Pioneer of the early music revival and a strong advocate for historically informed musical practice, Sir John Eliot Gardiner celebrates his 80th birthday on 20 April this year. For this special occasion, the British conductor will tour Europe with his two ensembles, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, performing Bach’s sublime Mass in B minor, culminating in a final performance and live broadcast at London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields. Before that, he leads the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in a programme dedicated to Schubert, Haydn and Weber. Thanks to our colleagues from BR, we were able to ask him 3 questions.
Q: On the occasion of your 80th birthday, you will conduct Bach's B minor Mass. How has this work, and the music of Bach in general, impacted your life and career?
A: That's not something I can answer in two questions. It's wonderful to be returning to the Bach B minor Mass. This, to me, is a sort of ideal that Bach had, that he poured all his energies into, a work which he probably himself never heard in a live performance. He probably heard the Kyrie and the Gloria, but not the whole thing. And it has so many different aspects to it, it draws on so many different periods of his creative life; the time that he was in Weimar, the time that he was in Köthen and the time that he was in Leipzig… And yet it was written for Dresden, where he never worked, and it was written also to accompany his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, [in] his bid to become organist in Dresden. You find everything in the B minor Mass, that's what I love about it. It represents so much of the richness and the vitality and the range of Bach’s musical scope. And it also represents to me his own personal struggles with religion. People may find that strange, but I feel that Bach - like a lot of us, a lot of people in his time and in our time, have momentary doubts, momentary difficulties, with these difficult matters, spiritual matters of belief. And I think you can hear it in the Credo, where suddenly he has doubts, and then they come right. And there are moments like in the ‘Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum’, where you feel that he has doubts and that he resolves those doubts. And that makes him so much more approachable and so much more human.
On 24 March 2023, you and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra begin your Schubert cycle with his Symphony No. 1, which will extend over three seasons. What do you enjoy about conducting Schubert’s orchestral music, and what do you hope to explore over this period?
I’ll tell you… Schubert for me is above all a composer of Lieder, of chamber music and of piano music. That means that his symphonies - with the exception of the ‘Unfinished’ and the big C major symphonies - they tend to get forgotten. And I feel that this is a wonderful opportunity to bring them back into the limelight where they belong. Because Schubert invested his symphonies with the same magic in terms of melodic, his melodic gift, his wonderful ear for sonorities, changing sonorities, and above all his rich imagination, as he brought to his songs - his Lieder - and to his chamber music.
Aside from musical pursuits, you are also passionate about sustainable agriculture. How do you separate these two intense activities… and are there any parallels between the two?
I separate them with great difficulty because I feel cut in two. I love both my responsibilities and my passion for music and for sustainable farming, woodland management, working in harmony with nature, working in harmony with musicians and with music, as a professional conductor. They’re two sides of the same coin, even though they demand very different skills. But they are complementary and… they're parallel strands that have gone all through my life and I would be lost if I had to sacrifice one or the other.
This interview was conducted by presenter Susanna Felix (BR), on 22 March 2023.
Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 24 March concert with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is offered by BR and available in MUS under SM/2022/08/14/06. The concert dedicated to his 80th birthday, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, will take place on 24 April 2023. It is offered by the BBC and available in MUS under SM/2023/02/11/01. Moreover, a concert featuring violinist Isabelle Faust, violist Antoine Tamestit and the English Baroque Soloists at Müpa is offered by MTVA and available in MUS under SM/2023/02/44/01. And a concert offered by NPO featuring pianist Sir Stephen Hough and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is available in MUS under SM/2023/02/19/01.