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The Heart of the Hunter – Marco Longhini talks to Jeremy Siepmann

July 17, 2011

Marco Longhini

With degrees in orchestral conducting and architecture, complemented by a deep knowledge of the visual arts, a keen understanding of literature and an abiding curiosity, Marco Longhini is a musician on a quest—a searcher for musical truths ( musical truth, however—a single, all-embracing concept—is a more elusive quarry). His dedication is self-evident, as is his love of music, yet conducting was not for him, to begin with, a consuming passion, a shining goal pursued since childhood. Indeed it was something he almost stumbled into. But after that, there was no turning back.

‘I was asked by one of the priests at my church to conduct the choir. It didn’t take me long to realise that this was a highly complex art, demanding just as much study as learning an instrument. Just because you know something about music, or can play an instrument, doesn’t mean you can conduct! Most good conductors want to convey very specific musical thoughts, to perform works as they think they should be performed, not as they have been up till now. Obviously, it’s going to be a very subjective approach, but in my view that’s what every conductor has to have. One of the beauties of music is its huge potential for adaptation, for different readings. It lives on through other people’s personal visions. There’s no absolute truth about how a piece should be performed: ultimately, the work exists only through a performer’s subjective interpretation.’

Realising that interpretation in sound, however, requires a lot more than a powerful instinct. Conducting is as much a craft as an art. The road to that first decisive downbeat can be both arduous and time-consuming. ‘My route to that moment is based on intensive study, which I’ve always loved, and a continuous attempt to improve my technique (and every other aspect of my conducting life). My aim is always to get as close as possible to whatever work I’m performing. The first time I saw the instantaneous effect of my hand movements I realised that simply “talking” about the music to the performers doesn’t make you a conductor. Like any other musician, you have to know how to play your own ‘instrument’, whether it’s a choir or a full orchestra or a group of solo singers. When you’re working with great instrumentalists, who may have different but equally convincing visions, or with a small vocal ensemble like Delitiæ Musicæ (several of whose members are also conductors, by the way!), it’s very interesting to reconsider the fruits of your own research and decision-making. Being a conductor absolutely doesn’t mean rejecting all other ideas, but ultimately you have to have the final say because the final responsibility is yours.’

Has the Renaissance, I wondered, been the centre of his attentions from the beginning? Or was it something he grew into? ‘The Renaissance has always been my point of reference, especially Italian music of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this period it moved away from certainty and began to question its own nature. The works that emerged in those years became the first vital cells of what we now call modern music, with Monteverdi discovering the potential of a new compositional system—one we still use today, though it’s been transformed over the years by the great geniuses of the music world. I’ve always been fascinated by this transformation, by that desire to investigate and experiment, in both music and the visual arts. This is a part of our immense musical legacy that still needs to be investigated in greater depth, I think.’

For many music lovers the world over, the names of Monteverdi and Longhini are almost indissolubly linked. What is it that makes the link so strong? What does Longhini most love in Monteverdi? ‘Oh there are so many things! One thing I love is his ability to undermine a system that had been codified for centuries by delving into music’s capacity to touch people’s hearts. He sought out its inherent expressiveness, its ability to “move the affects”, as our forebears would have said—in other words, to spark listeners’ emotions and passions. The principal challenge for the modern interpreter is still that of touching the audience’s emotions. I’ll forever be grateful to Naxos for allowing me to record the complete madrigals of Monteverdi and, now, of course, of Gesualdo too. It’s a huge honour to have been given the chance to study and work on composers whom I see as being of fundamental importance, on a par with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and to present their music to a vast listening public.’

Among the most personal interpretative decisions is the often controversial matter of tempo. What, for Longhini, are the guiding principles here? ‘If you compare our recordings with the others you’ll note what seem to be great differences in tempi. Our version of Monteverdi’s Book Six, for example, lasts twenty minutes longer than other English and Italian recordings. We must remember, I think, and reflect in our performances, that this music comes from a time when the pace of life was much slower than it is now, and when attention to detail was considered fundamental to any work of art. Very often it’s not the metronome setting that makes the difference—my actual tempi are often faster than others’—but the breathing, pauses, suspensions or sudden changes of tempo dictated by the text, the need to point up particular words or enhance the sense of expression. Where others favour performance fluency and rigid tempo observation, my first aim is to imprint Monteverdi’s imagery with passion, impulse and emotion.’

Turning from tempo to sonority, how, I wondered, did Longhini decide between an all-male ensemble and a mixed one? ‘A lot of people, including professional musicians and critics, apparently unwilling to accept that women could not have played an active role in either sacred or secular music, have spoken out against our decision to use an all-male ensemble. But this was the reality of the time. Vocal culture, if I can put it that way, was essentially a male domain, whether men used their natural voices, or sang falsetto, or belonged to the so-called “third sex”—the castrati, who began to dominate in the late sixteenth century. The question, therefore, is whether it’s more “correct” to replace castrati with women or with countertenors. Using countertenors in the highest lines, with a gradual descent to tenors, baritone and bass creates a fascinating, and entirely coherent, blend of timbres—previously unheard in Monteverdi’s madrigals. Given that women were forbidden to sing in church –all historians agree on this—we concluded that it was the usual practice in Italy for all-male ensembles also to perform madrigals. The sound may seem unusual to modern ears, accustomed to years of hearing mixed ensembles, but we see reinstating the original practice as our duty, based both on our research and on aesthetic considerations.’

