The Beauty and Vivacity of Bach: an exclusive interview with Valentin Tournet

The Beauty and Vivacity of Bach: an exclusive interview with Valentin Tournet

The record label Chateau de Versailles Spectacles is known for lavishly presented recordings of predominantly early music by some of the finest - and best-known -  performers of today: Ton Koopman, Hervé Niquet, François-Xavier Roth, Robert King, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Paul McCreesh ...

This disc was something a little different. A disc of Bach, the Magnificat BWV 243a and the Cantata BWV 63 (Christen, ätzet diesen Tag) and a new group, La Chapelle Harmonique, and a young conductor who brings forth performances that breathe life. There was something about this disc that pulled me in on first hearing that hasn't let me go since - a freshness, a punchiness, coupled with a deep spirituality. There is a youthful approach here that enlivens the music, but there's also a maturity far beyond the conductor's earth years. Below is an exclusive interview with Maestro Valentin Tournet specifically for Classical Explorer, and we extend our heartfelt thanks to him for his time. But first, a video introduction featuring the opening chorus of the Magnificat in which you can also enjoy some beautiful camera shots of the unforgettable Chapelle Royale in the Palace of Versailles:

Valentin, you were born in 1996 and you made these recordings in 2018, making you 22 years old, a wonderfully young age and some of that sense of discovery of youth comes across on the disc. This came shortly after your debut in 2015 in Brugge and the Festival Oude Muziek. How did the Bach recording come about so soon afterwards?

The choir and orchestra of La Chapelle Harmonique were formed at the beginning of 2017 for two concerts of the St. John Passion in the Royal Chapel of the Palace of Versailles. It was a gamble for the director of the Château de Versailles Spectacles, Laurent Brunner, but he trusted me "blindly". So we started with Bach, to whom I am very attached; from listening to recordings in my youth and by attending the festival at Saintes [midway between Rochefort and Cognac in France - ed.] where Philippe Herreweghe performed cantatas and sometimes great oratorios by Bach every summer. It was therefore completely natural that I thought of the Magnificat when Laurent first suggested that I record it.

The Cantata BWV 63 is absolutely beautiful (that obbligato oboe in the vocal duet “Gott, du hast es wohl gefüget” is wonderful, as are the two singers Marie Perbost and Stephan MacLeod). Is it true this is the first Cantata Bach composed for Christmas?

Indeed, the cantata BWV 63 was composed in Weimar possibly as early as 1713. We know of only six cantatas for Christmas Day itself, and the five others were composed in Leipzig from 1724. This would be the first and only cantata for Christmas Day before Leipzig!

Why this cantata to couple with the Magnificat? To me the brightness of the Cantata's final chorus, with its trumpets, links directly to the glory of the Magnificat …

It is first and foremost a choice of Bach himself! He chose these two works for his first Christmas in Leipzig on December 25, 1723: a reprise of Cantata BWV 63 and the premiere of the Magnificat in its first version. And it is very well thought out! The two works work marvelously together, they are the mainstay of a celebration of a  major feast but they contain a great degree of humility -  that of the Christian kneeling before this mystery of the incarnation of the son of God who came to earth.

You decided to perform the Magnificat in its original version, in E flat (BWV 243a) as opposed to the more usual D major. I love the use of recorder in the "Escurientes," for example (so nice to hear recorders that are in tune, too!) as opposed to flutes. What other differences are there between the two versions that are notable, for people who know the D Major?

Faced with the multitude of existing versions of the Magnificat, I opted for the version of December 25, 1723, with the four interpolations of the nativity. This is in fact the first version of the Magnificat, before the reworking in D major. The brighter key of E flat major, the instrumentation with  two recorders that bring a pastoral tone to the work (but which come out only once, alas!), I liked everything in this version.

You have the soloists sing in the choruses?

... and I wouldn't deviate from it! It is essential in my eyes to have the soloists in the choir so that they participate in the construction of the work (both vocally and spiritually) and so that they don't arrive like a hair on the surface of soup [ed: a French expression, that is surely irreplaceable! – meaning an add-on like soloists singing their number then sitting comfortably in their seats waiting for the next one]. This was not how Bach saw things from his Leipzig platform, it was not in the spirit of his music. We are thus deprived of many collaborations with soloists who do not want to be included in the choir, which is a pity. They have to be taught choral singing from childhood, it's not part of all cultures, but there are many advantages:  a mastery of vibrato, a collective sound, and so on. This seems natural in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic countries, whereas in France one studies as a "soloist" and is considered a failed soloist if one sings in a choir. It's ridiculous and counterproductive!

I personally think the Cantatas offer a wondrous stream of invention that is too often ignored in preference to the big works, like the Passions. Any plans to record more?

We would love to. There are several methods to record the collection of cantatas: either we group them together thematically, or we couple them with other works as we have just done with the Magnificat. To be continued!

I have to ask what makes Bach so special to you?

It's a rather strange feeling that is unanimously shared by all the musicians. As John Eliot Gardiner used to say, everyone feels they have a special relationship with Bach. Do you know a musician who doesn't like this composer? While everyone else is individual choice, even Mozart. It's his humanity, there's no deceit, no hypocrisy, no superficiality in his music: we go straight to the essential. He touches the soul head on, believer or not, music lover or not. This is the magic of  Bach.

I've been lucky enough to be present at performances in the Chapelle Royal in Versailles … what was it like to record there? And perform there?

It is a huge opportunity to play in this Chapel. It is both impressive in its grandeur, its royal associations, but also comforting in the way it reflects sound back to us and envelops us in a protective cocoon. I feel like a fish in water. What happiness!

Certainly that is the most deliciously poetic description I've heard of a recording environment! And what about your recording plans going forwards?

We will make a foray into stage music with Rameau's Les Indes galantes, before returning to Bach with his Motets, which we will record in July 2021.

As a farewell, what else but some more Bach? The St John Passion (perhaps itself preparatory to Masaaki Suzuki's version on BIS, which should be with us soon ... remember his performance of the St Matthew Passion that Classical Explorer reported on?). A live performance, also from Versailles, of the beautiful, internally-glowing "Christe, du Lamm Gottes":