Share our Passion week 4: Perspectives

This March and April we’ll perform and record JS Bach’s St John Passion. Our Share our Passion blog gives insights into the work and the performance.

Bojan Čičić
Our viola d’amore blog post from Week 3 inspired AAM violinist and viola d’amore player Bojan Čičić to share his view on why he believes the d’amore lends special importance to the authenticity of Bach’s masterpiece:

“Listening to this instrument reminds me of how much slower and quieter the tempo of life used to be in the 18th century. One has to lower the heart beat and forget about the outside world for a moment to appreciate the subtle sound world this instrument offers in the St John Passion.”

Bojan Cicic

Bojan Cicic

This week two more artists in our performance of St John Passion, soprano soloist Elizabeth Watts and Susanna Spicer, member of the Choir of the AAM, share why they are thrilled to be a part of this production.

Elizabeth Watts
“I am simply nuts about Bach. His music never fails to inspire surprise or move me. I have never, in fact, sung a St John Passion on Good Friday, the very day it was intended for, so I am excited to be both performing and recording the work at this time of year and particularly with the heart-felt and insightful playing of the AAM.”

Elizabeth Watts

Elizabeth Watts

Susanna Spicer
‘The St John Passion is one of the stand-out works in the repertoire. Being involved in a project based around it is therefore always something to be relished, and when a recording is involved as well, there is clearly an even more intense experience to come. It is also particularly potent when a John or Matthew actually takes place at Easter.  One of my other regular professional haunts is Brompton Oratory, where Holy Week is taken very seriously indeed and the music builds up the tension of the Crucifixion through daily renderings of Victoria’s magnificent Tenebrae Responses.  By Good Friday even the most atheistic of us can’t help getting caught up in the power of the Passion story and I am particularly thrilled that the Barbican concert of the AAM’s St John is happening that very afternoon. I therefore hope that my experiences at the Oratory will both inform and be informed by the overlap with the AAM project.

“Bach is also the Master of course, and there is nothing like a good immersion in one of his largest works for one to get back to the real nub of where the best music is to be found.  I also love singing for Richard [Egarr], because he really does allow one to SING. Nothing namby-pamby about his interpretations, and boy, can that be refreshing in these days of smaller and smaller renditions.  It’s gutsy stuff, and I’m sure Richard will bring that out in spades.

“I suppose my only concerns are that it is inevitably an incredibly intense period vocally, and there’s always a danger of becoming vulnerable to viruses when the workload is quite so concentrated, so I will be crossing my fingers that we all stay well. The other is that – dear St Jude’s (the recording studio) not only gets pretty cold if the wind chooses to pick up speed, but creaks and groans with every puff.  So if you are reading this, please pray for warm, STILL days for Bank Holiday week (and for a southern flight path into LHR)…”

Susanna Spicer

Susanna Spicer

Share our Passion
Join us at Barbican Hall, London, at 3pm on Good Friday, 29 March 2013 for a live performance. Click here to find out more.
Give just £10 to help make our recording possible. Click here to find out more.

Share our Passion week 3: introducing the viola d’amore

The subject of Bach’s inclusion of certain unpopular and nearly obsolete string instruments (lute, viola d’amore, bass viol) in the St John Passion has long been a subject of scholarly interest. By 1724 all three instruments were considered old fashioned by his contemporaries, and in later versions of the St John Passion Bach replaced the viola d’amore with muted violins. However Bach’s original choice of instrumental accompaniment was not without consideration of the instrument’s own rich imagery and associative function. It is believed Bach featured the bass viol in the alto aria ‘Est ist vollbracht’ (‘It is fulfilled’) because the instrument was thought to be identified with Lutheran sentiments attributed to the ‘sweetness of death’. For similar illustrative purposes, it is believed Bach originally chose the lute and the ethereal sound of the viola d’amore to express the meditative aria ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ (‘Reflect, my Soul’) and ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ (‘Consider how his blood-tinged back). When considering the importance of these instruments, the ‘Erwäge’ aria is a perfect illustration of Bach’s choice. The rainbow in the aria makes for one of Bach’s most beautiful pictures in music, and is immediately reflected in the notes which make a definitive arc repeated throughout the movement. The rainbow imagery of the aria is also repeated in the distinct structure of the seven-stringed d’amore, complementing the idea that the seven colours of the rainbow are represented by each string.

