Bach and Lang: Forces required

As part of our 2016-2017 season we’re giving each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The inaugural post below comes from our bass, Steven Hrycelak, and is about our September 1st performance at the Skaneateles Festival.


As we prepare to perform BWV 40 and David Lang’s the little match girl passion for the Skaneateles Festival, it took some thought to find a context in which to discuss both of these works.

But then it hit me: we are performing both of these works with just four singers. Why would we do this? What are the benefits and disadvantages of this approach, and what challenges do this one per part presentation offer compared to a larger ensemble approach?

Much has been made in recent years, with some very strong opinions expressed, about what forces should be used to perform Bach’s vocal works. The cantatas, as well as the Christmas Oratorio, B Minor Mass and other works, call for varying numbers of soloists in addition to choral parts and instrumental parts. Occasionally, sections of the chorus are marked as ripieno, or one voice per part, which implies a distinction between this subset of singers and a larger chorus. Often this is not marked, however, and many conductors choose to make more soloistic sections of choral movements into ripieno sections, to further this contrast between larger and smaller forces. There are also a considerable number of cantata performances, however, that only use four singers in total, with the same singers executing all of the solo and all of the choral parts. Taken to the extreme, there have been recent performances of works as grand as the St. Matthew Passion — which calls for double choir, SATB solos, and an Evangelist, a singer portraying Jesus, and several smaller roles — using only eight singers in total.

These reduced vocal forces can be thrilling, but require powerful and versatile singers, who can cut over an orchestra both in solo movements and in the often more heavily orchestrated choral movements. It is an exciting challenge as a performer, and one that demands a free, open throated approach to singing Bach, and a chamber music sensibility in the music making. I know we are all excited for this challenge, and the thrill of performing this great cantata with such fine instrumentalists.

What about the Lang, then? The piece was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for Theater of Voices, and performed with only four singers. However, I have performed this piece three times before–once with four singers and twice with a larger ensemble–and I know that the composer approves of both approaches. I have really enjoyed both as well.

The larger ensemble approach offers the possibility of a more blended sound, as the singers have reinforcements to help with breathing and sustaining the sometimes very taxing vocal lines. Someone from each vocal part is assigned some percussion instruments to play, and having other singers on each vocal line certainly takes some pressure off the percussionist (I was the bass percussionist for one of the ensemble performances I did and not the other, and I can assure you that the latter was much less stressful). The incredible sparseness of the score, however, means that ensemble has to be pretty perfect within each section, or it is very noticeable. There is a tricky section for the altos in the first movement where the word stress plays against the meter in a rather angular melody, and could be difficult to coordinate with a section.

Which brings us to the four singer version. It is very hard for the singers! The range demands are extreme, and some of the breath lines are very long. The section that jumps to mind is movement 13, in which soprano, tenor and bass are just sustaining very long whole notes for six pages, with no rests written in, so only quick catch breaths can be taken. And if that weren’t enough, the pitches of the bass part jump all over the place.

The alto line of this movement is a solo in which you hear the chattering of the little girl’s teeth as she is freezing to death. It is incredibly haunting writing, and I think that I ultimately prefer the fragility of the accompanying voices being one per part, and the labor that is required to make this happen. Having lots of singers on each part accompanying the alto soloist could allow for a more seamless background, but I think the struggle for the other singers to sustain these lines actually adds to the fragility, the quiet drama of this scene, and ultimately the tragedy of this work. For me, this is the high point of the piece, and the four singer version enhances the impact.

If you get to hear us do this piece, check out a choral recording after. I’m curious to hear reactions to these very different takes on this work.

The score to David Lang’s the little match girl passion used with permission by Red Poppy, LTD., administered exclusively worldwide by G. Schirmer, Inc.

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