Has the combination of your intimate acquaintance with Monteverdi’s works and your love of Italy made you want to find a way to perform the music of his contemporaries?
Yes. In 2006 I hope to take an active role in a festival of Venetian music in Venice based on Monteverdi and the music of his time. It won’t only take place in the famous churches like San Marco and San Giovanni e Paolo; there will be smaller, lesser-known churches involved, too. I hope there will also be ‘itinerant concerts’: musical journeys that begin in one church and continue in another, in which the works performed correspond perfectly to the architecture, style and acoustics.
You’ve also been deeply involved all your life with another composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. For the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, you and your musicians spent a magical year in the company of his sacred music—the cantatas.
The Bach adventure was an incredible experience. Neither the musicians nor I could ever have imagined the effect his music would have on the public or us. For Bach, the cantatas formed part of the Lutheran liturgy, and were performed just after the Gospel reading. Whatever our individual beliefs, we respected the religious origin of the pieces, which were written for all the Sundays and feast days throughout the year. It was a very moving year, following the rhythms of the church year, tracing the development of his musical thought. We lived like nomads, travelling through thirteen European countries. At a rate of three to four cantatas per concert, we performed all 198 of the surviving works in a total of 82 concerts. We finished the series in 2000 at Christmastime in New York.
Did you meet with any obstacles during the year you spent exclusively with Bach’s music? It must have been difficult, and it lasted such a long time.
Logistically and financially, everything was difficult from start to finish. We met with scepticism, hostility even. There was also quite a lot of incomprehension, but mostly great enthusiasm for the project. Luckily, the musicians’ conviction made it possible to carry the project through, and we even managed to keep our Dutch recording engineers working with us. Issuing complete recordings of the entire pilgrimage is now a realistic possibility, and we’re now in negotiation with a record company; but it was never the main point or driving force of the project. It was much more than that: it was a spiritual as well as a musical pilgrimage, both on the individual level and as a group. I think that each of us was probably altered in different ways and regenerated by this initiatory journey.
You mentioned your final concert in New York. Were there other moments of great emotion on the tour?
Absolutely, and too many to count: Iona, Rome, Weimar, Wittenberg, but perhaps especially Eisenach, the town where Bach was born. The pastor of Saint George’s church asked us to lead the music of the Easter Sunday service before our evening concert. From the organ loft where we were standing, we could see the font where Bach had been baptised and the pulpit from which Luther preached. We sang pieces by Praetorius, Schütz and Bach in an atmosphere of contemplation and meditation. The townspeople who were attending sang the chorales with us, just as they would have done in Bach’s time. I felt that nothing had materially changed in all the intervening years.
Arab music bewitched me—it seemed to me not just exotic but emotionally incredibly intense. My deep love for Monteverdi—who was surely influenced by the Turkish music he heard in Venice—was perhaps already at that stage linked to and enhanced by my affection for Arab music