In 2001, the manuscript of a seven-movement baroque Gloria was discovered in the library of the Royal Academy of Music in London. Though unsigned, it was eventually attributed to Handel, and so created a buzz of excitement that reached far outside the world of early music. So it was no surprise that the singer chosen for the first recording was British soprano Emma Kirkby, whose light clear voice epitomizes the early music sound.
The following year, Kirkby came to Toronto to perform the Handel Gloria with the city’s internationally acclaimed period instrument orchestra, Tafelmusik. Last season she was back with Tafelmusik as a highlight of the orchestra’s 30th anniversary celebrations. I spoke with her then.
Kirkby’s longstanding relationship with Tafelmusik arose from her friendship with Jeanne Lamon, which dates back to before Lamon joined Tafelmusik in 1981. “We were teaching together at summer school in Orford,” Kirkby told me. “We did some concerts together for the students, and I loved her playing. We talked together and had a really good time, so I kept up with her. When she told me, ‘I’ve got this new orchestra – come and sing with us,’ I did, and I enjoyed it so much that I made a CD of Vivaldi with them for Hyperion.”
The 1987 recording helped bring the orchestra to international attention. “Since then, they have just gone stellar,” says Kirkby. “Really, it’s just fantastic what they’ve done.” So it was fitting that she should join their 30th anniversary celebrations with a special collection of songs, madrigals and arias from her favourite repertoire. “I’ve been here every few years to do things with them and always enjoyed it. But this concert was a particular indulgence. We met up last year after I heard them in Beijing playing a remarkable concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I was absolutely stunned by their brilliant young violinists, who stood up one after the other and played fantastic solos.”
She continues: “Jeanne has always been the most extraordinary educator. I’ve always enjoyed how she directs Tafelmusik because she is so courteous – not hectoring or bossy at all. She is just quietly demanding. Everyone respects everyone else, so they just get on with it. I think it’s a very inspiring atmosphere.”
I talked with Kirkby at the apartment she was staying in during her Tafelmusik visit. Even in her jeans, shirt and vest Kirkby was as elegant as she appears onstage, and every bit as radiant. From the first moment I met her, she was so unassuming that it seemed natural to call her Emma, as she insisted. Yet Dame Emma would have been the proper way to address her, since in 2007 she was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She is one of the few classical musicians to be so honoured – and the only early music singer.
Kirkby’s voice remains the gold standard for early music. Yet it created great controversy when she first gained attention in the 1970s, and today still manages to polarize critics. In 2007 BBC Music magazine not only included her on its list of “The Twenty Greatest Sopranos,” but ranked her tenth. That provoked a predictable amount of indignation from critics and traditional opera buffs. One critic asked, “What planet are they on who place Kirkby above Ponselle or Schwarzkopf?”
If Kirkby had a motto, it could well be, “On behalf of the music.” It was for the sake of early music, she told me, that she was pleased to be on the Queen’s list. She has a rare ability to separate who she is from what she does, and appreciates each of her numerous awards and honours for the influence it has. “If it reflects the number of people that can enjoy themselves with my repertoire who couldn’t before – that’s the point. There’s such a huge repertoire for normal sized voices like mine, deeply satisfying stuff as good as any music written anywhere, ever. Therefore if something encourages people to jump in, I’m delighted.”
Her ensemble approach towards making music was apparent in the way she engaged with the various instruments in the Tafelmusik orchestra, her voice matching the different colours of the orchestra to reveal exquisite, sometimes surprising, nuances. Her phrasing is so natural and her ornamentation so effortless that her virtuosity comes almost as a surprise – and is all the more thrilling for that. Her robust palette of colours is all the more remarkable considering that she does not rely on vibrato or extreme dynamics to project her voice.
Yet when she talks about singing, her focus is on enunciating the words clearly. Singers should sing as they speak, she says, pointing out how the techniques required to produce a big operatic sound can get in the way of the words. Kirkby is puzzled why so much singing on stage is so loud. As an example she wonders why the ensemble at the end of Don Giovanni, which was being performed by the Canadian Opera Company when she was here, is always done so loudly, with the singers almost shouting. How much more effective it would be, she says, if it were done in a gentler, more contained way.
Similarly, she points out, a keyboard accompanist in a Schubert lied can sound more beautiful and expressive just by keeping the instrument’s lid open and playing softer. To the same end, she emphasizes that students shouldn’t be working only with a piano as their accompaniment. They should have lutes, harpsichords and fortepianos to accompany them – whichever instrument is appropriate to the period and style.
Kirkby is no hardliner when it comes to period instruments. She can even accept Rameau’s keyboard works being played on the piano – if they are played pianistically and using the colours of the piano. But while Kirkby enjoys an opera singer of the past generation like Janet Baker for her honesty as a performer, she also admires a current singer like Cecilia Bartoli for her commitment to period instruments and practices.
Mostly, Kirkby has worked with period ensembles, and these days does so even more frequently than she did earlier in her career. Of course there are exceptions, like her performances in Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 at Carnegie Hall with long-time colleague Roger Norrington and the Orchestra of St Luke’s, and her recording of songs by early 20th-century American composer Amy Beach. But for the most part, Kirkby is happy to stay within her specialized repertoire. She emphasizes how much there is still to explore and make known to people. “That’s where the real excitement is.” She is now concentrating on the lute song, and says, “The lute song repertoire is incredibly distilled and beautiful – but you do need a lute.” She mentions lesser-known composers like Sigismondo d’India, Georg Schimmelpfennig and Jacques du Vert, who were “a thrill to discover – gorgeous music.”
