23.11.2020 | Artist

Pater Nathanael (1930-2020) and the Spirit of St Gerold

Pater Nathanael Wirth, Provost of the Propstei St Gerold in the Austrian Alps for more than 50 years, died on November 19, at the age of 90. Under his direction the Propstei thrived as both a spiritual and cultural community centre. Nathanael, who entered the Benedictine order in 1951, became the leader of St Gerold in 1958. From the 1970s the Propstei gained a reputation as an unconventional concert location. Manfred Eicher, a frequent visitor back then, who appreciated both the mountain setting and the exceptional acoustics, struck up a long-lasting friendship with Pater Nathanael. And in the 1990s, with Nathanael’s encouragement, ECM began to record in St Gerold: Officium with Jan Garbarek and the Hillard Ensemble as well as the vocal ensemble’s Morimur collaboration with Christoph Poppen. Arvo Pärt joined several recordings with the Hilliard singers, including Da Pacem Domine. The Rosamunde Quartet were regular guests for recordings and concerts, returning each Easter to play Haydn’s Seven Last Words, often with Pater Nathanael contributing always new words to Haydn’s music.

The church proved to be an astounding space for recordings, a place in which the player could really engage with the music. Giya Kancheli’s Exil, Kultrum with Dino Saluzzi and the Rosamunde Quartet, which later recorded also Tigran Mansurian’s and Boris Yoffe’s string quartet music, Anouar Brahem’s Astrakan Café, John Surman’s The Spaces In Between, Stephen Stubbs’s Teatro Lirico, almost all of the Trio Mediaeval’s discography, a series of recordings with John Holloway and Lars-Ulrik Mortensen and more. András Keller and János Pilz recorded Bartók’s violin duos in St Gerold. Frank Peter Zimmermann and Heinrich Schiff addressed Honneger, Martinů, Ravel.

It was a special honour to welcome Mstislav Rostropovich at the Propstei for the recording of Alexander Knaifel’s Psalm 51. Other solo recordings were produced in this inspiring place: Thomas Zehetmair’s Bach, Paganini and Ysaye albums as well as Kim Kashkashian’s Kúrtag/Ligeti, Ralph Towner’s Time Line, Eduard Brunner’s Dal niente, Paul Giger’s Schattenwelt a.o.

Dozens of musicians came to St Gerold, including Bruno Ganz. Pater Nathanael befriended and encouraged players across the idioms. From Pierre Favre, who brought his Singing Drums ensemble to the monastery, to Till Fellner who played Mozart, Schubert and more.

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The one album called Sankt Gerold – by Paul Bley, Evan Parker, and Barre Phillips – was recorded not in the church itself but in the neighbouring hall. Pater Nathanael was a presence there, too, cocking an ear in the direction of Evan Parker’s circular breathing solos on soprano sax, always a discerning listener. But the ECM recording that exemplifies the St Gerold spirit in the era of Pater Nathanael might be Night Sessions by the Dowland Project. Nathanael’s generosity as host was legendary, and his interests manifold, with wine as one of his areas of expertise. John Potter’s team of players, with John Surman, Stephen Stubbs, Maya Homburger, and Barry Guy, were celebrating after completing their 2001 recording Care-Charming Sleep when, at midnight, Manfred Eicher summoned them back into the church for more recording. This was entirely possible in Nathanael’s freewheeling domain. “What followed,” John Potter would later write, “was for me the most remarkable hours music making I have ever experienced. With all inhibitions gone and the sense that we were creating something absolutely in the moment.”

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All artists would testify to the inspirational character of the mountain monastery situated halfway between heaven and earth.

Thank you, Pater Nathanael, for your immense generosity. You will be deeply missed.

R.I.P.

Photo by Peter Laenger & Florian Ganslmeier

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