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An interview with Gordon Jones on the ensemble’s Bach record

Your repertoire ranges from Perotin, who was active around 1200, to the composers of the present day. Baroque music however seems to play a minor role. What is the historic position of Bach’s motets in that wide array?

For us they are very unusual, sitting there in the 18th century. We don’t have much music from the time between Monteverdi and the late twentieth century, mostly because of the vocal ranges involved and also because very often you need accompanying instruments, so that’s not an area we get into very much. But these are pieces we’ve all been singing since we were young, we are all very fond of them and they suit us well.

Does your experience with older music affect your view on Bach’s motets which obviously are very late contributions to the genre?

We always try to respect the style of the music we sing and what we most talk about is how we want to phrase things. Phrasing Bach is very different from phrasing a Machaut motet, because the phrases have a different length and the words are set differently. That’s why we tend to give special attention to the words and their rhythm. Surprisingly if you see how much we perform in Germany we sing very little German music, actually just a few pieces, some Leonhard Lechner (born 1553), but hardly any Schütz or Buxtehude, simply because their music doesn’t suit our voices.

Which role have Bach’s motets played in your career so far?

We recorded them in the mid eighties before my time as a regular member of the group. Back then we were collaborating with the boys of the Hannover Knabenchor, and while we were quite enjoying ourselves, the boys depended on being told what to do by the director, and we’ve always wanted to sing and to record this music as we do it with our other repertoire. During some years we’ve been performing “Jesu meine Freude” just occasionally in mixed programmes that’s why we felt we should revisit the Bach and see what we could make of it with a maximum of eight singers and no director.

What exactly was it that you wanted to do differently?

If you really all make your own decisions, listening to one another as you go along, it’s a completely different approach, you can’t really expect young boys to do that.

Have you ever thought about including instruments for the motets as it was done at least with some of them in Bach’s times?

We all dislike to be doubled by instruments; it is a very unpleasant effect as you’re no longer in control of the shape of the line and of the dynamics especially in the bass. It is always governed by compromise between you and the other person. There may be a historic reason for doing it but we wouldn’t enjoy it. Independent of how good the players are the problem remains that vocal articulation is so different from instrumental articulation. We have words to sing and the musical line is broken up by consonants, vowels have a particular shape to them. Instruments cannot replicate that, so you always feel uncomfortable because the balance never seems quite right. Our decision for soloistic singing enables us to keep our freedom in changing things as we go along. It’s always been the case with this ensemble that performances can vary enormously from one to another just by somebody deciding to phrase something slightly differently, so we follow that phrasing.

You tend to make spontaneous decisions just out of the initiative of one of the singers?

Absolutely – it may be a singer’s decision or it may be governed by the acoustic we find ourselves in. So we follow that, we listen very hard. In rehearsals we don’t discuss very much. We tend to learn our way round the piece and then put it together in performance where things can depend very much on individual decisions which are always followed by everybody else.

The new recording followed a series of concerts with the same repertoire.

That’s right, you learn much more about music in performance than you do in rehearsal, so we always try to get lots of performances before we go into the studio. It’s very easy to get bogged down in detail in a recording rather than being concerned with the overall shape of the piece, so I think performances are much more important. Obviously they are concerned with details as well but you are always performing the piece as a whole which gives you a much clearer idea how the sections relate with one another and how you need to adjust the energy of a piece as it goes through.

You really notice the overall dramaturgy of the piece getting more logical after performances?

Yes, that’s always the same. With pieces like Gesualdo madrigals you can rehearse as much as you want, until you sing it in performance where you have actually have to convey the drama to the audience you haven’t really got to grips with the music.

Is there a difference in the way you work if you have some guest singers with you like in the double choir motets here?

No, we always try not to tell them what to do but rather encourage them to work the way we do and we hope they’ll come up with some ideas themselves. That’s why it’s fun to work with different musicians because they have different ideas. Otherwise there would be no reason for doing it.

Which means that there is no such thing as a pre-determined interpretation but rather a process of interplay between the musicians in performance.
If you see the number of performances we do every year, which can be between 90 and 110, given the number of different programmes we have, it implies that some of the pieces we are going to sing dozens of times every year. I think it wouldn’t interest us very much if we were trying to repeat the same interpretation. That would seem rather strange and artificial.

Can you explain why you wanted to include the little known motet “Ich lasse Dich nicht, Du segnest mich denn”?

When I contacted the musicologist Simon Heighes and told him we were going to record the motets I asked if there was something we should know – as we are just performing musicians, not musicologists and not necessarily up to date with the latest research – he told me that it was now considered to be more likely that this “Ich lasse Dich nicht” is an earlier piece by Bach than it was previously because it was always thought to be dubious. Then we recorded it and we found, even if it shouldn’t be by Bach it is remarkably good. I think it’s a beautiful piece, for me it’s even my favourite performance on that CD. Even though it is in a slightly simpler style than the other motets, the way the words are set and phrased seems to be on such a high level, the whole architecture of the initial phrases is just so perfect and expresses the meaning of the words so beautifully.

Interview: Anselm Cybinski


For more than 30 years the Hilliard Ensemble has been known as one of the most outstanding vocal groups whose sound “can be recognized within a single bar”, as Matthew Power wrote in Gramophone in 2004. The collaboration between the English a cappella quartet and ECM began in 1986 with a contribution to Arvo Pärt’s “Arbos” and subsequently led to unanimously praised artistic achievements and popular successes in the fields of old and new music alike.

The ensemble’s projects with improvising saxophonist Jan Garbarek, including the million-selling “Officium” and its sequel “Mnemosyne” have been a unique success, and the collaboration continues to evolve with each yearly tour. The Hilliard Ensemble’s joint project with violinist Christoph Poppen, “Morimur”, based on the Bach research of Helga Thoene, intrigued many thousands of listeners around the world. The Poppen/Hilliard association continued with “Ricercar”, recorded 2001, exploring musical and spiritual affinities between Bach and Webern.

Composers including Barry Guy, Ivan Moody, Veljo Tormis and of course Arvo Pärt have written for the Hilliards. On “Lamentate”, a recording with new works by Pärt released in September 2005, the ensemble can be heard singing “Da pacem Domine”. “Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain” by American composer Stephen Hartke was issued in 2003 in the US and 2005 in Europe. A particular critical success was the recording of selected works by early 16th century master Nicolas Gombert issued in February 2006 which was selected for the quarterly shortlist by the jury of Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik.