Copyright: Jorge Carmona
Nuno Côrte-Real is considered one of the most significant contemporary composers in Portugal. His oeuvre is rich and varied, with works ranging from songs to chamber and orchestral music to feature-length operas, which have been repeatedly recorded and performed worldwide, including in Amsterdam, London and New York. As a conductor, he has appeared among others with the Portuguese Symphonic Orchestra, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. He is the founder and artistic director of the Ensemble Darcos, a chamber music group dedicated to the interpretation of his own music and the great European repertoire.
On his new album Time stands still, which he recorded together with the Ensemble Darcos and the renowned soprano Ana Quintans on the Portuguese label Artway, he now devotes himself to the music of English Renaissance composer John Dowland, which he juxtaposes with works of his own.
NO-TE: Mr Côrte-Real, what is the essence of your art?
There are two words with which I can define myself as a composer. First: expression. What I really am trying to do is to express myself as clearly as possible, in terms of the music that I am doing; either something very intimate of me, a poem in a song or the plot of an opera. The second one is freedom: In all these years of working, I’ve been trying to be as free as possible. That might seem a bit naïve or innocent, but as an artist in our days, the most difficult thing is to be free. With freedom I mean to find the right equilibrium between what we are inside in a deep place of ourselves and the things that are surrounding us. We live in a global world, where it’s really absurd not to listen to every way of doing music that exists everywhere. Thus, I don’t close myself to any specific style or way of composing. What I always try to do is to find a balance, something that synthesises what I’m doing whether it uses this or that style. At the end, it’s all about truthfulness. New music sometimes is like an island, very far away and hard to get there. I want to make music, which is true, which can express feelings in a way that audiences can sense those feelings and not just by chance or by mistake; music that can also entertain and with which you can also feel pleasure. Those ideas shouldn’t be wrong, but the aim. This is absolutely necessary and it defines who I am.
NO-TE: On ‘Time stands still’ you combine your own compositions with music by John Dowland. Why did you choose him, and which works are featured?
There are two reasons why I chose Dowland: I used to play the lute when I was young, and I played a lot of old music, including Dowland’s songs. So, this music is really familiar to me. And I think I always kept something of these songs, of their wonderful simplicity. Then, there was an invitation of a festival in Lisbon, which was about Shakespeare and thus Dowland as a contemporary of him. I was asked to create something out of his music. I started to think about it remembered the songs from my past. The pieces that I’ve chosen for this album are all different, but I connect with them a kind of nostalgic emotion and I used to play them by myself. So, it was a sort of revisitation and getting back to my own past, remembering beautiful times which of course will never return. Thus, Time stands still is really a tribute to John Dowland’s songs and also to my past and my relation to these songs, which had a strong influence in what I became as a musician and a composer.
NO-TE: Dowland’s songs are alongside your compositions, the interludes. How do they fit together programmatically and stylistically?
Dowland composed what is considers his masterpiece, a collection of dances and instrumental pieces for lute and a consort of strings, which is called ‘Lachrimæ’. These are 7 variations in form of pavans based on a theme that later become his probably most famous song ‘Flow my tears’. To complete the cycle he wrote another 14 dances like pavans or galliards, which were in fashion in those days. He entitled and dedicated these other dances after various individuals, for example ‘M John Langton Pavan’ or ‘M Giles Hoby his Galiard’. It is funny since we don’t know any of these names, except for ‘The King of Denmarks Galiard’. So, I tried to do the same in my album. I selected 7 songs by Dowland and then I’ve written Interludes for in between the songs that, too, are dedicated to people, who are important to me. This is more a symbolic act rather than a concrete idea. The collection of alternating songs and interludes provide sort of a large, organic form, which is dynamic, changing from loud to soft, with pieces that are more rhythmically, more active or slow. Some of the interludes use material of the songs by Dowland, basing on a motif or rhythm. For example the main theme of the last interlude, which comes after ‘Time stands still’, is actually based on the three notes sequence with which the Dowland song begins.
NO-TE: Who are these people after whom you have entitled the interludes and what impact did they have on your compositions?
These persons are all very important to me and had an impact on my life both artistically and humanly. My interludes have some aspects of these people the pieces are dedicated for. Of course it’s very subtle rather than concrete or clear. But for me it was very important, because each one of these persons has special qualities, which I tried to illustrate. So there’s a sense of personal illustration bearing in the interludes. The relation effects the music and also effects the form. For example, one interlude is after one of my teachers, Sir Christopher Bochmann. He was extremely important in my development, and he was, he still is a very strong representative of dissonant and serial music. My interlude is written in a dodecaphonic way. It doesn’t reflect the man he is, but it reflects the art he defends. The great challenge was to make it organic, to make it fluid in this album – when you listen one Dowland song and suddenly you get in this very obscure and maybe dark music. Another example is the jazz singer Maria João. She is an incredible musician and person, with whom I made a project some time ago. I tried to do some sort of fantasy, in a way, that she is being musically or personally with us. It’s very free, almost improvisation music – and this is because of her. Finally, the last interlude ‘I know not what tomorrow will bring’, which is the last phrase that Fernando Pessoa, the famous Portuguese poet, wrote down when he was dying. This phrase was always enigmatic for me, so I tried to create a long composition within this cycle in comparison to the other pieces, which are smaller. The reason is that I consider him as my absolute master, although he is not a musician. He taught me how to create, how to be an artist, so this is also my tribute to him.