In prepping for at least one of his upcoming Vancouver Bach Festival concerts, Thomas Hobbs faced an unusual challenge for a specialist in early music: how to differentiate his performance from the original recordings of the works in question.
Obviously, that won’t be a problem when he appears with Switzerland’s all-star vocal ensemble Gli Angeli Genève in Bach Cantatas: Actus Tragicus; the Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann cantatas on the program were written during the first decade of the 18th century. Nor will it be an issue when Gli Angeli returns, with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, to close the festival with Bach’s magnificent Trauer Ode; it was penned between 1726 and 1728.
But you don’t need a time machine to hear what the works featured in Britten: Abraham and Isaac sounded like when they were first unveiled: recordings of them as performed by composer-pianist Benjamin Britten and his life companion, tenor Peter Pears, are readily available online and elsewhere.
It’s repertoire that Hobbs clearly loves—especially Britten’s settings of works by the great Elizabethan composer Henry Purcell. “I personally feel that Britten felt very close to Purcell,” the U.K.–based singer explains, reached after a Gli Angeli rehearsal in Geneva. “Purcell had a way of understanding the nuance of the words, and an ability to craft his music around any text, basically. And Britten had exactly the same talent.”
Britten and Pears might also have been drawn to reimagining Purcell—and a variety of English folksongs—because they were frequently in need of new material for their duo concerts and recording sessions. So how does a 21st-century singer find his own way through tunes that have been so comprehensively documented by the 20th-century artists who created them?
“Inevitably, it does impact my approach,” Hobbs allows. “It probably shouldn’t, if I’m being totally honest with myself. It’s so easy now that we have such a wealth of recordings—such a wealth of interpretations—available to us with most repertoire. It’s very tempting, when studying a new piece or preparing for a recital, to immerse yourself in listening to other people’s interpretations. But I still really believe that, as a first port of call, the best approach is to try and make your interpretation from what’s written on the page—and not go directly to somebody else’s.”
Hobbs takes a similarly thoughtful approach to works that long predate the invention of recording. Although he can’t hear how, say, Bach would have sounded in Leipzig, circa 1727, he does try to understand how the great German’s music would have been received by his contemporaries. There’s a certain amount of role-playing involved, he explains, especially when he’s singing works—such as Trauer Ode—that were intended to be performed in church.
“I’m not really religious, myself,” he says. “I wouldn’t say I’m areligious, but I don’t have a strong faith, no. However, if it is sacred music, I do think that one has to be convincing in delivery. It’s important to—in the moment, at least—believe what you’re saying. So I do try, particularly in Bach, to put myself in the mindset of a Lutheran at the time, and think about what effect this particular text might have on somebody who did have that kind of strong belief.”
And with Bach, the music always helps. “Bach is incredible,” Hobbs says, noting that Trauer Ode, in particular, is an especially rich mixture of sadness and joy. “It’s absolutely magic, really, and one of the most enjoyable things to perform.”
Gli Angeli Genève will perform Bach Cantatas: Actus Tragicus at Christ Church Cathedral next Friday (August 3), and will join the Pacific Baroque Orchestra for Trauer Ode at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on August 10. Thomas Hobbs, countertenor Alex Potter, and pianist Alexander Weimann will present Britten: Abraham and Isaac at Christ Church Cathedral on August 8.