Kirkby has made a prodigious number of recordings – well over 100. Many have had great influence, and not just in early music circles. Her groundbreaking recording of Hildegard von Bingen’s music, A Feather on the Breath of God, has been a best-seller since its release in 1984. The Handel Gloria has reached the repertoire. “I love it, and sopranos all over the place have picked it up, with very good reason, because it’s a beautiful piece. It is a brilliant work to put in a concert. It has everything you’d want – it’s delightful, it’s full of variety, it’s very moving in the middle and very flashy on the outside, and what’s more, you don’t need enormous forces for it.”
In her last decade or so, most of her recordings, like the Gloria, have been made by the Swedish record company BIS. “They have been just gorgeous to work for. They let you work in the loveliest places, and their engineers produce a beautiful sound. I’ve been lucky enough to record for them with my closest colleagues like Anthony Rooley, Jakob Lindberg, Lars Ulrik Mortensen and London Baroque. We did quite an interesting recording of cantatas by Cataldo Amodei. No one has heard of him but he’s really special. Maurice Greene is better known than Amodei, but it was quite nice to give him a push as well. Most of my other recordings have more obvious repertoire, like lute songs of John Dowland on Honey from the Hive with Anthony Rooley, and lots of Handel with London Baroque.”
One of my own favourite of Kirkby’s more recent recordings is Classical Kirkby. When Kirkby was made honorary president of the Classical Association of England, instead of the customary acceptance speech, she performed this fascinating programme of English lute songs based on classical themes. Like so many of her recordings and concert programmes, it is the result of a prodigious amount of research. Much of that research she credits to lutenist and conductor Anthony Rooley, her former partner and the father of her 21-year-old son. “That recording was great fun, and I had a lot of help from Anthony in that, because he’s the scholar. He is the one that goes to the libraries and sniffs out the music. He has an amazing nose – he will go into the British Library for a day and comes out with all these remarkable discoveries.”
A programme like Classical Kirkby is unimaginable from any other singer, in large part because of Kirkby’s background studying classics at Oxford. In fact two of the songs by the seventeenth century British composer Henry Lawes, set to texts by the Greek poet Anacreon, are sung in ancient Greek. “Classics always suited me,” she says. “I am quite a words person, and I really enjoy classical literature. I went to a series of different schools as a kid, because my father was in the navy, and so we moved a lot. I landed up in places where Latin was taught at quite a young age. And I just took to it, so it was complete luck.”
Her profound knowledge of classical literature and languages has influenced not just what she sings but how she sings it. Her ability to appreciate the subtleties and references in the texts, especially in Renaissance music, with its musical investigations of melancholy and loss, contributes to her compelling expressive range. “Composers in the Renaissance and Baroque periods all knew their classics. It is a pleasure to suddenly come across a snatch of Catullus or a little scrap of Hellenistic philosophy in a renaissance song.”
Even as a girl Kirkby loved singing in choirs, and learned the choral repertoire, from Taverner and Tallis, through Purcell, Bach and Handel, to Berlioz, Tippett and Stravinsky. “Then, at Oxford, I sang in the choir at Merton College, because I had married Andrew Parrott, and he ran the Merton choir. It was heaven. It was the first time I ever got paid for singing – two pounds a service. It was amazing. I went back to my dad and said, ‘I’ve just been paid for doing what I love doing more than anything.’ So her father, who was a Royal Navy captain and a decorated war hero, said, “Well, the navy paid me to drive ships around the Mediterranean for 30 years.’”
“I had no idea I would be a singer,” Kirkby says. “That was just for fun.” In her case, when she was a student there really wasn’t much place for a voice like hers – in music schools or on concert and opera stages. Today, it’s hard to imagine how controversial Kirkby’s sound was in the 1970s, when the period-instrument movement as we now know it was just starting to flourish. But nonetheless, she still insists that “at that age singers should be singing for fun, and it shouldn’t be too serious. Maybe that’s old-fashioned of me because singers are all starting so young now. Basically my whole generation did not go to a music college. We started at a university, and I don’t think it did any of us any harm. I do think that a university education is wonderful, I really do. Maybe now the profession is so crowded that young singers feel they have to get in earlier, but I’m not sure that’s true. At 21 a singer is just the right age to start, so there should be no feeling at that point that it’s too late. In fact, it wouldn’t necessarily be too late ten years later.”
One of the benefits for Kirkby of focusing on Renaissance and Baroque repertoire, and performing mostly in smaller halls with period instruments, is that, at 60 – an age when most singers have had to stop performing – her voice retains its distinctive power and beauty. “Certainly part of my longevity has to do with my repertoire – although I don’t know how many more big bashes like this week with Tafelmusik I will want to do. I’m quite happy to go out to grass singing with a handful of instruments: gamba consorts, lute, harpsichord. I just love all that. I think it’s brilliant music-making and I know I can still do that fine and I’ll always be heard. We’ll see.”
EMMA KIRKBY: RECORDINGS
BIS has just released The Artistry of Emma Kirkby (BIS-CD-1734/35) a four-disc collection selected by Kirkby. It includes Handel’s Gloria. Her recordings on BIS can be viewed at:
Early recordings on Hyperion which still remain available, including Kirkby’s recording with Tafelmusik, Vivaldi: Cantatas, Concertos & Magnificat (Helios CDH55190), are listed at:
A number of Kirkby’s recordings are listed on her website at: http://www.emmakirkby.com/recordings.shtml
Quotes about Emma Kirkby
Quote 1: One critic asked, ‘What planet are they on who place Kirkby above Ponselle or Schwarzkopf?”
Quote 2: When she talks about singing, her focus is on enunciating the words clearly. Singers should sing as they speak, she says, pointing out how the techniques required to produce a big operatic sound can get in the way of the words.