RICERCAR IN ECO

Published on 29/01/2018

ARCHIVES AND GOING BACK TO THE EARLY DAYS

In today’s fast moving consumer society things get forgotten incredibly quickly. In an era in which everything is almost instantaneously relegated to the past, going back to the archives can seem like a very old-fashioned thing to do, a practice that belongs to a handful of librarians and historians.

And yet, to me, uncovering recordings which for the most part back date back to the last century doesn’t seem to be a particularly outdated thing to do. Still, we should not delude ourselves; there are many tell-tale signs, like the ones that can be seen in photos or films that bear witness to the time that has passed, without the slightest hint of complacency. The images might be merciless, but the memory remains fresh and as we rediscover these recordings countless memories flood back - be it recording sessions, good times amongst musicians, references to the evolution of technology, from recordings on cassette tapes to today’s digital techniques, the editing of pieces, sometimes without the slightest ‘cut’, to the subtle plastic surgery with which we are now so familiar…

Of all the artists who have honoured Ricercar with their talent, some are still hard at work (even though, they too, have white hair now…), others are enjoying a well-earned retirement and some have sadly joined the great orchestra in the sky.

When we started working with Bernard Foccroulle on Bach’s complete works for the organ – at the time we didn’t yet know that it would be his complete works – Foccroulle never imagined he would spend a large part of his life as an opera house director. Around twenty hours of music, divided up into numerous recording sessions on around fifteen different organs, makes for quite a lot of time spent in each other’s company. It also makes for a lot of memories, of the German and Dutch restaurants, of entering Freiberg after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989,  of travelling on a motorway that was still in ruins, with the road signs “Eisenach, Weimar, Leipzig …”, Bernard’s fingers placed on the frozen keyboards of the Neresheim organ, the emotion we felt when confronted with these instruments which had clung onto so many historical elements that they made us feel like we were rediscovering a more tangible testimony of a reality which took us back to the first half of the 18th century… And no doubt many other more personal anecdotes, like the interruptions in recording in Ottobeuren, in June 1982, not for a ‘break’, but so that Bernard could listen to the results of the World Cup, in Spain that year, on his portable radio.

The principle of Ricercar has always been that of research and originality. The 1980s was a decade of numerous discoveries and ‘world premieres’. The old sources are still full of previously unreleased scores, but you have to admit that, these days, many things have been updated. What a difference between how life is today and the difficulties in accessing scores in libraries; entire websites now provide free access to thousands of scores, numerous libraries have placed the entirety of their valuable resources on line. In those ‘historical’ years you still had to go in person, or hope that copies could be delivered by post. Fascinated by Charpentier, whom we rediscovered little by little, it was an emotional moment when I was given access to the precious manuscripts that are stored in the National Library in Paris. In 1982, the catalogue of works had just been published by Hugh Wiley Hitchcock and, as I leafed through it, I was intrigued by the presence of a few compositions linked to the Port-Royal Abbey, compositions that were exclusively intended for female voices. Copies of the manuscripts were put in modern notation (handwritten copy, on tracing paper… at the time there wasn’t any software for that) by the young organist (did he know he would later become a famous composer?), Benoît Mernier. All that remained was to make the recording. In addition to Greta de Reyghere, already one of Ricercar’s faithful accomplices, we formed the team with Isabelle Poulenard and Jill Feldman, as well as a small schola of female voices for the choirs; Bernard Foccroulle and Benoît Mernier shared the basso continuo on the organ. The entire team met up again in May 1988, at the church of Bolland (a small village church, with a freshly restored 18th century organ, in the French style and one of Ricercar’s favourite ‘studios’). As we moved from piece by piece, we were transported from marvel to marvel with this music that was so moving and yet, at times, of an incredible simplicity. The Messe pour le Port Royal was recreated according to the score with organ interventions.  At the time, the Port-Royal organist must have had to improvise; but Bernard Foccroulle preferred to take all the necessary verses from André Raison’s Livre d’orgue. We also needed to sound a bell to announce the consecration; now there’s something you can find in a church. So I played the role of the acolyte and rang out, not one but two sets of bells, in order to obtain a richer sound! I had to start the recorder, run into the chancel, ring the two bells simultaneously and then go back and check that it had indeed been recorded… You get to do all kinds of things in this job!