For this week’s Passion blog, we are fortunate to have AAM orchestra members Jane Rogers and Pavlo Beznosiuk share why they believe that the St John Passion would not be the same without the viola d’amore.

Viola d’amore, made in 1757 by the English maker John Marshall

Viola d’amore, made in 1757 by the English maker John Marshall

Jane Rogers

“Initially I came to play the viola d’amore at the request of a colleague — and somewhat reluctantly I might add as it is a notoriously complicated instrument! My story begins twenty years ago: we were about to perform the John Passion with Florilegium and Trinity Baroque, and Julian Podger (who was directing the project) decided that he would like to have violas d’amore playing numbers 19 and 20 rather than muted violins (which Bach resorted to in his later revisions of the piece). Rachel Podger and I managed to borrow a couple of d’amores and taught ourselves how to play these strange and wonderful instruments in the space of about a week.

“The viola d’amore has a most distinctive sound. The sympathetic strings which lie underneath the strings which are bowed resonate wonderfully to create a bitter-sweet, haunting and almost unearthly sound. The way in which you tune the strings and the angle at which they sit on the bridge of the instrument allow for easy execution of chords further adding to the resonance of the instrument. The dimensions of the viola d’amore aren’t really standardised and so differ quite a lot between instruments. Some have a longer or wider neck or are deeper in the body making them more difficult or easier to play depending on your own physiology.

“Word then seemed to get around that I was suddenly some kind of authority on the instrument and people just kept asking me to play concertos and other pieces involving it. I often felt quite awkward about this because I didn’t own an instrument and couldn’t at that time really afford to buy one. Luckily Roy Goodman said I could always borrow his as he rarely used it, and for the few concerts per year that it was needed this arrangement worked well.

“Two years ago I was asked by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra to play the d’amore in their St John Passion tour (13 concerts in a row!). Roy’s d’amore wasn’t available so I replied to the orchestra agreeing to play on the condition that they found me an instrument in Holland. I secretly hoped they wouldn’t be able to find anything and would have to opt for the muted violin version, as touring the John Passion can be logistically a bit of a pain for the d’amore player, because you have to carry around your viola as well as your viola d’amore and the rest of your luggage. Most airlines won’t allow you on the flight with two instruments which necessitates bribing some unsuspecting member of the choir or a keyboard player into carrying one of the instruments for you. On this particular tour we had a flight (sometimes two) every day. Stephaan, the tour assistant, got on the case and found three instruments from which I could make a choice. I then had to decide, without seeing any of them, which one sounded most promising.

“I turned up three hours before the first rehearsal in Amsterdam to hurriedly get acquainted with the instrument and I was most pleasantly surprised. He had found a viola d’amore made in 1757 by the English maker John Marshall. It had been most kindly loaned by Bouman violin shop in The Hague and all the orchestra had to do was pay the insurance.

it feels like an old friend and I have the distinct sensation that its presence and participation in the coming project is a thing meant to be.

“It was the first time I felt a real affinity with an instrument from the moment I picked it up. It was just perfect. This instrument felt really comfortable and easy to play-easy isn’t a word you naturally associate with the viola d’amore given its odd shape and all those extra strings you have to tune! I had a lovely time getting to know the instrument on that tour and was sad to hear on returning it that it wasn’t for sale. I did ascertain, however, that I might be able to borrow it again if needed.

“When AAM announced its intentions to perform and record the John Passion and I was asked to play one of the d’amore parts I knew immediately that I wanted to borrow the Marshall — it really felt like nothing else would do. The problem was how to transport it from Holland to the UK. We racked our brains on how to do this without specifically forking out for a return flight in one day and it was all looking a bit difficult. Andrew Moore (our Orchestral Manager) and I came up with a somewhat complicated plan that involved me leaving Paris at the end of one tour at 6.30 am to get to the Hague for 9am, collecting the instrument and meeting up with the rest of the orchestra at Schiphol airport to get the bus to our concert in Groningen (North Holland) later that day. Out of the blue on the morning that we were about to book the train ticket I got a message from a friend Marcin who just happened to live in the Hague on the same street as the violin shop! He had miraculously remembered me mentioning in passing several months previously the need to transport the instrument and was coming to London to play a concert the following week — and strangely enough he was coming to play with Rachel Podger, my first St John Passion partner!

