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It is more than 20 years since Paul McCreesh came to notice with his reconstruction of a historic “Venetian Coronation”. Exhaustively researched, the performances and recording caused a sensation in classical music circles, taking us back to the coronation of a 16th-century Doge with all the pomp of the occasion – processions, pealing bells, brass fanfares and choral magnificence from an age of Venetian opulence.
McCreesh clearly must have lived and breathed his Venetian project for years: you half imagine him living in some palazzo with the bells of St Mark’s echoing in the distance. But no: home is a honey-coloured stone house deep in the English countryside.
Just one detail is a giveaway. The year 1610 is stamped in black numerals on the front door. To any lover of early music this date is as important as 1066 to a historian. This was the year of Monteverdi’s Vespro della beata vergine, known as the “Vespers of 1610”, the choral masterpiece of its era. McCreesh says that as soon as he saw the date on the door, he knew the house had to be his.
Now, more than two decades after the original “Venetian Coronation”, he has returned to the project. A new recording on his record label Winged Lion, an imprint of Signum Classics, takes advantage of more recent research and is even grander than before (the 50 seconds of bells that opened the original recording have become eight minutes of festive pealing and crowd noises). The disc has won this year’s Gramophone award for early music.
And there’s more. Earlier this month McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort and Players released a recording of Britten’s War Requiem, which has already won a five-star review in this paper. In a few weeks’ time that will be followed by a very different disc, of unaccompanied Christmas choral music called Incarnation.
“People don’t know what to make of me,” says McCreesh. “The music business is deeply traditional. It likes you to be a choral conductor, a symphony conductor or an educationalist. But it is difficult to be all of those, or to issue a recording of the War Requiem in the same week as winning a Gramophone prize for the ‘New Venetian Coronation’. On top of that, I am only known for a small part of my activities, my work with the Gabrielis. But most of my working life is about conducting symphony orchestras. That and the fact that I have almost no career in this country add up to a bizarre scenario.”
But there is recognition elsewhere: McCreesh has just taken up a new appointment as principal conductor and artistic adviser of the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon.
Like the previous generation of early music pioneers – John Eliot Gardiner, Christopher Hogwood and Roger Norrington, for example – he founded his own group and has moved on from there. With no public funding or permanent post in the UK, his work has had to be project-based, which has involved a lot of fundraising. But what projects they have been: Berlioz’s massive Grande Messe des Morts, Haydn’s Creation performed with a huge chorus and orchestra (25 winds, 15 brass, 70 strings) and – most gloriously monstrous of all – a reconstruction of the premiere of Mendelssohn’s Elijah at the BBC Proms, which threatened to blow the Royal Albert Hall apart.
McCreesh says that for this project nothing was left to chance: long-forgotten instruments such as the contrabass ophicleide and the serpent were dug out, and even the instruments of the original members of the orchestra in Birmingham in 1846 were researched.
“If you are going to do historical performance, you have to do some homework. It isn’t enough to stand in front of a band of early 19th-century instruments and conduct it as you would a traditional orchestra. I am already conducting pieces that I won’t record for five or six years. I need time and I’m shameless about that. Maybe I am slow, but there is a reason why so many of our recordings are well reviewed.”
Critics’ responses suggest the new version of Britten’s War Requiem will follow in that line. “I can’t analyse what makes my performance different from others, only that it represents my personal connection with the music and, especially, the text,” says McCreesh with enthusiasm.
“The fact that the War Requiem is frighteningly clever in a slightly irritating way – you want to slap Britten and say, ‘We know you can do that’ – doesn’t stop it knocking the audience flat. I have performed it in Spain and Poland, where the Wilfred Owen poems are more difficult for the audience, and you still get a 15-second silence at the end.”
These big projects do not come cheap. McCreesh says they almost certainly would not have happened without generous sponsorship from Wratislavia Cantans, the festival of choral music held annually at Wroclaw in Poland, where he was artistic director until last year (the Wroclaw choir joins his British choir on the Mendelssohn and Britten recordings).
The problem is that commercial work is drying up. “The Gabrielis are only working a handful of times a year,” he says. “We have a world-class ensemble and no money to keep it going. Winged Lion, our own label, will be an eternally lossmaking company. That is upsetting when you see other organisations getting lavish subsidy. I’m not arguing that there shouldn’t be subsidy, but it can breed complacency and there is a cutting-edge discipline about working to a commercial budget.”
McCreesh is philosophical. “Music is a business subject to the same laws, the same processes of distribution and marketing as any other,” he says. “But I am not complaining. I have always been a commercial musician. This house was paid for by conducting!” A house from 1610 bought with profits from the music of its own era? How splendidly enterprising that feels, 400 years on.