Meeting Matthew Halls

Retrospect Ensemble has had a great year following their debut release Henry Purcell: Ten Sonatas in Four Parts, including being shortlisted for Gramophone's 'Best Baroque Instrument' Award. Their upcoming album JS Bach: Easter Oratorio & Ascension Oratorio is eagerly anticipated.

During the recording of Retrospect Ensemble's upcoming album, BBC Music Magazine took time to sit down with their conductor, Matthew Halls, one of the UK's most exciting young conductors and an acclaimed keyboard player.  They discussed Retrospect Ensemble's passion for Bach's music, the challenges of the recording process and creating that sense of spontaneity that is very present on the recording.

Retrospect Ensemble's JS Bach: Easter Oratorio & Ascension Oratorio is released on 4 April 2011.  To find out more about the ensemble or the upcoming release, click here.

The interview is published in BBC Music Magazine's March 2011 issue.  A transcript of the interview is below.


TAKE ONE Meeting the artists as they record

Matthew Halls conductor

Why have you chosen to record Bach's Easter and Ascension Oratorios?

These days, there can be two really good reasons to make a recording: one is to investigate repertoire which is not readily available on disc, the other is to explore the repertoire that you have been working on with an ensemble and which you feel passionate about.  We play a lot of Bach and this recording features festival pieces heard a lot less frequently than, say, the B minor Mass.  It provides Retrospect Ensemble with a sense of consolidation as we come to the end of our first year.

This is the first time you've performed these Oratorios.  How much time are you devoting to rehearsal?

Before recording we met for just the one long day of rehearsals, but then the recording schedule has enough slack to allow us to work on intricate details as we go.  Rehearsing for a recording is not quite the same as a concert where you know that at 5:30, when you leave the building, everything has to be ready for the evening performance ahead.  Here we're recording 11-or-so minutes in each three-hour sessino over three days, which gives us time to listen, check balances and improve.

And what are the biggest challenges?

As a director, the greatest challenge is knowing when to pay attention to detail and when to focus on the whole.  Also, as far as the acoustics are concerned, St Jude's church is a boomy space.  Because the players can't always hear one another across the room we have to work harder to keep ensemble, but the building gives the music a sheen and the spiritual space it needs.

You're recording arias on one day, choruses the next.  How do you manage to create a sense of spontaneity?

Very carefully.  In so much of this music there's no need for a director, but in recordings it's essential to have an animateur to maintain discipline and keep the excitement.  Creating a sense of spontaneity is about judging the mood in the room, the energy levels and working out which is going to be that golden take.  After five takes you'll arrive at that moment where suddenly it happens, people get excited and you know it's the one.

Interview by Nick Shave