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March 24, 2005

Would Bach Approve?

Radio Netherlands:

At Easter time, thousands of people gather in churches and concert halls throughout the Netherlands to listen to performances of Bach's St Matthew and St John Passions. It's a tradition going back to the early 1920s. Yet, there is controversy in the air this year, for the Netherlands Bach Society has decided to bring down the number of singers for the two works to a bare minimum, and to make soloists part of the choir. In the oldest scores that still exist of the St John Passion, there's evidence that the soloists were also choir members. The Bach Society's artistic director and conductor, Jos van Veldhoven, tried to recreate that sound in a new recording of the Passion. For him, the main question is not whether there should be a big choir or not, but whether there should be soloists.

"Traditionally there has been a rigid separation between soloists who stand in front of an orchestra and a choir who stand at the back of the orchestra, and they seem to be two worlds," says Mr Van Veldhoven. The challenge was to blend these two worlds. "If you listen well to the recording you can hear eight people singing. They sing very well together and the individual quality of the voices is maintained." He finds the sound less anonymous than in bigger choirs, although critics argue that the choruses lack the dramatic impact of large choirs. So, in the newly released recording of the Bach Society's St John Passion, the choruses are sung almost as vocal quartets by four soloists who are reinforced by four chorus members, called 'in ripieno' singers or 'ripienists'.

Mr Van Veldhoven describes his new sound as transparent, crystal clear and expressive. He is particularly proud of the effect in the St. John Passion's beautiful chorales. "They sound more intimate, yet still very engaging [] Bach is so unique in his ability to catch a word or part of sentence in musical terms using specific harmonies, and if you have a group of performers who can bring this out, you get some of the best performances of JS Bach."

What makes Mr Van Veldhoven's decision so controversial in the Netherlands has to do with Holland's unique choral music tradition. In the true 19th century tradition, Bach Passions are usually performed here with huge orchestras and impressive amateur choirs with more than 100 singers. Jos van Veldhoven: "There is a huge amount of amateur choirs in the Netherlands, and every choir is used to performing its own St Matthew or St John Passion. So, they probably don't really like it when I arrive with my eight singers and no choir." People who've attended performances year after year are used to hearing massive choirs and want to continue hearing that familiar sound

Posted by acapnews at March 24, 2005 12:15 AM