“As I write this, the viola d’amore is sitting next to me having arrived only two days ago. I’m just delighted to see it again — it feels like an old friend and I have the distinct sensation that its presence and participation in the coming project is a thing meant to be. I am so looking forward to playing it. I’d like to thank Lies Bouman of Bouman violin shop Den Haag for her generosity and trust in lending this beautiful specimen of one of the most characterful members of the string family.”

Pavlo Beznosiuk

“I’m delighted and privileged to have secured the loan of a particularly fine viola d’amore for the AAM St John Passion recording. I’m very grateful to the Royal Academy of Music (it is part of their collection) for allowing me to use this instrument by Thomas Eberle (1727-1792) a violin maker who was born in Austria but settled in Naples early on in his life and probably studied with Nicola Gagliano, arguably the most important member of this Neapolitan dynasty of luthiers.

“I’ve just had the instrument for a couple of weeks — a “get-to-know-you” period which is very important when trying out an unfamiliar violin, but doubly so when finding one’s way around a viola d’amore, familiar or not. The instrument has 7 strings which are bowed and 7 sympathetic metal strings which sit underneath the main set and vibrate naturally whenever a consonance occurs. It is this extra set of strings and its viol-like structure which give the d’amore its unique and distinctive colour, plaintive, silvery and other-worldly.

“In the John Passion this is used in the aria “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken”, a meditation on Jesus’ agony on the cross. The plethora of strings makes tuning rather a palaver, especially if you feel it necessary (as I did) to change the gauges of some of the strings, partly to increase the tension slightly but also to adjust the relative levels of the strings on the bridge.

It is this extra set of strings and its viol-like structure which give the d’amore its unique and distinctive colour, plaintive, silvery and other-worldly.

“On a bridge with 7 seven strings the line on which you draw the bow (a tangent to the curve of the bridge) without touching strings on either side is a matter of pinpoint accuracy, a change of 0.1 of a millimetre in the gauge of a string can change things radically. So this is how my week has been spent, experimenting with different strings, different bows, an exercise in geometry as much as anything else.

“It’s a joy to play this aria on such an instrument and I have an added bonus this time as I get to play the top part, having played the 2nd part twice on past recordings (John Eliot Gardiner and Philippe Herreweghe). I’m looking forward now to playing Bach’s incredible music on this wonderful instrument.”

Share our Passion week 2: Richard Egarr introduces the St John Passion

In our latest film, AAM Music Director Richard Egarr introduces the St John Passion, the different versions which survive and the cast for the AAM’s performance and recording later this year.

We need to raise £5,000 to make our recording happen, and over the past ten days 50 people have generously donated £2,000. If you’d like to help, you can donate from just £10 by visiting

Share our Passion week 1: our new Bach recording, and how you can get involved

In April 2013 we will record JS Bach’s original 1724 version of the St John Passion — a work of intimate scale and moving lyricism which reaches immediately to the emotional heart of the passion story.

The total cost of this recording is £50,000, of which £45,000 has already been raised. Just £5,000 is now needed to make the project possible.

We’re looking for a group of people who share our love of Bach to give £10 each. Your generous support will be matched by Arts Council England, meaning that — with Gift Aid — a donation of £10 will be worth £22.50 to us.

Donate now
Find out about benefits

Over the past 40 years the AAM has made over 300 recordings of baroque and classical music, winning Brit and Grammy Awards along the way. This will be our first-ever recording of the St John Passion. With a superlative cast including James Gilchrist, Sarah Connolly, Andrew Kennedy, Elizabeth Watts, Christopher Purves and Matthew Rose, and directed by Richard Egarr, this will be a landmark project.

The St John Passion is an intensely personal experience, bringing to life the humanity of the passion story. Combining raw viscerality with moments of exquisite intimacy, it was written soon after Bach’s arrival as Kantor at Leipzig’s Thomasschule. Keen to impress a new congregation, Bach produced a setting of the age-old passion story which overshadowed almost every piece of liturgical music the world had previously known. Our recording aims to capture the authenticity and vivacity of the very first Good Friday performance at Leizpig’s Nikolaikirche.

And if you’re still not convinced, come and see for yourself! Our recording will follow a performance featuring this cast at the Barbican on Good Friday, 29 March 2013. Click here for more details.

