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Viewed from points west of the Severn Bridge, Elin Manahan Thomas is known to classical music fans as a Bach soprano. In her Welsh homeland, she's simply Soprano bach. The title's mix of English and Welsh says a great deal with just two words. It pays affectionate tribute to the 'little soprano' while recognising her passion for one of the towering giants of western classical music. Two years ago, she made headline news as the first singer to perform Bach's seductive aria 'Alles mit Gott' for almost three centuries. Elin's crystal clear voice, with its blend of tonal beauty and expressive intensity, amounts to the ideal instrument to reconnect modern listeners with music written before the Industrial Revolution. "I'm a Bach, Handel and Purcell girl," she declares. "They're at the top of my list!"
Elin says that her repertoire choice for her first Heliodor album was driven by a desire to bring baroque music to the widest possible audience. "Most people think of baroque as a style of architecture and a period that seems incredibly distant and remote," she says. "Yet the tunes on this disc are remarkably familiar today, even if listeners don't know that they are conveniently filed under baroque music. The opening of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, which he re-uses in his aria 'Dell'aura al sussurrar', is among the best known pieces of music in the world." The 29-year-old artist suggests that Sting's recent adventures with the music of John Dowland have helped introduce fresh ears to pieces all too easily dismissed as esoteric or archaic.
Not so long ago, Elin had a close personal connection with things esoteric and archaic. She studied Anglo Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Clare College, Cambridge, graduating with a starred first-class degree to begin an MPhil thesis on the ninth-century Irish saga, Táin Bó Cúailnge, and the exploits of its youthful hero, Cúchulainn. "He was the Achilles of his era, so I was fully concentrating on him," she recalls. With funding in place to pursue doctoral studies, Elin was set fair to follow an academic path. "But I already had an inkling that it wasn't the life for me. I remember thinking that, rather than living and breathing books, I was looking forward too much to my scone and tea in the University Library at 11! So it wasn't the job for me!" Clare College Choir helped point Elin in the right career direction. Evensong in Clare chapel, concert tours and recording certainly ensured that singing for a living became an option. "Clare is Choir non-stop, six days a week," she recalls. "Although it can be an emotional rollercoaster, I learned so much. I wouldn't have gone any further as a singer without my time as a choral scholar at Clare." The crucial 'next step' came in 1999 when she received a phone call from the Monteverdi Choir inviting her to audition for Sir John Eliot Gardiner. "I honestly thought it was someone playing a practical joke, because a friend took the call and I couldn't believe it," she recalls. "I'd only sung in Clare Choir, the Swansea Bach and the National Youth Choir of Wales before, but it really was the Monteverdis. I sang some Bach the following day for John Eliot, he put down his newspaper and listened, and that was it - I was in!"
Elin joined the Monteverdi Choir for Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, a monumental Millennium Year project to perform Bach's 199 church cantatas in venues from Weimar to New York. "It was an incredible journey. I was being paid to do what I loved doing. I thought I'd do that for a while - and I'm still here!" She soon found herself singing for the Sixteen, Polyphony and the Gabrieli Consort, and her solo career blossomed after she deputised for an indisposed colleague in a Monteverdi Choir performance, her rapid progress thereafter underpinned by two years as a postgraduate student at the Royal College of Music and sheer hard graft.
From her earliest schooldays at Swansea's Ysgol Gyfun Gwyr, Elin developed a lasting love of languages. She added English to her native Welsh as a child, soon acquired German and French, and went on to penetrate Old Irish and Anglo Saxon. "I can also get by in Italian, if I speak it with a Welsh accent!" Musical fluency eluded her until she joined the Swansea Bach Choir under the direction of John Hugh Thomas. "That changed everything for me. I'd never read a note of music before, so I was on an incredibly steep learning curve. I didn't even know what sight-reading was!" Performing Bach's St Matthew Passion, in company with a classy solo team and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, left a profound impression on the 15-year-old chorister. "I wrote in my diary that 'I've died and gone to heaven'. I learned German with a brilliant teacher at school so I understood the words and realised how human and immediate Bach's music is. I would sing Bach any time, anywhere!"
Elin's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage experience and her work since with many of the world's leading early music performers have influenced her approach to matters of period style and detail. "For someone who thinks a lot and enjoys looking behind the scenes of the music, as it were, it has been fascinating to work on early music with people like Harry Christophers, John Eliot Gardiner, Paul McCreesh and Stephen Layton. I was catapulted into that world, having not studied music formally, and took to it absolutely. That's why, when Universal Classics and Jazz asked me who I wanted to accompany my first album, I suggested the period instruments of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Harry Christophers."
And what of the future? Elin says that, as a young singer, she's happy to let Bach, Handel, Purcell and company serve as her guides for now. "I'd love to draw people to share my world of music making and, of course, this incredible music. It's about communicating emotions and showing people just how human and exciting these pieces are. This is the music I believe in with a passion."