Paisley anniversary set for very special guest

George McPhee in Paisley Abbey. Picture: Robert Perry
George McPhee in Paisley Abbey. Picture: Robert Perry
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PAISLEY Abbey’s 850th anniversary coincides with the 50th year of George McPhee at its organ, and he’s got an impressive guest for the celebrations

PAISLEY Abbey Choir has set itself a formidable test this weekend. On Sunday evening, the Abbey’s long-serving organist, Dr George McPhee, will direct his singers, and a specially assembled orchestra of Baroque period instrument players, in a performance of Bach’s challenging Mass in B Minor.

That’s not something your average band of Sunday-morning singers would ever dare attempt. Nor might you expect to find one of the world’s leading Baroque sopranos among its line-up. But this is a special occasion – recognising both the Abbey’s 850th anniversary, as well as McPhee’s significant 50-year tenure as director of music – so McPhee was given carte blanche to pull out all the stops.

That’s why one name in particular stands out among the cast of soloists joining the Abbey Choir for this special occasion – Dame Emma Kirkby. Not only does she possess one of the most defining, crystalline soprano voices of our time, in relation to the performance of early music, she remains internationally as busy as ever, despite having celebrated her own 64th birthday only a couple of days ago.

I caught up with her by phone earlier this week in Turkey, where she was performing a typical combination of Handel and Purcell, before heading to the Cologne Early Music Festival and Friday’s appearance in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Next stop Paisley, then on to a programme of lute songs in Rome.

So what made her say yes to McPhee’s invitation to Scotland? “We have a mutual friend in Orkney, who provided the connection,” she says. “And I’d fond memories of singing many years ago in Paisley Abbey, so when the opportunity came to sing Bach’s wonderful B minor Mass there, in the kind of small scale context I feel comfortable with, I had no problem agreeing to it.”

It is an extraordinary work – unusual for Bach, in that, as a Protestant in charge of the music of the city’s key Lutheran churches, opportunities to perform it would have been staggeringly slim.

“He must have been fascinated to work on it simply as a devotional exercise,” says Dame Emma. “I suspect that bits of it – like the wonderful Gloria – may have been sung separately, but in Leipzig, where Latin was not welcome, who knows what Bach had in mind?”

But when it comes to the complete performances of the work we enjoy nowadays, Kirkby – who is joined in the main solo line-up by Libby Crabtree, Paisley-born tenor Stuart Patterson and bass James Arthur – believes it can be one of the most joyful musical experiences. “The music is full of eccentricities, like the bass having to sing each of his two arias with very different voice qualities. But for me, the joy of singing Bach is that the voice should just operate like one of the instruments.”

That was never possible, of course, until fashions changed with the Early Music revival of the late 20th century, which led to more and more Bach performances using original instruments and less tendency to employ massive choral forces. “It’s in that context, where the music is performed by only a handful of people, that it becomes so much more subtly balanced; much more like chamber music.”

Anyone familiar with the molten purity of her voice, which first came to international prominence when she featured in Christopher Hogwood’s ground-breaking recording of Handel’s Messiah with the Academy Of Ancient Music in the 1970s, will understand her preference for clarity and intimacy in Baroque and Renaissance performance, and how its anti-operatic quality has had such a mind-blowing influence on our understanding of that repertoire.

How does she account for its uniqueness? “I think it was always there, but I was only putting it to use as a happy choral singer at university. Becoming a solo singer was never in my planning.” Which is why, after reading classics at Oxford, she became a schoolteacher “who sang for pleasure”.

But it was through her involvement with the Taverner Choir, and then her long association with Anthony Rooley’s Consort of Musicke that she began to realise the extent to which the light-textured singing style she was developing was far more appropriate to period instrument performance than the typical operatically trained soprano.

“I suppose I felt a bit freakish compared to the well-fed sounds of the average operatic soprano. But they were not mixing well with the newly created lutes and gambas in the way my voice was. If I had any models, it was probably the likes of Nigel Rogers, David Thomas or any of the German singers, such as the tenor Peter Schreier, who always maintained a simple approach.”

“We tend to forget, too, that there was an earlier generation of 20th-century British sopranos – Isobel Baillie among them – who had exquisite crystalline voices. But after the war everyone, orchestras included, got loud, leaving forces of my size out in the cold.”

Her rule of thumb with the music she specialises in – repertoire ranging from Dowland lute songs to Bach and Handel – is that you shouldn’t have to do it with big forces, so that singers can explore the voice’s subtlest ranges. “With 19th-century music, it’s a completely differently ball game. I went to the New York Met about 18 months ago, and was astonished at how loudly and well these opera singers could sing. In the right music it is amazing, but not in my world.”

This Sunday, the setting in Paisley Abbey will be perfect for Dame Emma. George McPhee’s well-integrated choir has been rehearsing busily over the past few months.

“They’re singing the Bach really well,” he says. “It’s been a struggle to pull together the period instrument players we wanted, as there’s so much else on, but all is in place now.”

And if anything is guaranteed to lift the occasion, it will be the arrival of Dame Emma, and a chance to hear one of the most sublime vocal interpreters of Bach on the planet. What better way to mark the Abbey’s double celebration.

• Dame Emma Kirkby appears in Bach’s Mass in B minor at Paisley Abbey on 3 March,