To describe Emma Kirkby as a doyenne of the early music movement is to suggest a certain grandeur.
Add to that her title as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and those unfamiliar with this remarkable musician might imagine an aloof and forbidding character.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Kirkby is rightly recognised as one of this country’s foremost sopranos and early music specialists, but she is also valued for her role as a teacher and, above all, perhaps, as a source of huge inspiration for subsequent generations of musicians. Along with some notable contemporaries she is responsible for opening up the Renaissance and early Baroque repertoire, once the preserve of fusty eccentrics, to a wider public, and is revered as one of the early pioneers of historically informed performance. “Yes, apparently I’m a HIP soprano,” she giggles, “although I’m not that historically informed, I just feel my way really, I rely on other people for the information.”
As we sit sipping elderflower cordial at her house in north London she discusses her career with characteristic modesty. This year has offered a timely opportunity to reflect on her work to date Kirkby recently celebrated her 60th birthday and has marked the occasion with a new compilation recording on the BIS label titled The Artistry of Emma Kirkby. Although she has already made over 100 recordings this one stands out, not just because she was given free reign to choose the content Ferrabosco, Dowland, Scarlatti, Bach and Handel, amongst others but also because it is representative of her recent work. “It might have lost something, I don’t know,” she says, “voices do change, but at the same time it’s true, it’s what I’m now doing.”
Given her rich and varied musical career, it’s strange to think that it happened almost by accident. Kirkby grew up in a family where music was “respected but not much played”, and although her love of singing was encouraged at Sherborne school, where an enlightened music teacher started up a madrigal group, she chose to read classics, as opposed to music, at Somerville College, Oxford. “I wasn’t really a musician in that sense,” she explains, “I didn’t have the executant’s skill and my voice didn’t sound like anything in particular, certainly not something that could be picked up for opera.” Opera’s loss was chamber music’s gain: Kirkby devoted her spare time to singing with the Schola Cantorum choir and the social milieu of early music academics and enthusiasts.
“It was there I met this repertoire that I like very much. One of my friends had a whole set of Renaissance instruments and access to scores from some of the London groups, so I was very lucky I had contemporaries at the time who were really into it.”
After graduating Kirkby began teaching classics at comprehensive school near Reading but maintained links with the newly founded Consort of Musicke, and as the ensemble’s reputation rose so her sideline interest evolved into a full-time profession. At the time prominent orchestras were generally insensitive to Baroque pitch and historically informed tempi, and Kirkby mentions the respect she has for singers like Elly Ameling, Janet Baker and Ernst Haefliger, who tackled Bach against vast symphonic accompaniment. “I call them The Titans,” she says, “they were amazing and they sang beautifully, somehow surviving orchestras that were too loud, too slow and too high.” But the times were changing and flourishing early music groups sought smaller soprano voices, like Kirkby’s, that were clean of vibrato and unsullied by flamboyant technique.
As others have remarked, there’s something about her appearance, too, that seems suited to the repertoire with her auburn ringlets and round, angelic face she wouldn’t look out of place in a Botticelli painting but throughout her career she has preferred to take a role alongside her accompanying musicians (indeed, more than once during the interview she refers to her own voice as an “instrument”) rather than that of ostentatious soloist.
When the South Bank Show ran an hour-long feature on Kirkby it was subtitled The Unsung Heroine an easy phrase, but does she really feel like she has been overshadowed or overlooked? “Actually, I don’t. I’ve worked with lovely colleagues, I’ve done fantastic repertoire, I haven’t felt cheated or short-changed at all.” However, she admits it took a while for audiences to appreciate her approach and the unique timbre of period instruments, and that performances in the seventies and early eighties frequently met hostile press. “Well, of course! Critics have to show they’re not pushovers. I used to enjoy the ones that said ‘I think I’m supposed to enjoy this,’” she laughs, “I mean, fair enough, it either speaks to you or it doesn’t.”
Two years ago BBC Music Magazine ranked Kirkby tenth greatest soprano of the recording era, a compliment she dismisses as “arbitrary” but proof, if it were needed, that she has achieved mainstream recognition. Kirkby’s schedule is now as busy as ever and this year she has been invited to curate her own concert at the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, titled A Choice Collection. Within the brief of ‘English music from Dowland to Arne’ she will be performing her chosen pieces with her long-term collaborator, the lutenist Jakob Lindberg, and renowned harpsichordist Steven Devine. The programme, which she describes with obvious delight, will feature works by Thomas Campion and Maurice Greene, mad songs by Purcell and Blow, and Henry Lawes’ Ariadne’s Lament, a rarely performed work inspired by Monteverdi’s example.
I ask if there is a thread or theme that runs through these works, besides their English heritage. “I think it’s the cherishing of the words. It’s a great pleasure for me and a great preoccupation for composers of the time singing and setting, they call it but I also refuse to sing all night, ever, so the others are prevailed on to put solos in so you can hear the instruments on their own.” Kirkby has enjoyed singing to lute accompaniment throughout her career. “It’s very special it wasn’t called the Queen of Instruments for nothing the only thing is it’s quite temperamental, it has this rather antisocial habit of drawing your attention to every other noise that’s in the room because it’s always going off into silence.” If the conditions are right, however, the effect can be magical, and she mentions Llandeilo parish church in Wales and the church at Lena in Sweden as two of her favourite venues.
Next season Kirkby will have a chance to test out the Kings Place acoustics in a concert with the viol ensemble Fretwork, and in October she is embarking on a concert tour of the United States with Lindberg. On top of these commitments another recording project hovers on the horizon Buxtehude with the Purcell Quartet and she continues to schedule in workshops and master classes. It’s a relief that this treasured soprano shows no sign of slowing down.