Featured in Alltop

Featured in Alltop

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Recording Bach: from the sublime to synth-porn

An odd collision came about recently between two strands of my musical life that normally don't intersect at all.




I'm a member of a couple of amateur choirs, and sometimes take part in "scratch" performances and workshops. On such a workshop I heard about the opportunity to be on a CD of a reconstruction of Bach's "St John Passion", as it would have been performed in Bach's day. The recording, to take place in Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, was by Dunedin Consort, one of the professional groups my wife has sung and recorded with a lot in the past.

How the re-enactment of a Good Friday service in the Leipzig of 1724 was to collide with my preoccupation with electronic music, will become clear in a bit.


Come the day of the audition I had a raging sore throat, and I grumbled and scraped my way through the set piece. But it turned out that a major criterion was being able to pronounce German. Now I can just about buy beer or cheese in Germany, but I really can't hold much of a German conversation. But my pronunciation is pretty good - I've sung a lot in German over the years and this stood me in good stead. I was duly chosen to be one of the "congregation".

Scholarly guess-work


In our century, Bach's "Passions" are concert pieces, and although churches are often the concert venue, the Passions are not part of a living liturgy. This project was an attempt, with a dash of scholarly guess-work, to put the John Passion into its original context. That is interspersed with congregational hymns and organ preludes, both by Bach and by others. And of course the sermon, although this was to appear in supporting web content, not on the CD thankfully!

On the third and last day of the recording, we amateurs were due at Greyfriars. The Kirk, buzzing with activity, was draped with looms of cable, various types of microphone, racks-full of desirable (to me) hardware, and the all-important Red Light. (When this is lit, no-one dare speak nor shuffle their feet!) Besides the pro singers and players plus 30-odd "congregation", the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir were there to record sections of music not in Bach's usual score, and significantly as we shall see, a photographer.

Directed by Professor John Butt, the renowned Bach scholar and conductor, we quickly rehearsed and within a few takes, had it in the can. There followed much quaffing of wine, scoffing of nibbles, and parting of the ways for musicians flown in the for the recording.

Some months later, the CD was released on Linn Records...

To immediately become Gramophone Magazine's "Recording of the Month", BBC Music Magazine's "Recording of the Month", and a deliriously hyperbolic review in The Herald. The Observer said it was 'historic and supremely important'. Early Music Review said 'Whatever St John Passion you own, buy this one - it's unique!'

Oh, and John Butt picked up a gong in the new year's honours list. And the awards season hasn't even begun at time of writing!

Well I can't take any credit for this whatsoever - my part in it was very minor indeed. But none of it surprised me. Some years before, a CD of Handel's Messiah, also recorded in Greyfriars by the same crew (with my wife in the cast), was similarly fĂȘted. And the vision and scholarship of John Butt are well known quantities.

Remember that photographer? He snapped away discreetly from the side aisles throughout the time I was there (although not while the Red Light was on, naturally!). Some photos later appeared on Dunedin's Facebook page. I was even in one of them, albeit dimly visible in the shadows.

And I then thought no more about it.

SOS


Then a few weeks later again, the month's issue of Sound On Sound landed on the mat. I've bought SOS magazine on and off for years, and for Christmas had at last got a subscription. Amid the usual synth-porn and software reviews, there fell open a page with a familiar scene in large colour. Blow me down - the pics on Facebook were now illustrating a 5 page feature on the recording of the St John Passion!

The feature was primarily an interview with Philip "Golden Ears" Hobbs, producer and master engineer, and co-founder of Linn Records. It covered the usual stuff like choice of microphones and production tricks, but also the challenge of tuning the various period instruments, and Philip's intimate knowledge of the musical material.

Disappointingly I wasn't in any of the photos - I'd have been in one but for John Butt conducting precisely between me and the camera. So close to getting my picture in my favourite mag! Never mind: I felt like a rather rich circle had been completed here.

Apart from the techies, I wonder if anyone among the many people on the recording even know about the article, in a publication mostly about parts of the industry a long way from their accustomed musical haunts.

Find out more on the Dunedin Consort website