I couldn’t imagine Ricercar without being able to fulfil my great curiosity for musical instruments, their history and their repertoire. I still share this passion with a few musician friends. Aside from the Guide to Baroque Instruments and the Guide to Renaissance Instruments, of which a first version was published in 1993 and 1995, we soon came up with the idea of exploring such or such an aspect of the history of the instruments in a more thorough way. The story of the French romantic horn was the first volume of an “instrument collection”. In this recording, you discover the incredible fate of the horn in 19th century France, between those in favour of the natural horn and those in favour of the valved horn, both of which were said to be the answer to the future of the instrument. Against all the odds, defenders of the natural horn found many ways to defend their position by composing audacious works which they believed would demonstrate the infinite possibilities of the natural instrument… Dauprat’s Sextets are an example of these demonstrative pieces, of a formidable difficulty, and of an incredible musical quality. The drawback is that this music proves very demanding for the horn players’ lips, which are unable to withstand long recording days. So long breaks were required in order to rest the musicians’ lips! We hadn’t lost our appetite though, and discover several good restaurants in the vicinity of the Abbey of Stavelot where the recording was being made…

In 2000, our small family acquired a cottage in the Minervois - a holiday refuge, in a village without a mobile phone network. But the underlying reason for this acquisition was the presence of Notre-Dame de Centeilles, an 18th century chapel surrounded by pine forest and vines, just a few kilometres away in the foothills of the Montagne Noire. The acoustics were to die for – the musicians always marvel at it and, since then, have made up to seventy recordings there – a unique calm (apart from the cicadas during the day in mid-summer) and a climate which means it is entirely possible to record there in early November. So the first album of medieval music was recorded in Centeilles by Millenarium. The three musicians camped in the house, which was in the throes of alteration works, lunch was eaten on the terrace under the fig tree and the evening was set aside for sampling the wines of the Minervois, which never fail to amaze me … In Centeilles, the only real enemy is the wind, which can be very fierce and unpredictable: at the end of the recording session the Tramontane rose, making it impossible to do any kind of recording in the peace and quiet. Full of hope we patiently waited but we were forced to face facts: the wind wasn’t going to calm down anytime soon. So we came up with the idea of turning the enemy into an accomplice. The instrumental piece (organetto, harp, percussion) was in reality an improvisation on a planctus; rather than recording in the place that was most sheltered from the wind, the musicians stood in front of the wide open gate, in order to have the most noise possible from the wind and the recording was made like that, with a ‘surprise’ guest artist… I even remember having recorded a bit of wind just to “counterpoint” it with what had been recorded in the final mix …

In the end, Ricercar is one big family and just like in families, just like in couples, there are disagreements and separations. Sadly there are also departures. The French counter-tenor Henri Ledroit was one of Ricercar’s first soloists.  He was blessed with a golden voice and a rare intelligence, sensitivity and kindness. He passed away when we were preparing to record Nicolaus Bruhns’ complete cantatas. So we needed to ‘replace’ Henri. It was a friend, an English singer who had been invited to la Monnaie who suggested we ask James Bowman. What, ask Bowman, a singer with such a great reputation to come and record an unknown repertoire for a small Belgian independent label that people have barely heard of?! Although I must confess I had already made a similarly bold move not long before; following the advice of Gustav Leonhardt (who had always been a big ‘fan’ of Ricercar), I had got in touch with Max van Egmond…  And like Max, James came, without any demands, just happy to be there with in our company and discovering something new.  It’s impossible to forget James’ laugh!

And so, having invited him to participate in numerous recordings with our legendary quartet of soloists (Greta de Reyghere, James Bowman, Guy De Mey and Max van Egmond) for several German baroque albums, it was logical to ask him to perform in this recital. The very one that is being re-released for the first time since 1991.

These are just a few of the treasured memories from this adventure which we have been on for 38 years now. It is the adventure of one of the few “small independent labels” to be involved in this great movement of historically informed performances, and that I am lucky enough to continue working with in the early 21st century thanks to the enthusiasm of Charles Adriaenssen and the fantastic team at Outhere, which has followed me with so much professionalism and friendship on this incredible journey.

- Jérôme LEJEUNE