“The AAM’s authenticity here went to the core of Bach’s responses to the Easter story, and to the beating heart of his musical language”
The Times on our performance of the St John Passion, Good Friday 2009

This is the AAM’s first ever crowdfunding campaign. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, ‘crowdfunding’ means that we rely on you — our audience, and our fellow Bach fans — to help us reach our goal. It means that the project cannot happen without likeminded people taking action and making a donation.

The total cost of the St John Passion recording will be £50,000. We have already raised £45,000 towards this total. Our goal is to raise £5,000 by Good Friday, 29 March 2013, to make the project possible.

‘Matched funding’ means that every donation made to the campaign, no matter how small or large, will be matched and therefore doubled by funding from Arts Council England. Gift Aid stretches your gift even further, meaning that a donation of £10 actually becomes a gift of £22.50!

We’re not only asking you to support this project today; we’re inviting you to come along for the entire journey. Our Passion blog will feature interesting facts about the version we’re recording and our cast, interviews from the artists themselves, a daily journal from inside the recording studio, and more. And we’ll keep you informed about our fundraising milestones achieved along the way.

Next week we’ll start looking into the St John Passion in greater depth, with an exclusive interview with AAM Music Director Richard Egarr. Subscribe to our blog at the bottom of this page to get the film straight to your inbox.


Richard Egarr on JS Bach’s English Suites

Our Music Director Richard Egarr launches his new recording of Bach’s English Suites with lunch-time performances in Cambridge (31 Jan) and London (2 Feb). Ahead of the release, he talked to Harmonia Mundi about these enigmatic works.

“As a player I find personally the most pleasure in the earlier keyboard collections. The Toccatas, Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1, Brandenburg Concerto No.5 and the so-called English Suites seem to delight in purely physical keyboard pleasure and imagination that is often absent from the later works. This is a true cycle of pieces – one of Bach’s first and certainly one of his best. The care with which Bach has planned their path, and the skill in creating a musical journey to a most fearful place is astonishing. The way to redemption and salvation after this journey is perhaps shown by the key sequence of the Suites: A a g F e d. These six notes clearly describe the Chorale tune ‘Jesu, meine Freude’. I recorded the Suites in order; I certainly felt that it helped me make the musical path clearer. My trusty Katzman harpsichord was a glorious partner, its quill plectra wonderfully flexible and responsive in giving life and colour to this most imaginative music.”

Listen to an excerpt on the AAM website here

Live in concert
31 January 2013, 1pm, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge (book here)
2 February 2013, 1pm, Kings Place, London (book here)

On CD (released 12 Feb 2013)
Read more and listen to excerpts on the Harmonia Mundi website here
Pre-order on Amazon UK here

Richard Egarr English Suites

Richard Egarr English Suites

Launching the Friends of the AAM

AAM Head of Fundraising Simon Fairclough updates us on the AAM’s family of supporters, and unveils the Friends of the AAM

People always look quizzical the first time I tell them that concerts lose money.  It is hard to believe that, even when a hall is completely sold out, the cost of getting the Academy of Ancient Music on stage to perform exceeds ticket income by many thousands of pounds.

Yet the reality is that when you or I book tickets for a concert the price we pay rarely covers more than a third of the cost of our seat.

How is it, then, that we’ve all been enjoying world-class performances from the AAM over the last four decades?  Who has made up the difference?

For many years the other two thirds have been covered by members of the AAM Society — wonderful, generous individuals who care passionately about the AAM and donate between £250 and £20,000 every year towards its work.

The regular support of our Society members is the backbone of our financial strength: without it we would quite simply be unable to continue to perform.  We are incredibly grateful to them all.  But we have an ambitious vision for the future, and we’ve recently been augmenting their support with additional funding which is enabling us to achieve even greater things.

In 2011 we were fortunate to secure regular support from Arts Council England for the first time in our history.  Over the last eighteen months we’ve been equally lucky (and incredibly grateful!) to secure a number of transformative, six-figure donations from private funders.

This funding is enabling us to make a step-change in all aspects of our work.  We’re building up our recently-established AAMplify new generation programme, which nurtures the audiences, performers and arts managers of the future; we’re enriching our concert programmes in Cambridge and particularly in London, where we’ve recently been appointed as Associate Ensemble at the Barbican; and we are now working on the establishment of our own record label.  It’s an exciting journey!

