· By ArkivMusic Contributor

Marking Time with the Kuijkens: Celebrating a Family Band

In September 1972, harpsichordist-conductor Gustav Leonhardt turned to a producer and, on the spot, named the set of freelance musicians he had just led through a recording session: "La Petite Bande." He meant to refer to an elite chamber group at Louis XIV's court, but Sigiswald Kuijken mistook the choice for playful self-deprecation. They were a ragtag crewyoung, scrappy and hungry.

Fifty years later, Kuijken, who has guided the ensemble since, maintains that blend of courtly poise and ungovernable energy. Many among his family are musicians, including children who arrived in the world soon after La Petite Bande.

Thanks in no small part to this family, historically-informed performance has moved from the fringe to the heart of classical music. However, Sigiswald reminds us that with celebration comes uncertainty: for the past decade, La Petite Bande has gone without the public support that Belgian orchestras usually enjoy. Recording opportunities are more important for the ensemble than ever.

Between spring and autumn 2022, Challenge Classics released two records involving Sigiswald, Sara, and Marie Kuijken. (An album of modern music for flute and piano featuring Veronica Kuijken arrives in October.) To celebrate the releases of Mozart en famille and La Petite Bande's 50th Anniversary collection of music by Bach, ArkivMusic caught up with these three artists.

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Two questions for Sigiswald Kuijken

ArkivMusic: On your friend and mentor Gustav Leonhardt’s 80th birthday, you praised his “vigilance against the weight of banality.” Anyone who revisits La Petite Bande’s Bach recordings on Challenge in the new 50th Anniversary box set will hear that you have carried on that mission! How have you kept the ensemble so dynamic and engaged over five decades of leadership?

Sigiswald Kuijken: I did nothing particular for that – except perhaps that I always gave priority to the music and to the joy of making it together…the composition of the group had to be in accordance with the program. We never had a fixed structure with fixed “members” [nor] an internal organization with principal players, etc. So we always were a group of freelancers chosen by myself for every project, with great care for human and musical capacities, with a minimum of structure[.] My philosophy has always been that every concert should be played with the freshness as if it was the very first – but keeping in mind as well that it might also be the last one (who knows what the future brings?).

AM: You have recorded as a modern and baroque violinist, and as the foremost advocate of the violoncello da spalla; your collaborators have included members of your actual family as well as a global “chosen family” of historically informed performers, which you helped establish. What comes next for you?

Sigiswald K: I play lots of Bach-recitals on violin and violoncello da spalla to collect funds for [La Petite Bande], and this keeps me playing important and demanding music…! We want to complete our project of recording twelve Bach concertos: the 6 for harpsichord and strings + the 3 concertos for 2 harpsichords + the 3 original violin versions of the concertos he transcribed. This total fits well on 3 CDs, the first of which just came out on Accent. These pieces…show an extraordinary vital force and transparency – highlights in Bach’s instrumental writing! [As for] revisiting past projects: every time you can perform Bach’s Matthew Passion or Brandenburg concertos you are captured as if it was the first time...I am very thankful for all this.

Two questions for Sara Kuijken

AM: On the new box set marking the 50th Anniversary of La Petite Bande, you lead one half of Bach’s split orchestra in the St. Matthew Passion, as well as playing in the St. John Passion (as both violinist and viola d'amore soloist) and Christmas Oratorio. How does it feel to mark this occasion after growing up alongside the ensemble?

Sara Kuijken: In my childhood La Petite Bande was almost always present – I was 4 when the group was born – and in those times it was to me a bit like an “extended family,” and I enjoyed it as such until early adulthood. I participated as an enthusiastic supporter, and in my teenage years as a bowing copyist too, but I then never imagined one day being part of the group. Only after a few years of my own young professional career as a modern viola player did this possibility appear…So I studied baroque violin while continuing my modern work – I sometimes doubted the sense of it because I couldn’t really obtain a diploma in early music due to lack of time, and I felt myself in those times a searcher in the modern field, along with my colleagues.

In 1994 I participated for the first time in Haydn’s Harmoniemesse with La Petite Bande, and then I felt that being part of the group was like a balm of friendship which highly relaxed me, brought me “back to the roots”, and also brought along very deep and concentrated work on essential musicianship…It became with time the best motivation to really learn what there was to be learnt…were it in modern or baroque, classical, impressionist or whatever music[.]

There exists something like a universal “grammar” of our Western music language. I slowly adapted my technique to it so that switching from modern to baroque instruments became more comfortable (without making technical compromises...!) and that the different ways and styles of playing became unified, at least to my own feeling. I can truly say, in the context of 50 years of La Petite Bande, that the experience in this group over all those years has brought me such a kind of personal synthesis, not really related to historical research, but to my own inner search for the true sense of being a musician. To be a musician is to express life in beauty.

AM: The violist plays many roles in the Duo K. 423 that you and Sigiswald recorded for Mozart en famille. What was the rehearsal process like, given the equal division of labor between the violin and viola – did the two of you have to negotiate on matters of style and balance, or was your working relationship more intuitive?

Sara K: Luckily between my father and me, the work has always been smooth and easy concerning the understanding of the music which we have to perform. Differences in ideas are extremely rare - if they arrive they will be “passionately defended” by each of us, of course, but finally we’ll realize that in fact we have the same intuitions in an only very slightly different understanding about how to realize them. That means that with time we need less and less discussions, which have always been quite rare. We are always moving towards the same aim. It is a great gift of Life, and I am very grateful for it[.]

