Follow by Email

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Should you conduct secco recitative?

This is a brief, but connected, detour from my posts on conducting Orfeo. It’s brought about because of a review of Rinaldo Alessandrini’s guest conducting stint with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

The review is on the on-line music review site, the San Francisco Classical Voice, which by the way, is a terrific site. It should be copied everywhere since newspapers are giving less and less space to classical music (and it seems that SFCV soon be expanding the kinds of things they do--see the chair's letter this week).

Alessandrini is the very well known leader of Concerto Italiano, an ensemble specializing in 17th and 18th century music (I’ll have something to say about their recent recording of Orfeo later).

As the reviewer notes:

It was a bit unfortunate, though, that Alessandrini insisted on conducting the recitatives. With a continuo group as accomplished as Philharmonia Baroque’s (including David Tayler on theorbo, Hanneke van Proosdij on harpsichord, and cellist [Tanya] Tomkins), and a singer as fine as [Marta] Almajano, I did not see the purpose. In some cases, the result was a bit confusing, as the singer sometimes seemed to desire more time than Alessandrini gave her. The continuo dutifully followed the conductor, who was not always together with Almajano.

In works with secco recitative, it’s long been my practice not to conduct those recitatives, but to conduct the beginning and the end (into the recitative from the previous movement and out into the next one), so I can control the overall pacing of the performance.

Of course, I’m involved with coaching the recitatives and helping shape the internal performance of the recitatives, too. In the case of Bach’s Johannespassion, for example, this means working with the singers for the Evangelist and Jesus roles, the organist and continuo cellist (and other continuo players if you have them). This then becomes the kind of collaborative process I’ll speak more about with Orfeo: we have to decide about what kind of freedom the singer will take and how they will shape the drama and narrative, whether continuo notes will be long or short, connected or not, what kind of realization the organist does, etc.

We know, for example, that even given long written note values in the continuo, that the notes were usually played short. But how short? With what kind of dynamics? Should some of the notes be connected and not separated?

So all of these things come through a collaborative process and the performance begins to take shape. Do I dictate how all of this should go? No. I come into the rehearsals with very definite ideas, of course, but given talented and experienced singers and continuo players, I want (and need) to take their ideas into account as well. Each singer will feel the music in a different way and, unless I absolutely disagree with their approach, I want them to be expressive, and that comes from their own inner conception of the music. Do I make suggestions? Of course! I may have an idea they haven’t considered or, given two possibilities, may have one that fits much better with my conception of the whole.

So why the question of whether to conduct or not? First, let me say that I certainly think you should have the technique to conduct recitative well—you’ll have to in any accompanied recitative—and I talk about learning this for myself in another post.

Think of it from the player’s perspective (continuo cellist, organist—or chittarone player in Orfeo): they have to watch their music (and the line for the singer as well), and listen carefully to the singer so they can place each note precisely where it should be rhythmically. Sometimes they will watch visual cues (the bow of the cellist, a nod from the organist, the singer’s breath). They listen for the singer’s breath, too. Frankly, watching a conductor as well just makes things more complicated. In that sense, you, dear conductor, are simply in the way and can lead to a stilted, rhythmically square performance.

This assumes one of two situations: experienced players with enough rehearsal time (not as much as you might think) to get comfortable with what the singer is going to do; or with inexperienced players, lots of rehearsal time to coach how they do all of this.

I’ve worked in both situations, but in either, I’d prefer to get to the point where the players are working by listening intently, know the shape of the performance, what they’re going to do in terms of lengths of notes (which they can write in their parts), dynamics, etc.—and without me conducting them.

As I’ve said, it’s my responsibility in the coaching/rehearsal sessions to make sure all fits within my overall concept and I conduct into and out of every recitative to control pacing of the drama (or in some cases, somewhere in the middle, too). If you work with students or players/singers with no experience in this style, then it might take lots of rehearsal and coaching to make this work—but isn’t that what they’re there for? To learn?

The only exception might be where you have little or no rehearsal time, something I wouldn’t recommend! But if I had to, I’d probably conduct and say, “follow me no matter what—if we’re wrong, we’re wrong together.” But how expensive is it to have a few extra rehearsals with a couple players? Not much. The biggest problem might be the availability of your vocal soloists if they're flying in from out of town at the last minute. But I'd try to avoid that, too—it simply doesn't lead to the best performance.

If you haven’t tried leaving most of the secco recitatives up to your continuo team, consider it the next time you have the opportunity to do a Bach passion or cantata. It’s a lovely, freeing, and empowering experience for your players and soloists.

And, as is noted in the review, it can often be even more flexible and beautiful than with you conducting!


Dr. PW said...


What about when you are teaching secco recit to beginning students and it's their first exposure to it. How do you go about this? I enjoyed this post, because I just started doing the section of Messiah from the "Pifa" to "Glory to God" with all of the secco and accompagnato recits. I teach minimal conducting, but showing each beat or measure (depending on how many there are). There are so many ways to teach secco, I'm interested in your input. . .

Richard said...

Thanks for the comment/question!

With beginning students it takes a fair amount of coaching. I often ask them to speak the text in a dramatic manner (as if they're an actor). I want them to sense the shape of sentences, where stresses are, what words are less important and which are most important--and which are the emotional words. Dynamic shape (louds and softs) is also important. Speed is also a consideration: how fast sounds natural? How slowly must you go, or with what kinds of rhetorical pauses, to make the text clear to the listening audience? If the student has no acting experience, this takes longer than for someone who's done a fair amount of acting.

After they start to do that well (and perhaps doing it a variety of ways), then they have to speak using the given rhythms, or at least close to them, and give the same expression as in the "acted" lines.

Only then do I let them sing the notes as well--if they learn the recit as notes/melody first, often it is stilted and undramatic (and then they have to unlearn that!). Again, they have to find ways while singing to keep the expressive speech elements in their performance.

As to conducted or not, it depends on how much time I have with the student cellist/keyboardists. Given enough time, I can get them to understand how to listen. In fact, they have to learn to mentally "sing along" with the singer, to know where to put notes. If I have a lot of time, I'll even ask them to speak the recit themselves while playing, so they understand what goes with what and why.

Again, the expression in the sung recit has to be mirrored (or sometimes anticipated) in the accompaniment--whether notes are short or long, how long notes are shaped, where there are spaces for articulation or breaths, how loud or soft, how aggressive or soft the attacks, etc.

With really inexperienced singers/players this can take a fair amount of time, but ultimately they learn much that they can take into their next performance of a recitative.