Looking ahead, our biggest priority is to make the step-change permanent — and the very best way to do so is to build up even further our ‘family’ of individual supporters.  While income from institutional funders can fluctuate, support from a large group of individual donors is incredibly stable.

For a while, some of the people at the heart of our audience have been encouraging us to establish a new supporters’ group, the Friends of the AAM.  I am delighted that we’re now in a position to do so.  From just £2.50 per month you can get more closely involved with the orchestra, meeting the musicians and receiving exclusive updates on our work while also supporting the music you love.

Because the AAM is a charity we can claim Giftaid on your donation, boosting its value by 25%.  Even better, we’ve received a challenge grant to get us started which means that every pound you donate over the next two years will be matched: give us £30 or £60 and it’ll be worth £60 or £120 to us, plus gift aid. Multiply that figure by a two or three-figure number of Friends, and you’re already at an amount that would go a long way to making an otherwise-impossible project possible.

If 1,000 people gave £2.50 per month, their support would be worth over £400,000 over ten years with Giftaid.  That’s enough to underwrite our AAMplify new generation programme, or to support our wonderful Music Director’s work with the orchestra. The Friends will be an important part of our future: we’d love to welcome you as a founder-member.

– Find out more about the Friends of the AAM and join now here

Christopher Gibbons (1615-76) – the making of a world-premiere recording – day 2

The second installment of our behind-the-scenes blog from the recording sessions for our new release, written by Julian Forbes, tenor in the Choir of the AAM.

Buy the CD for just £10 plus p&p and listen to samples at

Day 2 (Thursday 11 November 2010)

There are two three-hour sessions scheduled this afternoon in which we must record around fifteen minutes worth of music. The pressure is intense. Richard has to take aspirin and a banana, Ed Hastings needs to be restrained and Charmian Bedford temporarily forgets her postcode. Finally, after a group yogalates session led by James Geer and readings from The Ladybird Book of Great Speeches by Sean Kerr, we’re ready to go.

We sing in a standard two-row choir formation, ranged on the altar steps. harmonia mundi’s four microphones are positioned in a square in front of us, surrounding Richard, and elevated on booms to a height of about twelve feet. Having done a preliminary rehearsal to refresh the music in our minds and voices, the mikes are switched on and we do a complete run of the piece. It’s unlikely that this take will be used, but it’s good for all of us, performers and engineers, to establish a sense of the whole piece as it sounds in this building. Then we proceed by sections. In the verse anthems, these are easy to isolate; in the full anthem, there’s no option but to cut in at a certain point and it’ll be up to Brad to do the grafting and overlapping afterwards. We try to record each section without stopping (If you think that this is a given, think again: there are some conductors out there who throw themselves entirely on the artistry of their sound engineer, recording in six-bar bleeding chunks – the first time that the performers ever experience the piece as a whole is when they listen to the CD a year later).

The quality control is provided in the first instance by Richard but Robina also has copies of the music at her desk in the recording booth in the crypt, and very occasionally chips in to alert us to an infelicity or inconsistency. “How many beats are you holding that last chord for?”, she enquires at one stage. Richard does his Shogun-sucking-a-lemon face. “BEATS?” he retorts, “How many beats? How big is an elephant? I don’t do beats!”

As we move into the early evening and darkness settles, the industrial bar heaters installed around our recording space become the dominant light source, bathing Richard in a diablolick glow and inspiring your correspondent to mentally riff on puns like Beelzegarr and Devilled Eggar. Perhaps affrighted by this awesome spectacle before us, we work at a cracking pace and have finished recording the lot by the end of the first session at 5.30pm.

A frequent pleasure of discovering a new composer and their music is the obligation to reassess your opinions. Until these recording sessions I believed that English music quietly pensioned itself off round about the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, cringed downstairs for the first two-thirds of the seventeenth century whilst the country merrily cavaliered and roundheaded, and only returned to health and invention with the restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s. But on the evidence of the three pieces we’ve recorded today, Gibbons junior was a highly talented composer whose horizons were in no way shortened by his country’s self-involved predicament.

