Countertenor Maarten Engeltjes speaks about ‘A Mother’s Tears: Stabat Mater’

I think it’s really important to listen to this Stabat Mater album in DSD … What more can one wish for than to hear this intimacy of what we experience through your speakers? I think that’s possible in DSD.

Maarten Engeltjes

I recently had the enormous pleasure of sitting down with countertenor and PRJCT Amsterdam founder Maarten Engeltjes. We spoke about his musical past, the creation of his orchestra, and especially their latest release on Pentatone. Maarten’s passion for music is infectious and I think you will enjoy getting to know him.

Can you please give us a bit of background on yourself?

Well, I’m Martin Engeltjes, I’m a countertenor, a singer of classical baroque music since I was four years old. I sang in this boys’ choir as a starter, and suddenly I heard the first openings choir of the St. Matthew Passion from Bach. I was blown away and I was deeply touched by it. It sounds very strange when I think about it because I was five years old, but my mother writes in my little diary that she doesn’t understand what’s happening to me because I was fully taken away by this music. 

From that point I started working more, diving deeper into the music. And of course, at a later age, I decided to go to the conservatory in The Hague. There I got acquainted with a lot more baroque music including the Stabat Mater and Pergolesi. 

Around age twenty-one I was sort of “discovered” by some important people in the scene. One of the most famous counter-tenors back then, Michael Chance, sort of discovered me and he gave me the opportunity to do a concert with him. And then my career really took off. I traveled the world for years. I’m still young, but I did a lot of things, and I sang with all the great baroque orchestras in the great halls and venues in the world. And I feel very fortunate to have been able to do that. And at a certain point I felt that in Holland the people were not only coming to see the orchestras I was hired by, but they were coming for me. Then I thought, ‘maybe it’s wise to find my own orchestra’. That was one point that I felt that the audience was changing.

Another motivation was that I felt like the big baroque guys like Tom Cottman and Franz Brücken, they were getting older and there was no one to follow up. I suddenly realized, ‘well, maybe that person should be me’. And I remember saying on a radio show “next year I will have an orchestra”. Now we are five years from that moment and we are having quite some success. It’s highs and lows, but musically and artistically there’s a lot of joy and creativity, and it also allows me to bring the programs I want.

I know everybody is equally as important in an orchestra or an ensemble, but was there someone in the beginning that was integral in helping you build the project? 

Good question. At first it was solely me. It sounds strange but you start with a business side, because for some reason the other side felt natural. I had a lot of help with the business side because you need to have a board, you need to have funding, you need to have all these things going, the marketing, all that stuff. What came almost naturally was the thought, ‘what players do I want to play with’? I felt it needs to be a younger generation because all the people who play in the Baroque orchestras are self-employed, so they will basically never stop playing. You see a lot of Baroque orchestras consisting of old people, with all due respect, but different generation people. So you need to have a stage for young people, and I give that to them. From my orchestra you see that players sometimes fly out to the bigger orchestras. Well, at a certain point my orchestra will be the big orchestra, so it’s growing.

You started PRJCT Amsterdam back in 2017 and I read online that “Stabat Mater” was actually one of the first projects you worked on. How does it feel to come back to it and to now put it out on an album.

Yeah, well, I thought a lot about how can we change the way we bring Baroque music to audiences. We have changing generations and Baroque music was done by a lot of very good Baroque specialists, but they were so much focused on the source that they forgot the entertainment side of the music. They also forgot that the audience are not specialists, and they are searching for what the music is really about. The start of Mater is about a mother losing her child. She’s standing at the cross and her son is hanging there and he’s dying, so the essence of the emotion is a mother losing her child. So I thought, can we connect this with literature? 

I read a fantastic book, it’s called “Shadow Child” and it’s about a father who loses his daughter and he sees the mother grieving. He describes this in the most beautiful words ever. So we combined this literature with this music and suddenly the music began to live differently. 

We got a lot of reactions from parents who lost a child, who were in a hole, but also from young people who suddenly understood what Stabat Mater was about. This was the starting point of PRJCT Amsterdam but also how I wanted to bring programs in a different way. Five years later I thought, we can do this basically forever because it’s music for the millions. People love it. And there are a lot of books written about this subject so we can do this more and more. We did it one time extra last year and then I thought I have to record it. It’s just, the energetic experience was so great. That’s the great thing about music. It’s alive and yet it’s very fleeing. So you also want to have some sort of souvenir for yourself to catch the moment. So this whole being in love with the scores again, I hope we captured that on the album.

It’s also very special to record these pieces. It’s like you paint a Rembrandt again. It’s kind of heavy. It’s a burden.

