‘Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’, the central panel of Van Eyck’s 600-year-old Ghent Altarpiece © Saint-Bavo’s Cathedral Ghent/Lukasweb.be-Art in Flanders vzw/Hugo Maertens/KIK-IRPA

This was always intended to be Jan van Eyck year. The City of Ghent had drawn up a busy 12-month programme to honour the Flemish master, creator of the famed Ghent Altarpiece. Now, thanks to coronavirus, the lucky Van Eyck is getting an extra six months so that cancelled events can be rescheduled.

He might also be surprised at the title given to this celebration — “OMG! Van Eyck was here”. But once he was over the shock, the 15th-century artist would surely appreciate the range of activities on offer, extending to a global garden, an open-air folk festival, a sensory city walking tour, and “Lights on Van Eyck”, a multimedia spectacle. Some of these will now run through to summer 2021.

The big event, though, is a concert at St Bavo’s Cathedral, home of the Ghent Altarpiece, to be given by Collegium Vocale Gent and its founder Philippe Herreweghe, who are themselves celebrating their 50th anniversary. As the highlight the City of Ghent has commissioned a new work from Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. As Pärt is now 85, and though two further works have appeared on his publisher’s website since, it seems unlikely there will be many more.

The piece is short, no more than three minutes. Even that, though, can conjure an eternity of peace and contemplation in Pärt’s hands. Called Für Jan van Eyck, it is written for a four-part choir and organ, and the music is derived from the “Agnus Dei” (“Lamb of God”) from Pärt’s earlier Berliner Messe.

That will be appropriate, as the central panel of Van Eyck’s nearly 600-year-old Ghent Altarpiece is the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”. Surrounded by 14 angels in a circle, the lamb is almost uncannily human, its eyes staring forwards, a vision of perfect clarity following the altarpiece’s $2.4m, multiyear restoration.

Philippe Herreweghe

By bringing together Van Eyck and the Collegium Vocale Gent the event presents Belgium’s cultural finest. In the 50 years since the Collegium Vocale Gent was founded it has taken its place among the leading small, professional choirs of the world and played a major role in the rediscovery of early music.

“I used to think it was all about the Baroque style, accent and articulation,” says Herreweghe. “Now it has become clear that the most important thing was how we — not just myself, but also Ton Koopman, Gustav Leonhardt and others — opened the door to a treasure trove of music nobody knew before.”

Herreweghe’s parents, mindful of the deprivations of the war years, had discouraged him from a career in music, so he studied medicine and psychiatry, keeping up choral music in his spare time. “During the day I worked in a hospital,” he says. “In the evenings I went to Amsterdam, where I performed with Leonhardt at the organ and worked with [conductor] Nikolaus Harnoncourt.”

It was during this period that he founded Collegium Vocale Gent. Very quickly the group rose to an international level, drawing in singers from outside, especially from Germany and the UK. “We were one of the first in Europe to have an ensemble of that kind,” he says. “In Ghent there were half a dozen choirs that could sing Bach to a good amateur level, a bit like Mahler’s time when 50 per cent of the Vienna Philharmonic had careers as doctors or lawyers, but the chamber choir was a new thing.”

The next 50 years saw increasing specialisation and Herreweghe’s aim has been to fit each of the three choral ensembles that make up Collegium Vocale Gent to the requirements of a certain period or style of music. This has gone hand in hand with a widening of their repertoire. A 50th anniversary set of CDs gives a conspectus of the range. There is the expected Victoria from the late Renaissance and Bach representing the Baroque, but alongside are fine discs of Brahms and Dvořák’s Requiem.

Herreweghe estimates that he has made about 250 recordings with Collegium Vocale Gent. He cites the Dvořák as a highlight, together with Lassus and Gesualdo, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Stravinsky, and the three recordings of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which he considers his finest achievement.

“I have degrees in medicine and psychiatry, and have studied the piano, bassoon, harpsichord and organ,” he says. “The only thing I have never studied is conducting. A conductor needs some technique, which is not my strong point, but then one of the most important conductors of the 20th century was Harnoncourt, and technique was not his strong point either. The most important thing is to be able to hear in your head how you want the music to go. I am still working on getting the performance to sound how I want it.”

Despite this modest outlook Herreweghe has attained engagements with the top echelon of orchestras. He has conducted Bach with, among others, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, and just before the coronavirus lockdown Mozart’s last three symphonies in Cleveland (“what a pleasure it was to work with such an orchestra”). He says he is “not an Ayatollah” about using period instruments, though he still believes the music of earlier periods sounds better on them.

Many performers are feeling powerless as musical life struggles to get going, but not Herreweghe. “As a doctor, I am pessimistic about the immediate future,” he says. “If the virus lasts a long time and concert halls cannot reopen, I shall take up my career as a medical doctor again. I would like to go to work in Africa and do something useful.”

Collegium Vocale Gent will give the premiere of Arvo Pärt’s ‘Für Jan van Eyck’ at St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent, on September 22

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