I’m knee-deep in learning the Bach St. John Passion right now — but at this point I probably should be neck-deep, instead. We got the music in January, and I was rarin’ to go… but then once I was picked for a reaudition, I didn’t want anything to distract from learning and memorizing my audition piece, Meeres Stille… so I put off the Bach until mid-February. Then I started listening to in the car, getting comfortable with it, yada yada yada OH MY GOD HOW IS IT MARCH ALREADY OH GOD OH GOD. Now it’s almost April and I’ve probably got 1/3 of it memorized, with the first rehearsal this Monday the 4th and the off-book rehearsal scheduled for the 15th. It actually got to the point where I made a spreadsheet to track progress so I could remind myself how far I had to go. (You can follow along and applaud or tsk tsk my progress here. )
We received two recordings of this piece to study from. Normally I am a big recording fan — my piano teacher once told me that learning music was 50% aural, 40% mechanical, and 10% visual. Everyone learns differently, and all are important, but I’d say that’s pretty accurate for me. But this time around there’s a conundrum. Here’s why:
The first recording was made by our conductor for this piece, Mo. Suzuki. (I only just learned that “Mo” was the “Mr” for Maestro. Hee. Anyways…) His recording uses a concert pitch consistent with baroque performances using period instruments, so everything sounds about a half-note lower. I have perfect pitch and this drives me nuts since we’ll be performing the piece at the modern (A=440) pitch.
The second recording is at the modern pitch, but uses a revision of the score that has different notes for the entire first part. In addition, the performance style is noticeably different — hard to explain, but I’ll try. In the modern piece, every entrance, every forte, is very punchy. Very in-your-face. It’s bold and brash. The notes are all correct, the tempi are fine, and had I not heard Maestro Suzuki’s version I would have thought it a fine recording. But Suzuki’s version is much more nuanced. Singer entrances just sort of slide in and out, and are complete in and of themselves. It feels very natural, very flowing. I liken it to the difference between diving into a pool and slipping into a hot tub. Every phrase is sort of aware of itself, very proper, never extends. There’s an economy to every breath, every legato, every vowel and consonant… nothing is wasted. The other analogy that comes to mind, oddly enough, is the training montage in the Zorro movie where Anthony Hopkins is teaching Antonio Banderas to swordfight. Hopkins’ character tells Banderas that there is a circle, and that he must stay within the circle as he fights. These singers stay within a circle as well, never extending too far, never exposing themselves, always in control, putting together something fluid and beautiful.
Given that Suzuki is our conductor, I expect we too will be searching for that fluidity and economy of singer motion in our performance. I’m mostly listening to that recording for style, but every once in a while I jump over to the other recording — just to remind me that I’ll have to brighten the tone and bump it up a half-step in the end. Once we get to rehearsals and I begin to rely less on the recordings I’m sure it will work out. But I need to finish putting the work in first!