Can you explain further how you linked the music to literature?

I spoke a lot with the writer and of course you think about how to do this. And we basically came to the point that we said less is more, so we kept it very simple. We put him on a nice sofa in front of the stage and the orchestra was basically surrounding him. So he was inside the orchestra and he read from three chosen points out of the book, as an upbeat to the staff of Mater. He opened the concert and the first passage he read ends with: “A man who loses his wife is a widower. A wife who loses her man is a widow. But how do they call the parents of a lost child?”

 Because that pain is so deep, there are no words for it, then we started with Stabat Mater. This was amazing. Then there is a line in the middle of the Stabat Mater which zooms in on the pain of the mother. We chose a part of the book where he sees his own wife with her child and he writes about that. Then at the end of the piece we have ‘Quando corpus morietur’ meaning ‘when my body dies, please grant me paradise’. For this we took a part of the book where he speaks about how his father taught him how to listen to the world, and when he died suddenly he didn’t know how to listen anymore. He was speaking about death in general and how he for the first time perceived it. It’s very deep, very heavy. But this is what the music is about, and we have to speak about the source. People in the Baroque era, they had such different lives than we had. There was no antibiotics, they lived in a constant pandemic. When you were forty-five it was basically considered old age. Bach lost his parents when he was 10 and 12. Then he lost 11 children, and he lost his first wife. Can you imagine? So these people were surrounded by death and misery all the time, and you hear their souls in this music. It’s very deep. 

I can only imagine how the author of the book must have felt – performing his literature in concert with the orchestra surrounding him.

Well, he’s been asked that a lot of times. When the book was published it had great success and he read it for audiences a lot. And he says it feels now as a score, which he loves, but he can distance himself from it.

I am curious if Vivaldi’s ‘Nissi Domino’, the second choice for this record, also has a deep significance to you and PRJCT Amsterdam, like Stabat Mater clearly does.

Well, this was also part of the program since the beginning. It’s not very much linked to the theme – it’s an Old Testament text, so the text is not really fitting – but on the other hand the power of the music is very strong. Vivaldi is really applicable to Pergolesi in that they were in the same atmosphere, they were in the same country. When you travel and you listen to music, you really understand why Bach wrote different music than Vivaldi. Climate is super influential to how you start behaving and how you open up and how you start to think. And Vivaldi and Pergolesi are from the same time and place, so you have to think about the expression you give to the audience.

Can you tell us a little bit about Shira Patchornik and why you chose her for the soprano part?

We sang a Handel production here in Holland with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. She has a very, I would say it’s a very beautiful voice with a sort of innocence in it. She’s still very young, but for some reason it touched me. I do these things very intuitively. Your gut feeling is always right in these things. There’s also a strange thing amongst musicians: with some great musicians, you cannot find the synchronisation and with some others you can. Basically you speak the same language. It’s the way people are wired or something, and we were wired the same way. So her voice touched me, her musicality touched me, but also you feel that you synchronise in the way you breathe, in the way you ornament, in the way you make the phrases. It’s all done intuitively, but that’s why I chose her.

How it was working with Polyhymnia and the Pentatone team, and can you tell me about the recording location?

Well, the recording location was a bit of a thing. We moved from the initial church to another because I got ill as a singer. But it was a beautiful little church and I think it worked out very well. And Polyhemia is, of course, one of the best and we love working with them. And Karl Bruchmann is the Tonmeister here. He is a young guy, I like him very much. He has fantastic ears and when we work together, we have to be careful that we don’t dive into the micro-verse. You know? Yeah. I’m speaking to audio files. So everybody knows that when you edit, you can go into seconds of sound which nobody would ever hear. Karl and I, we have this tendency to sometimes go too far, and we love that. Pentatone is new for us, t’s the first album we record here and we like it very much. I feel that their distribution is really nice and they have a very professional team. Very friendly, very open. So I’m looking forward to working more with them.

Finally, why is it important to you that this album is offered in HiRes DSD resolutions?

I think it’s really important to listen to this Stabat Mater album in DSD because in Baroque music we are looking for the highest quality of sound on period instruments. Which means that you hear instruments from the 17th century, these instruments are more than 300-400 years old and played with gut strings which is amazing. When we are in this process we are always trying to find the most beautiful sounds and well, what more can one wish for than to hear this intimacy of what we experience through your speakers? I think that’s possible in DSD.

Written by

David Hopkins

David is NativeDSD’s Product and Communication Manager. He grew up writing songs, playing guitar and drums. Working with musicians in studio to produce records as a recording engineer and producer, he produced music for numerous commercials for Pulse Content, and organised numerous music events and concerts.


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