In a hotel bar in Rome, in the midst of a trio tour, harpsichordist Trevor Pinnock, flautist Emmanuel Pahud & cellist Jonathan Manson take a break from rehearsals to talk about their relationship as a trio, old vs new instruments, teaching and jazz
The Green Room (TGR): Let’s start at the beginning! Do you remember your first meetings, or musical collaborations?
Trevor Pinnock (TP): I remember meeting Emmanuel in Salzburg. We were working together and decided when we had some time off to sit down together and play through some Bach sonatas. We enjoyed it so much that we knew we wanted to go on. As we thought about cellists who might join us for the project, it was Jonathan who came immediately to mind, and here we are!
Emmanuel Pahud (EP): That’s right, in 2006 or 2007, though I also have my own earlier experience with Trevor…! When I was a child, I grew up with your wonderful recording of the Brandenburg concertos, and it’s still the version I have in my heart, in my soul, in my body. I learnt more about Bach from listening to your recording than I ever learnt in any conservatory or masterclass, and that has always been the reference for me. Also, your recordings with [French flautist] Jean Pierre Rampal, when you were probably the age I am now, more or less! It’s a way of growing together, generation by generation, thanks to those wonderful recordings.
Jonathan Manson (JM): We were working on and touring the Brandenburg concertos together at that time, as part of your 60th birthday celebrations, Trevor. You mentioned the possibility of playing and recording the Bach sonatas and I was quite interested by the idea of playing with a modern flute, it was something that I hadn’t done for many years. When we first got together, I was amazed by how easily it fitted; it didn’t seem to matter that we were using different kinds of instruments because the music making itself was so natural.
TGR: There are a lot of different schools of thought on period vs modern instruments, aren’t there?
TP: I think people who listen to our music often wonder about the whole business of old and new instruments, as we do. The difference for us is, as a basis, we’ve got very strong common ground in that we are simply musicians. It’s from that starting point that anything can be made to work.
JM: That’s always got to be the fundamental basis for musicmaking. From a practical point of view, I have to say that it’s also very enjoyable playing this repertoire with a modern flute because, as a cellist, you are often having to worry about balance and trying not to overwhelm a baroque flute. With a modern flute, that’s not really a problem of course; everyone can play out and we can all shape the lines very expressively. Also, the range of colours that you get in the hands of a master like Emmanuel is quite extraordinary – it’s a different sound world really.
TP: It’s important that we can use the instruments that we have and translate the music into those terms, as long as we can feel that we are still being true to Bach. We’re not trying to make modern and baroque similar; we’re trying to use what works in the situation and if we constantly ask whether we’re being faithful to Bach, I think it is possible. Thinking about the learning process you mentioned earlier Emmanuel, I’m aware every day when we play together of renewed learning. There is so much that I take from you and Jonathan just through listening; it’s one of the very great benefits of playing together year on year and growing together.
TGR: You all teach, coach, and give masterclasses. Do you think all instrumental students of conservatoire level should have basic tuition in the baroque and classical instruments?
JM: I teach at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and there’s a record number of students signing up for second study lessons on the baroque form of their instrument. Whether or not people actually play on those different instruments, or that they simply try to take on board some of the concepts, I think it’s a very healthy thing that we try to widen our creative perspective as much as possible.
TP: I recently did the St Matthew Passion at the RAM and I had a baroque orchestra that included a number of second study players both in the strings and winds. I was amazed at how well people adapted, and what a high standard they could reach. The benefit of this for all of those musicians is enormous. They may not choose to play on the baroque instruments as specialists but knowing something about the language gives them so much flexibility when they are approaching the music on their modern instruments.
EP: For flute playing, it’s true that if you do not explore the period instruments – the range of dynamics, articulation, how to sustain a note, the strong and weak notes depending on the fingering combination – then you have no idea of the musical language, the DNA of that musical language and the instrument that Bach may have had in mind and the challenges of this instrument. Having said this, the evolution of the flute hasn’t necessarily lost the original dynamic range or sweetness in the sound; it is possible to look for that in a modern instrument, if you know about it and want to.