Take the opening of Not unto us, O Lord. The eight-part texture (itself a statement of confidence and ambition) grows gradually from the second bass upwards, each part rubbing up discordantly against the next and the entries following each other at ever-shorter intervals – you’d say he’d taken the technique from Antonio Lotti, except Lotti wasn’t born until 1667. In the verse anthem setting of Psalm 110, The Lord said unto my Lord, meanwhile, the choir sings great homophonic blocks of text in an aggressive, percussive style that can’t but make you think of the equivalent sections of Monteverdi’s Vespers.

More generally, there are strong affinities with the work of German composer Heinrich Schütz, who was thirty years Gibbons’ senior but died only four years before. Schütz more or less single-handedly created a form called the Kleines Geistliches Konzert, or Little Spiritual Concerto. On the evidence of this music, I’d contend that Christopher Gibbons had some knowledge or experience of the German’s work. Schützophrenia abounds in the contour of the melodies, the combinations of the voices in ensemble (listen out for some exciting formation switches in which the alto and top soprano suddenly swap parts!) – in everything, in fact, which meets the shifting substance of the language. Most Schützophrenic of all (though also redolent of Byrd) is the way in which the music is frequently capable of achieving thrills and grandeurs apparently out of all proportion to its size. This really is music worth listening to again and again.

Christopher Gibbons - Motets, anthems, fantasias and voluntaries

Christopher Gibbons (1615-76) – the making of a world-premiere recording – day 1

This week we unveil the world-premiere recording of music by the seventeenth-century English composer Christopher Gibbons.

You can buy the CD for just £10 plus p&p, listen to samples, read press reviews and find out more at

Here, we revisit a blog written by Julian Forbes, a tenor in the Choir of the AAM (which makes its recording debut on this disc), written during the recording sessions.

Day 1 (Wednesday 10 November 2010)

Samuel Pepys was a crude sort of chap. If you read unexpurgated editions of his diaries you’ll find all sorts of filth. There’s one sequence, covering several days, in which he reports initial indignation at discovering that his bookseller has chosen to stock a pornographic novel, subsequent fascination as he makes several special trips to read it in-store and eventual capitulation as he shamelessly buys it. There’s another memorable entry in which he describes his wife’s dismay upon surprising him in his parlour in the act of doing something decidedly Channel Five to the maid. But from manure pretty flowers grow, and it’s mucky Pepys you’ve got to thank for the AAM’s latest project, a CD of music by the English composer Christopher Gibbons (1615-76).

Passing references to this composer, mentioned only by surname, drew Richard Egarr’s interest some years ago as he was reading the diaries – he assures me not for the naughty bits – since the figure in question clearly couldn’t be Gibbons, O., who collapsed of a seizure in 1625. He decided to find out more about this unfamiliar iteration, and eventually, with the aid of an academic thesis written by a musicologist based in Palo Alto, California, succeeded in assembling a programme of his music comprising verse anthems, instrumental fantasias and organ voluntaries. Now, several years later, a generous donation from one of our patrons has enabled us to record this programme with our label harmonia mundi USA.

All this American aid! The politicians may argue about the ongoing value of the Special Relationship to defence, trade and diplomacy but mark my words, for the preservation in the public awareness of the English Restoration Verse Anthem, it’s critical. God bless the land of the free for vouchsafing our Gibbons.

Samuel Pepys

So here we all are at the church of All Hallows, Gospel Oak, a recording venue much-prized by ensembles and recording engineers for its relatively quiet environment and flattering acoustic, together with Robina Young (producer) and Brad Michel (sound engineer) from harmonia mundi. Our task today is to rehearse the choral sections of the programme, namely two verse anthems, Above the Stars my Saviour dwells and The Lord said unto my Lord (in which the chorus actually only makes a cameo appearances between solo sections sung by solo sopranos and bass) and one full choir anthem, Not unto us, O Lord.

Richard being Richard, the rehearsal is not just a venue in which to get the notes right, but a place in which we can really get to grips with things like text, rhythm, texture and, oh yes, tonality. Our cruising altitude on this project is higher than it was for Family Bach back in September [performances of music by JS Bach’s forebears in September 2010); we’re singing and playing at the equivalent of modern concert pitch (A=440Hz), but, just as with the French Stinky Pitch [Richard Egarr’s nickname for the temperament used on this recording] adopted for our Bach concerts, so here too we have oddities of temperament to negotiate. That means, once again, wide fourths and narrow fifths – and certain notes sitting lower (B natural) or higher (C natural) than you might instinctively place them.

