Richard Egarr: “The closer you get to baroque, the dirtier it gets”

Richard Egarr, the master of early music on all types of keyboard, has been appearing as a guest conductor with the Residentie Orkest for many years, conducting everything from Bach to Beethoven. He will soon be putting Bruckner’s ‘Nullte’ symphony on our music stands. But wait a minute… Egarr will be conducting Bruckner?

The son of a railway worker, Richard Egarr was born in the north of England in 1963. The radio at home was always playing pop music and toddler Richard was a fan of the vocals of Perry Como and Cliff Richard. But more music soon came into his life: a teacher played the piano during recess at the school that Richard attended. The instrument fascinated him. He urged his parents to get one for him to try out at home. They gave in and found an old minipiano.

Young Richard threw himself at the instrument with all his untamed musical energy. The five-octave folding keyboard soon proved too small for his talent and a real, though very worn, piano was found in a shed. “It couldn’t be tuned to the normal pitch,” Richard laughs, “and that semitone difference – baroque tuning – was most definitely a sign!”

The family later moved to York, where Richard became a choirboy in the city’s cathedral and underwent extensive musical training. He took lessons in piano and organ, among other things, and became familiar with a lot of early music. Richard’s affinity with the organ was so strong that he went to Manchester to study it further and later to Clare College, Cambridge.

At Cambridge in 1982, he came across a harpsichord in a chapel and started playing it. It wasn’t long before a few other musicians joined him and together they discovered the then still largely unexplored world of early music. In 1987, Richard and his ensemble were coached by Gustav and Marie Leonhardt in Amsterdam, a city that captured his heart and where he still lives.

In the 1990s, Richard built a career as a soloist and chamber musician. So how did he get into conducting?

“At Cambridge, you could experiment and perform concerts to your heart’s delight. I conducted many choral works but was soon conducting long instrumental pieces too, simply from where I was sitting behind the harpsichord. The musicians didn’t seem to find it too annoying, so I kept doing it. Later, the ensembles got a bit bigger, all the way up to symphony orchestras, to my complete amazement AND pleasure!”

In 2006, Richard became the music director of the Academy of Ancient Music. Since then, he has been appearing regularly as a guest conductor with larger ‘bands’, such as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Residentie Orkest. Does he have a different working method with symphony orchestras than when dealing with baroque ensembles?

“I never lecture symphony orchestras on playing style and that sort of thing. There’s no time for it anyway. It’s always about atmosphere, about colours and even smells. Obviously, baroque players know ‘how it should be done’, but there are nonetheless substantial differences in playing style between, for example, a Dutch and an American or French baroque ensemble. So, with them, too, I’m mainly concerned with musical communication. And that never changes, whether I’m standing in front of 10 musicians or 100.”

Richard’s views on many things in music, including the use of vibrato, are clear.

“The closer you get to baroque, the dirtier it gets! Vibrato has always been a matter of taste, but the continuous vibrating, which involves vibrating every note, is a 20th-century invention. However, the now common way of playing ‘baroque violin’ – vibratoless, lots of open strings, low positions, all very clean – is also a complete misconception! The portamento, involving connecting one note to the next, was the norm in the classical period and before. If you look at the fingering of violinists like Jean-Marie Leclair and Ferdinand David, you can see how they keep melodies on a single string and add colour with subtle glissandi and perhaps a touch of vibrato on a longer note. This lets them imitate the human voice.”

Bruckner’s Nullte
What style of playing does Richard have in mind for the Residentie Orkest when it performs Bruckner’s ‘Nullte’ symphony?

“This symphony was composed in 1865. Remember that Bruckner, Brahms and Wagner were contemporaries of Mendelssohn. What sort of line-up did the orchestras of that period have? Did Bruckner have the 60 string players of the modern symphony orchestra in mind, or could he get by with 40 like Brahms did? The musicians of the time were all still ‘classically’ trained; what style of playing did they use?

“The portamento was common practice at that time too. Orchestral musicians made mutual agreements about its use; you can still hear this on early 20th-century recordings. And the vibrato was still being used in controlled amounts, although even then there were conductors who complained about all that continuous vibrato! I mean to say, everything was in a state of flux then and that makes Bruckner’s symphonies interesting for me. The Residentie Orkest is of course the perfect orchestra with which to embark on this adventure!”

Soltani meets Egarr

Friday 8 February 2019

The dark green colours of vast forests, the bright blue ripples of winding rivers and the lovely scent of pine cones. Prepare yourself for a concert full of romance.

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