In 2010 they won a Grammy for their recording of a contemporary work; now their last CD in a series of Schütz is about to be released. Paul Hillier talks to Claudine Nightingale about the special mix that is Ars Nova Copenhagen.
Organ & Music April - www.choirandorgan.com
By Claudine Nightingale
'It doesn't matter how many rehearsals you have, it's the reality of getting up and performing it that makes you realize, "Ah, that's how this piece works!"' Paul Hillier is talking about his new 4-CD project of the narrative works of Heinrich Schütz, which he has recorded with Ars Nova Copenhagen for Dacapo. Denmark's leading vocal ensemble Ars Nova was founded in 1979 and soon established a strong reputation for singing a combination of early and new music. Since Hillier took on the mantle of chief conductor in 2003 the group has scaled new heights, with tours in Europe, Asaia, and North and South America, as well as winning a Grammy in February 2010 for its recording of David Lang's The Little Match Girl - all the more impressive for an ensemble from a country whose population is barely half of that of London.
Among the many new influences that Englishman Hillier has brought to the ensemble is his love of the narrative, most evident in the recent Schütz releases. But was this the only reason Hillier settled on 18 month with Schütz? ‘I've been performing Schütz over the years', explains Hillier ‘and at first I thought about doing all three Passions'. But I've become interested in programmes that tell a story as a way to present something that's a bit more than just another concert. So I decided to record all the narrative works, including the Christmas Story, the Resurrection and the Seven Last Words, because (they tell) elements of the story - it's not just a meditation.'
Hillier was first attracted to the works by Schütz's chant-like solo lines: ‘They're very subtly created and in his own style. It's like plainchant - but it's something else. It really impressed me.'
Prior to each recording, Hillier insists on performing the work(s) before an audience, because ‘you don't really know music until you've performed it in front of an audience. You learn things that you will never learn just by rehearsing it.' This also gives the opportunity to gauge the reactions of a live audience. Although Schütz's name is relatively well known, the gamut of his musical achievements is much less so. Hos have audiences reacted to these works? ‘Very well; people know they're coming to hear a Passion, it's in a church, so they take it seriously and they're ready for it. The other thing is that, although this is Denmark and the Passions are in German, most people here understand German pretty well, if not very well - (Germany's) just down the road.'
‘You don't really know music until
you've performed it in front of an audience' (Paul Hillier)
Danish musicians enjoy the benefit of churches having a more proactive attitude to hosting musical performances than is found in many other countries. Furthermore, the Danish Government offers sizable financial support to classical music. ‘It's not without its problems', Hillier comments, ‘and nobody is resting on their laurels; but compared to a lot of other places it's actually quite good.' Local people think this investment reflects the population's strong interest in classical music events, the income from which matched that from popular music events in 2010.
Ars Nova's programmes vary between presenting portraits of single composers or genres from either the renaissance or baroque or from today, and exploring currents across the different periods via a broad spectrum of repertoire. Key to its commitment to contemporary music is the appointment of a composer in residence to work alongside the group for a year at a time. Sunleif Rasmussen (2009-10) from the Faroe Islands, and Iceland's Áskell Másson (2010-11) reflect another strand of the ensemble's programme, explains Hillier: ‘Recently we have been commissioning some works connected to the North Atlantic - not the water, but the countries surrounding it. (We claim) to explore the histories, themes and stories that come out of the countries. ‘Másson's Thor's Hammer, premiered in Copenhagen on 1 February, sets a 12th-century Icelandic poem which tells a story from the Eddas about Thor's hammar being stolen by Thrymur.
In addition to recording for Dacapo and Harmonia mundi, in 2006 Ars Nova launched its own record label - a growing trend for classical ensembles these days. The independent label was another of Hillier's ideas: ‘We have control over the whole process, which is fun. It's a small part of what we're doing, but I'm very happy with what we've done so far.'
Learn more about the ensemble on the website: www.arsnovacopenhagen.com