in baroque music you tend to have a project, maybe with a tour and a recording, so it’s more a question of how to organise your time when you plan a programme.” She must have done so to good effect; one reviewer writing of a concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2017 declared that “she made Purcell, Handel and Pergolesi sound new-born.”

Yet there are natural limits to what can be achieved with modern instruments, especially with the differences in technical set-up, pitch and balance that affect them. One of her methods is to ask one her own continuo players to join the orchestra and help make a bridge with them. “We try to see what works best”, says Haïm. “I might also try to come with bowed parts that are usable for heavier modern bows, for instance. It’s demanding for a modern orchestra to change quickly, and it’s hard to ask them for too much. But if you can’t have the same sound, you can have a big part of the style, and you can adapt the way you play, take your bow in a different place. And after a while the music itself shows you how to do it. You’ll use less vibrato because you feel it that way, nobody needs to tell you – in the end it comes quite naturally.”

Haïm’s collaborations over the years have included concerts with some heavyweight symphony orchestras, including the CBSO, Frankfurt Radio SO, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Bavarian RSO, Swedish RSO, Berlin PO, Vienna PO, New York PO and the Philadelphia Orchestra. She has also conducted Rameau and Handel in opera houses such as Zurich, Lille and Dijon, and the coming season will see her working with the LSO, Royal Concertgebouw and NDR Elbphilharnonie orchestras. “All very different”, she says, “but super-exciting.” Nowadays players in orchestras like these often already have some experience of baroque music, which is much more a part of modern conservatory training, but even so I wonder if Haïm thinks it’s a teacher they’re looking for. “No, I don’t think that’s my role. I’m just pleased when they like the music and feel that it’s theirs. Then we can share it. It should be a pleasure, and I guess we do it because we enjoy it. And it’s good for them to do different repertoire, not stick to their usual ways. Instead of Ligeti or Stockhausen, why not Caldara or Delalande?”

Much of Haïm’s reputation comes from her performances of Handel on the one hand, and French music on the other. What repertoire does she most enjoy bringing to modern orchestras? “Well British orchestras have a very rich musical life, and they’ve never really lost touch with playing Handel. But most of all I love introducing orchestras to French music. People often people think it belongs to French musicians only, which I think is a pity, and I’m very happy when an orchestra thinks it’s good, powerful, strong and interesting. In Le Concert d’Astrée we have Rameau and Lully in our blood, and hopefully when modern orchestras come to play this music they’ll want to play it again. OK, maybe you can’t do a whole Rameau opera, but you can certainly put Rameau on a concert programme!”

Although Haïm’s evangelising enthusiasm for her repertoire is clear, there is another element in these collaborations that she treasures no less highly. “Directing baroque music is so different from the 19th-century spirit”, she explains. “I like collaboration, and in baroque music the role of the director is more inside the orchestra playing an instrument (in my case the harpsichord or the organ) and sharing with the other players, being part of the music yourself. In Le Concert d’Astrée everyone talks very freely and it’s not only me who says what to do. It’s more like a mixture of orchestral music and chamber music. Of course, that’s a smaller group, so our relationship is a bit more like a family. But with high-quality orchestral players – people who perform together so much and have done so many different things together – there’s always the possibility of this kind of exchange.”

If Haïm sees herself then as a collaborator, not a teacher, what does she think she might have to learn from the orchestras she works with? “Orchestras always teach a conductor how to conduct! You may know what you want, but it has to be an exchange. It’s difficult to put into words when you’re talking about such great artists, but they have such a knowledge of themselves as a unit, and great collective energy. Every orchestra has different relationships within the group, and that comes across very strongly to you when you’re with them. I find that striking and moving.”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2019
edition of The Green Room

Unlike many conductors who have started out in baroque music – especially the ones who get invites from symphony orchestras – Haïm has so far resisted any temptation to move into later repertoire. “I think I know where my strengths lie. My first piano teacher was my aunt, and she always wanted to do a lot of Bach, and that’s what pointed me in that direction. I loved the emotion, the sensitivity and the super-elaborate, crazy construction of baroque music so much that I had to switch to organ and harpsichord for the sheer physical sensation of it. Then I discovered the musicological part of it – the harmony, the counterpoint, and I loved that too. And then that the harpsichord can be part of an orchestra, not lonely like the piano or organ. I didn’t want to be alone, I wanted to be in a group, be in an orchestra! I liked that baroque music doesn’t really say on the page what it should be like, that there are little unwritten beauties that you have to grab from the special language of the music itself, to come up with the answers yourself and play freely. I loved the baroque theatrical world, and I loved the sounds the instruments made as well. And there is still such a massive quantity of this music that I don’t even know yet! I adore Schubert and Ravel, and I can’t be without them. But I think they can live without me.”

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