JS Bach’s forebears – Day 1, Rehearsal (21 September)

I’m Julian Forbes, a tenor in the Choir of the AAM. I auditioned for the ensemble last year and did my first concert in the Concertgebouw in Bruges last December. I’ll be taking charge of the blog for the next few days as AAM prepares for two concerts of music by JS Bach’s forebears at West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge and Wigmore Hall in London.

The first rehearsal tonight is for singers only, along with continuo organist Stephen Farr, led, of course, by Richard Egarr. Our venue is “The Warehouse” on Theed Street near Waterloo station, one of London’s many well-hidden and perpetually-busy professional rehearsal studios. Arriving at Waterloo in the thick of the rush-hour to start work at 6.30pm, one of very few people pushing out from the station entrance, I’m reminded that whilst we musicians may not earn as much as hundreds of thousands of other denizens of our capital, we derive a not inconsiderable bonus to our well-being from not routinely having to commute nose-to-armpit with them day and night!

Proximity to odour is to be a theme of tonight’s rehearsal, in fact: nothing to do with any of the singers, but rather the “smelly” temperament, to use Richard’s scientific description, which we’re adopting for this concert. Modern tuning – equal temperament – is more or less “pure” – that is, every interval on a modern piano keyboard is of roughly the same size, no matter which key it’s played in. Back in the 17th century, things weren’t so refined; without getting in over my head in a subject which I can’t claim to understand, suffice it to say that certain keys would sound very, very discordant indeed. Even in keys which tune well, we singers have to be aware of certain things this week: fourths are “wider” than usual, fifths conversely “narrower” – and depending on which part of a chord you’re taking in a choral passage (and on the key in which the chord is), you may have to counter-intuitively flatten or sharpen to get things sounding just right.

We run through all the concert music tonight, reinforcing Richard’s performing principles which I’m already quite familiar with through AAM work and my participation on a Britten-Pears programme at Snape Maltings this summer which Richard led and conducted. In short – don’t be late, anticipate! Richard’s insistent that music never stops, that it’s always wanting to “go” somewhere. As such, he constantly reminds us to propel our lines, and urges us never to just sit on them and do them in time.

The music’s great. I’m biased – I love German Baroque Church Cantatas. Sorry Mum, sorry Dad. I know you tried to bring me up right. But really, it is. Although German, it’s got a lot of Italian influences: the strong simple sonorities of the massed choral-instrumental  sections owe debts back to Monteverdi and Gabrieli, as does the nimble string writing – we’re looking forward to hearing Pavlo Beznosiuk (violin) playing the chaconne in Meine Freundin, du bist schön tomorrow! Elsewhere, you’ll hear French sprightliness in the dotted rhythms of the opening sinfonia of Die Furcht des Herren. And binding it all together is the ever-clear and direct German text. German’s a maligned language – people tar it with the Prussian brush and assume it’s only good for shouting things like Vorwärts! Not a bit of it. It is very good for declamation of the bold and forthright – you’ll enjoy the opening statements of Ich danke dir, Gott – but it’s also good for steamy insinuation. Richard Latham and Philippa Hyde have been working hard on their steamy insinuation and you’ll hear it in all its eloquence as they duet in the rather saucy wedding cantata Meine Freundin, du bist schön – a piece which also features myself and Jackie Connell as, well, basically, two anorak-wearing bystanders to passion. Speaking of roles, we’re all playing parts in Die Furcht des Herren: each vocal line has a character description written by it. Charmian Bedford will be taking the part of “Wisdom”, Phillipa Hyde and Ed Hastings will be the junior and senior chamberlains and Jackie Connell and Phil Tebb the junior and senior burgomasters. Who ever said those Bachs didn’t know how to have fun?

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