Two questions for Marie Kuijken

AM: On Mozart en famille, you are the only family/ensemble member to have a solo piece to yourself: the Fantasie K. 397, which you play on a copy of a 1785 fortepiano like those Mozart was known to play. Was it liberating, overwhelming, or a bit of both to, in a sense, inhabit Mozart’s instrumental role on this record?

Marie Kuijken: I have a special relationship with that piece since my childhood, it is a piece I love dearly! As for the instrument, since many many years it has become more natural for me to play Mozart on a Stein copy than it would be to play his music on a Steinway. The instrument “shows the way”, and it is a special pleasure (and a privilege) to know that the feeling in the fingers while I’m playing this kind of instrument must be quite similar to what Mozart had under his fingers.

No one can inhabit Mozart’s role though... as he had this infinite fountain of music inside him, which must have been constantly present and active: that fact surely made his experience, even when he was “just performing” a piece like the Fantasie, something of a whole other dimension, unreachable for any performing pianist.

AM: In La Petite Bande’s 50th anniversary collection of music by Bach, you perform as a soprano in both Passions. As someone who also directs stage productions and serves as an expressivity coach for singers, would you ever consider staging one of these works, as some directors have?

Marie K: That’s an interesting question and I have indeed already posed it to myself more than once. What I would certainly love to do, if I were to lead a new group of singers on Bach’s passions, is to work exactly as I do with opera singers: firstly sitting around the table and working only on the text, just speaking, analyzing the expressive force of the rhythm of every word and verse.

I would go into depths of the meaning, the emotional content, the [roles'] interactions, the intentions. I would certainly see the theatrical charge and use it to its full extent as it has been used by Bach while writing the music: I would coach the singers to go deep into that expressivity and to be at their best in giving that to the public. I feel there’s much to be discovered, in oneself as a singer, with regards to the text of these works and how to live them in the moment of singing, how to be in harmony and congruity with the content of what one is singing. Yes: even in the texts of most of the commenting arias, which I feel are generally sung just for the beauty of the music, more or less neglecting their content, which as modern humans we feel no easy connection with. So the first stage of my work as an expressivity coach, what I call “musical declamation”, would be the same, then of course bringing the results of this preparative work into the music and the actual singing.

Would I then stage these works? Not in the classical meaning of this word, not with costumes and scenery, as I don’t feel that urge. But I would dream of doing these works with the singers singing their parts by heart, maybe changing their position on the scene (not have them stand the whole evening in one position but change positions according to what happens, to the action whenever there is action), and I would love to experiment some simple but meaningful baroque gesture: in the general attitude of the body, and especially on all those moments where a sensible gesture would help the meaning of the text arrive more easily or more directly to the public.

Two questions for all three Kuijkens

AM: Mozart en famille found the three of you recording together as a trio for the first time, but as the 50th Anniversary set shows, La Petite Bande has brought you all into the studio and onto the concert stage many times. Are there any future plans for this trio – your own très petite bande?

Sigiswald K: Properly for this trio-combination we have no further plans, [but] we do have a plan for another Mozart CD with our youngest daughter Veronica at the fortepiano, me on the violin, and a cellist friend, which will have the same structure as Mozart en famille, including also the second Duetto for Violin and Viola (with Sara), which we already recorded while making Mozart en famille[.]

Sara K: Initially this trio is a part of what we call “Two Generations Kuijken,” and which can involve other members of our family and also, if needed, other colleagues. We started to perform in this context in 1998 with Debussy’s chamber music, on modern instruments, which involved 6 family members (Sigiswald, Wieland, Barthold, Piet, Veronica, and myself) along with Sophie Hallynck on the harp. It was a beautiful experience, and very naturally it continues in other forms…this trio is a natural result of that élan[.]

AM: What else would you like your listeners to know about these releases?

Sigiswald K: That we enjoyed making them – I find it more and more necessary and important that high-quality music is being performed in concert and published on CD and other media, in these times where we can see a regrettable general decay in cultural background…due to the misunderstanding that technology etc. is now all we need to go for, and that more spiritual aspects (in the broadest sense) are not useful for our society[.]

Sara K: For me, playing Mozart is like a miracle – more and more. To some he seems frivolous, but his music goes so deep inside even on the most simple moments. All the wisdom of life is inside, like with Bach too, but in a totally different way. Nevertheless they touch each other somewhere at each end, I would say. They are complementary, somewhere…

Marie K: The general thankfulness that I always feel when we have the opportunity to play together as members of the same family (also with [our] sister, Veronica).

La Petite Bande's 50th Anniversary Box Set on Challenge Classics gathers the ensemble's recordings of J.S. Bach's St. Matthew and St. John Passions, plus the Christmas Oratorio and B minor Mass. Sigiswald, Sara and Marie each take part on some or all recordings.

Mozart en famille features chamber and solo piano music (K. 296, 423, 397 & 498) in renditions by this trio, a subset of Two Generations Kuijken.

...du silence au silence pairs pianist Veronica Kuijken with flautist Helena Macherel in music by Ravel, Poulenc, and others.