And what of Gesualdo, the latest composer to receive Longhini’s concentrated attention? Roughly a hundred years Monteverdi’s senior, he was a unique figure in the story of music, and not only for his compositions. ‘His life is like something out of a novel! I can’t believe that no good director has yet turned it into a film. In my six CD booklets I deal as accurately as possible with the events that brought him his legendary status, but there’s no doubt that the murder of his wife and her lover—a scene straight out of a horror film—established his mythical image. I also think it’s fascinating to see how he was able to make use of that image in creating his music—which is really the soundtrack to his own life.’

As a composer, was he something of a freak? Standing outside the mainstream of musical development? ‘Above all else, we must remember, Gesualdo was a prince—a wealthy and powerful man. And this at a time when a professional musician’s career depended entirely on the success of his compositions. The composer was not a free agent. Even Monteverdi had to cater to the demands of court and church. Gesualdo, though, had no need for others’ approval, or monetary gain. He was free to focus on maturing as a musician and to experiment, unfettered, with his own language. He may well have been the first composer in history to enjoy the luxury of pursuing art for art’s sake.’

Can he, in some ways, be seen as the father of expressionism? ‘Many modern day composers have acknowledged him as a master—especially Stravinsky, who studied him and dedicated more than one of his own compositions to him. Even today, Gesualdo’s harmonies and solutions have the power to stun us. Expressionism in his music, though, is different from that of the twentieth-century—going back to what we were talking about earlier, he uses different means and so achieves different results—but it still makes a powerful impact. In the notes I wrote for the Second Book, with reference to one of the two surviving instrumental pieces, I compared his Gagliarda with Ravel’s La Valse, but I think it’s always better to contextualise the composer in his own times, without thinking too much about what came after him. More profitable is to look at what came before: that’s how you measure the stature of a work of art. But no earlier composers allowed themselves such liberties as Gesualdo did.’

He often sounds very difficult to sing. Is he equally difficult to interpret? ‘It may seem incredible, but despite the dissonances and the unpredictable harmonies, the melodic lines always have a rational horizontal direction. He knew very well how to write; and he knew, too, how much he could demand of the super-professional singers at his disposal—just as I can trust the vocal mastery of the members of Delitiæ Musicæ to relieve me of the difficulty of these vocal lines. On the other hand, I have to put a lot of energy into matters of interpretation: What message was he trying to convey? What’s the meaning of this or that unusual or unexpected gesture? Why is there so much gratuitous violence in the music? What lies beneath these particular words, or clashes, or silences? It sometimes takes me days to get to the heart of a madrigal that only lasts a few minutes in performance.’

Great composers are not always great choosers of verse (Schubert for instance). How, I wondered, does Gesualdo rate when it comes to the quality of the verses he sets? I remembered that when the great Tasso sent him 36 texts for madrigals, Gesualdo set only one! ‘Not a reflection on the quality of the verse! But yes, Tasso regularly, and humbly, sent examples of his work to Gesualdo, despite the fact that he was never particularly appreciative. But you can see why. He preferred more anonymous texts that offered him the maximum opportunity to express his own ideas. He preferred words, images and scene-settings that enabled him both to create pathos-laden atmospheres and to highlight the legendary aspect of his own image. He delighted in transforming texts into his own “sound events”. Word-painting was not enough. He also valued words such as cruda (cruel lady), pianto (tears), uccisione (killing), sangue (blood), dolore (pain/sorrow)—and, above all, morte (death)!’

And what are Longhini’s favourites amongst Gesualdo’s madrigals? ‘Oh there are far too many to list! And many more by other composers I’d like to mention. Each of which is a gem, to be admired on its own merits; each gives off its own special glints of light. But if I had to choose one from each volume already released, I suppose I’d say Tirsi morir volea, from Book One; Hai rotto e sciolto, from Book Two and Ancidetemi pur, from Book Three. But even there I find it almost impossible!’

And looking back over his complete output for Naxos—both Monteverdi and Gesualdo—are there particular highpoints that stand out in his memory? ‘Once again, there are so many! I have so many fantastic memories, and have experienced so many powerful and unforgettable emotions. Our recording of Monteverdi’s Ballo delle Ingrate was particularly memorable for me—partly because I was so keen to restore it, for the first time, to its explosive, visionary entirety, with none of the damaging cuts it’s suffered in the past.’

A born learner, Longhini profits from every professional experience, very much including that of recording. ‘You learn so much every time you rehearse or perform. Recording, though, is a particularly unforgiving discipline, not only because it tests your abilities to a very fine degree, but also, and above all, because it requires you to set your image of a piece in stone, putting that one performance beyond reach thereafter—which is a very hard thing for a musician to do. You have to come to a session with a very clear idea of what you want to do, and then turn that idea into reality before cold, unyielding electronic equipment, rather than an audience of living, breathing human beings. You have to learn to use the technology to communicate the music with as much warmth and expression as if the audience were actually there in the room with you. The aim is always to convey to listeners that this centuries-old music can still enrich our lives, that it still has important things to teach us. Those of us who believe that culture is a powerful, vital force in society see it as our mission, as well as our great joy, to bring the past to life again. And recording is a wonderful way of doing this.’

A wonderful way, too, of keeping the present alive for the future. Far from being set in stone, Mr Longhini’s musical visions can now nourish the spirits and stimulate the minds of generations still unborn.

More recordings by Marco Longhini and Delitiæ Musicæ

Marco Longhini Biography & Discography

Delitiæ Musicæ Biography & Discography


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