JM: There are practical considerations for cellists too, when playing on gut strings. If you want to play baroque bass lines, I think it’s very important to know what it feels like to play on gut strings because they have very different tonal properties to modern strings. They have more articulation and, crucially, more resonance. On a modern string it’s necessary to sustain the note in order to keep the sound going, but on a gut string, you can release the note and still have the sound ringing.
TP: I feel that people should experiment, and once they have experimented then I’m happy that they choose whatever equipment they feel they can best express the music with.
TGR: How do you interpret what is on the page? Do Baroque composers give you enough information or do you have to go searching for it?
TP: I think the concept of accessing what the composer wanted is so important. If we’re playing new music with a living composer, we can of course ask the composer questions. If we’re playing old music, we should do just the same; we should follow our musical instincts and then go and have an imaginary telephone call with Bach or Mozart and if we have questions, ask ‘may I do that?’ This is a way of exploring our own musical sensitivity and conscience, and hopefully avoids the ego of someone who may be tempted to over-ornament, be too flamboyant for the music simply because they can. If we ‘telephone’ Bach, we know we shouldn’t do it and the whole notion disappears!
JM: It’s an intriguing question isn’t it, because Bach doesn’t leave much room for your own ornamentation, particularly in a slow movement – it’s already extremely elaborate ornamentation that he’s already written out. You have to be quite courageous to try and improve on Bach’s ornamentation!
TP: The problem is the difference in quality of the musical input. Putting Bach’s musical input next to Trevor Pinnock’s musical input – it’s quite clear who is the far greater musician! It’s a rather humbling experience and we should be very careful, but we can get some clues about the way he ornamented from his written-out ornamentation. We can also get an idea of his continuo style from the slow movement of the B minor flute sonata. It has the most wonderful accompaniment; big chords, very spacious use of the keyboard, and that surely is how Bach used to play continuo.
JM: I love listening to your performance of the Chromatic Fantasy, Trevor. It gives us a flavour of how exciting it must have been to watch Bach improvising at the harpsichord, which he was renowned for. It’s written out very carefully, isn’t it, but suggests an extraordinary spontaneity and flexibility of the toccata style?
TP: It does feel an enormous privilege to be allowed to see this sort of transcription of a Bach improvisation. It’s rather like the transcriptions of Art Tatum!
EP: Certainly listening to Trevor play this Chromatic Fantasy or the cadenza in the Fifth Brandenburg really gives the feeling that there is no limitation to the improvisation, and Bach could go anywhere – starting from any note and coming out in any key. He was just a master of complication and invention.
TP: And he was quite obsessed with chromaticism and the possibilities of what he could handle. We can see in the preludes and fugues, especially the second book of the 48 – that he could go beyond what any other musician could even think about in his daring.
TGR: How do you begin to approach performing Bach?
EP: What helped me a lot in approaching Bach’s music, and understanding the ornamentation and structure, was doing some jazz back in 2000/01. From talking with a jazz musician who had tremendous respect for Bach, I gained a better understanding of the role of the bass line, the counterpoint and the shape, and improvising whilst keeping that structure. It helped me to analyse, understand and feel baroque music much better.
JM: One of the responsibilities we cellists have is to understand how a bass line works, but one of the things I found fascinating whilst working on the cello suites is that you are trying to do so many different roles with one instrument, but that it is written in such a way that is not often clear on the page. For example in the violin sonatas, Bach writes more in a multi-part texture, using double stops and chords to suggest the counterpoint. With the cello suites it’s a more simplified texture but the musical content is just as complex. He’s having to find ways of suggesting things that can’t be actually stated, so the intellectual challenge for a cellist is to find a way of making things appear in the listeners imagination that you’re not actually playing.
TP: I think it’s part of the challenge for Bach actually; he could write more – the cello is physically capable of playing more simultaneously, but I think he was fascinated with how much he could leave out without compromising anything musically. For us, the notes on the page are very much only a starting point and we have to be quite clear about this, even when we are trying to be correct and historical. We have to create the illusions, the magic. That’s why having a clear fundamental structure must be the starting point otherwise we have a freedom but also chaos. To have real freedom we need to establish the underlying order then we can be as free as we like.
EP: Funnily, in German the origin of the word Künst or Künstler; Art or Artist, actually means an illusion, or being an illusionist.