Richard spends a good deal of time insisting on those subtleties this morning, frequently “freezing” the music at a certain chord in order to make us really listen to how our constituent contributions are sounding. This process can get mighty frustrating since no musician likes stop-starting, and the occasional rebellious mutter can be heard as this or that note is encouraged upwards or downwards for the umpteenth time. But there’s no denying the chords’ enhanced glow when properly calibrated, and in this music, in which the harmonic shifts can be startlingly abrupt and unprepared, it’s all the more important that we articulate them cleanly.

Moreover, this obsessive ethos is what makes the recording studio special. Live performance is all about spontaneity, finding the moment, surfing the wave, present-participling the noun. And, yes, there’s a big market for recordings which allegedly capture that spontaneity. We’re by no means aiming for renditions which sound machined or robotic, but the safety net provided by the recording engineer’s ability to cut and patch enables us to assemble accounts of this music which are as close to perfection as we can collectively get them. Perfection is, after all, what musicians are always after. And I’d argue that the presence of this safety net in fact allows us all to be more spontaneous. We can give anything a try, take any risk we like: if it doesn’t work, the audience’ll never hear it…

The French baroque: Louis XIV and rare deep-voiced flutes

Tonight we give the first of two performances exploring French sacred music during the reign of the ‘Sun King’ — a time of extraordinary creative outpouring under the generous patronage under dancer and Arts-fanatic Louis XIV.

Louis XIV as Apollo in Le Ballet Royal de la nuit. Painting by Henri Gissey, 1653.

Louis XIV as Apollo in Le Ballet Royal de la nuit. Painting by Henri Gissey, 1653.

Jean-Baptiste Lully — Italian-born son of a Florentine miller — came to France as a scullion in a minor household before entering royal service as a dancer in 1652. He rapidly became the favourite of Louis. The pair’s shared enthusiasm for dance fostered a close relationship, resulting in Lully’s undeniable monopoly over French musical life.

Believing himself to embody divinely-ordained power, Louis’ great patronage of the arts was all with a view to immortalising his influence — and very successful it was, too. Court musician, viol player and favourite pupil of Lully’s Marin Marais dedicated his Pièces de viol to his teacher with the words

“[Lully’s] music alone was worthy of accompanying his immortal history; the music will be heard by every nation to the glory of [Louis XIV’s] name.”

Tonight’s performance features flutes that are virtually identical to those that would have been played in Louis’ court, as AAM principal Rachel Brown elaborates.

Rachel Broan, AAM principal flute“Co-flautist Guy Williams and I just happen to have virtually identical instruments (the type of flute seen in the foreground below), made by Scottish but Californian-based craftsman, Roderick Cameron. Rod copied an original by the late seventeenth-century French maker Pierre Naust (except of course that La Barre’s in the image below was made of ivory whereas ours are in blackwood). Coincidentally we both bought the instruments around the same time, back in the 1980s, shortly after which I used mine for my first ever solo recording (French Baroque Music/Chandos). They’re very well-matched instruments.”

“Pitch was never standardized but in France a generally low pitch prevailed. These flutes are almost (but not exactly) a whole tone lower than modern concert pitch. Many modern replicas are adapted to A392 (a whole tone lower) to allow easy transposition of the harpsichord keyboard. Consequently we haven’t used these instruments very often. But as this project came up, it dawned on me that Guy and I would be the only two wind players, and the instruments are perfect for the repertoire so the string players have graciously adopted our pitch!

“The flutes have a lovely deep voice. They’re distinctive-looking, too, with beautifully-turned head caps and foot joints — much more decorative to look at than most baroque flutes — as well as a whole centre piece carved from one piece of wood, rather than two, as in later flutes.”

La Barre and Other Musicians, Bouys, c. 1710, oil on canvas

Michel de la Barre (right-hand side, turning the music) was a flautist and composer. The original painting is life-size, measuring 160 x 127cm, and is painted with such accuracy that the score (one of La Barre’s compositions) is legible.

Join us tonight at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge, or tomorrow night at London’s Wigmore Hall; download a copy of the concert programme for free here; or if you can’t make it along in person, listen live on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 27 June at 7.30pm.