It’s now exactly eight years since I’ve heard Thomas Hengelbrock’s Baltahsar Neumann Choir (BNC) and Ensemble (BNE) live for the first time, in an evening of Bach cantatas in Essen. I’ve been following the orchestra, choir and their artistic director ever since, but the fact that I still remember the thrilling opening of the Cantata in E flat major, BWV19, clearly demonstrates what an impression those artists made on me. Founded in 1991 and named after the Baroque master-builder Balthasar Neumann, Hengelbrock mainly devoted himself to the Baroque repertoire, but soon moved on to the Classical choir literature. From the beginning, it was his dream to go even further and explore the Romantic repertoire; a dream that was eventually fulfilled with his tour of Elias in 2016. And it therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that Hengelbrock and his choir perform contemporary works as well as world premières.

Thomas Hengelbrock
© Florence Grandidier

JK: Your organisation does a great deal of research on the works you stage. Who is involved?

TH: We have more than enough permanent employees to handle the organisation’s current projects in our office. Amongst them is a dramaturg, who supports me in my research into each work: that begins with the concept of the project, the compilation of interesting and coherent programmes, and also takes the leads on the exploration and sourcing (manuscripts, first editions, vocal scores, letters etc), and ends up with the musicological study of the historical context. The research on the scope and meaning of the works we present can fill some very thick binders! Apart from that, we have already edited many opera ourselves, as well as choral and orchestral works in the Balthasar Neumann Edition.

How would you distinguish your approach to different parts of your repertoire, given that this isn’t limited to the early 18th century of Balthasar Neumann himself, but spans the period from the Renaissance to the present day?

For me, the approach isn’t fundamentally different. Amongst other things, even with the methods we’ve just talked about, I’m looking to achieve the deepest possible basis for a performance, irrespective of whether it’s a contemporary work or a piece of early music. That requires a person to continually develop oneself, to be curious and stay alert as you track down the style and the unique nature of each piece. In the orchestra, for example, if you take the operas of Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart and Verdi: in the orchestra, you can choose each instrument differently in order to generate the most authentic sound possible. As singers, on the other hand, we are obliged to work with a single instrument, namely our own voices. The Balthasar Neumann Choir is blessed with fantastic singers, who can master everything from a vibratoless, soft timbre to one that is lush and charged with expression.

Is there an important distinction between the text and its pronunciation? How does this vary between different languages?

Throughout the discussions about our research, the historically correct pronunciation is one of the most contentious issues. If an Italian work was performed in a German-speaking city, its pronunciation would be Germanised, and in some cases turned around. But it’s important to determine the approach at the beginning of rehearsals and then keep to it; if the voices are not all using a single colour, you always get something of a “dirty” sound that loses clarity. In works that are in a language in which neither I nor the other members of the choir are fluent, we always work with a speech coach in the first rehearsals.

The composition of the BMC varies from one project to the next. When you’re tackling challenging work, is that an advantage or a disadvantage?

The BNC has a solid core of musicians who are in involved in almost all the projects. For the larger scale works, we bring in singers who have passed one of the auditions that we hold three times a year. Many of these have been doing this for several years, so they create a very good mix and a wonderful foundation for my work.

In the realm of historically informed performance, there is ever more discussion on being uncompromising as regards size of ensemble, orchestration, type of instruments and so on. For example, when I reviewed your Kerll Mass in Brussels recently, you used a large orchestration that was very different from your recording 17 years ago. What prompted the change?

This is a subject that is so complex that you could write an entire book to answer it! Take, for example, the size of an orchestra in 1700: for a given place, occasion and financial situation, a concerto grosso could employ up to 120 musicians. Just imagine: the combined strings of the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic, together with all their academy students, playing a concerto grosso by Corelli! Of course, they were also performed by soloists. It’s as if you have a new work, so it’s a sign of a great work of art for it to be open to many different interpretations. So when I’m considering the size of the configuration, it’s important above all to bear in mind the specific characteristics of the piece and of the hall in which it’s going to be played today. I’m highly sceptical of the idea of using a historically correct minimal configuration in a hall with an audience of 2000; if you do that, the acoustics have to be truly fantastic in order to still reach the audience directly. On the other hand, there are some works whose clarity can be badly damaged by an excessive number of performers. In that case, as an artist as well as a promoter, you have to be prepared to miss out on some of the biggest halls when you’re touring.

As the years have gone by, to what extent have you been able to bring the Balthasar Neumann approach to other choirs with which you have worked?

A great deal of the approach is so unique and personal to the Balthasar Neumann that it would be considerably ill-advised to attempt to bring them to other choirs. When I see any new choir for the first time (it’s the same for any new orchestra), they provide me as a conductor with their unique sound, and that’s what I work with. It is an important part of mutual respect that we allow each other into our worlds!

Translated into English by David Karlin